Back in August, I announced a contest in this space. The challenge was to
“Name the silliest argument to be offered by a serious academic in the last 25 years and to be taken up and be gravely masticated by the larger world of intellectual debate.”
I anticipated announcing the winner within a few weeks, but the campaign for the Presidency, the advent of Sarah Palin, the loss of 4 (or was it 5?) trillion dollars from the U.S. economy–not to mention sundry other distractions–meant that the judges (i.e., me) took rather longer in their deliberations than I had originally anticipated.
Now at last the ballots are in, all hanging chads have been dealt with, Al Franken has been allowed to storm about complaining that life has been unfair to him, and a decision has been rendered.
I want to thank readers for submitting their candidates. There were many choice specimens offered for this dubious honor. Honorable mention goes to the following comments:
Comment #1 which offered “Anything by Edward Said,” but in particular Said’s idea that “there is such as thing as Orientalism.” It would be difficult to overstate Said’s baneful influence on texture of political sentiment in the humanities, and his silly ideas about Western perfidy certainly qualifies him as a contender.
Comment #3 which mentions the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.” The main idea of this wacko movement is that “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.” I am sure readers will have plenty of people whom they would like to acquaint with the advantages of this movement, and so I include as a courtesy a link to the important information: How do I join?
Comment #28 which offered “Derrida’s concept of deconstruction,” surely one of the silliest ideas ever to take the academy by storm. (I amalgamate that with several cognate offerings, e.g., #42 the “postmodernist drivel” of Luce Irigaray” and #32, the irrationalism about science that was so elegantly attacked by Alan Sokal in his spoof: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” (I wrote about that delicious send up here.)
There were several other noteworthy suggestions: the idea of “diversity” (i.e., pseudo-diversity) promulgated on campuses across the county (#4), Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics (#16), Howard Gardener’s idea of “multiple intelligences” (#17), the drivel about overpopulation expressed in Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (# 36), Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overreach thesis” (#48). And although it it fell far outside the the chronological boundaries I set for the contest, #39, which offered “Marx’s stateless paradise,” should also be mentioned, if only as a sort of perennial, ex officio sort of candidate.
I would like to thank all who participated for helping to populate this little menagerie of intellectual hubris and folly. Several of the contributions must come high on anyone’s list of stupid ideas that have had a pernicious influence. Nevertheless, I am going to award the palm to my own original contender: Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Claiming to distinguish between “what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history,” Fukuyama wrote that
What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Fukuyama wrote this in 1989. He had noticed that the Soviet Union was imploding. But Fukuyama was drunk on the philosophy of Hegel. Hence he mistook the collapse of one tyranny for triumph of freedom. In fact, what we have been witnessing for the last quarter century is the accelerating retribalization of the world. What Fukuyama described as “mankind’s ideological evolution” has turned out (so far, anyway) to have given rather short-shrift to “the universalization of Western liberal democracy” in favor of other, more vivid alternatives, e.g., Islamic fundamentalism. The Bombay atrocity. The newly rampant Somali pirates. Even the anti-democratic march of the European Union. Western liberal democracy is a pleasant option. But only a fool would believe that its success was inevitable.