On the Kevin MacDonald–Nathan Cofnas Debate
Spencer J. Quinn
Part 1: Introduction
Part 1 of 4 (Part 2 here)
For the Dissident Right, a moment of tremendous importance occurred on March 10, 2018. Nathan Cofnas, a graduate student working on his doctorate in the philosophy of biology at the University of Oxford, published a twenty-three-page critical analysis of Kevin MacDonald’s influential work, The Culture of Critique. Twenty years after its publication, The Culture of Critique (subtitled, An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements) finally received serious academic attention from a mainstream academic venue. Prior to this, there had been silence. Except for some rumblings about MacDonald’s purported anti-Semitism after his appearance at historian David Irving’s libel trial in 2000, MacDonald and The Culture of Critique (hereafter, CofC) have been largely ignored. According to Cofnas, this had much to do with science author Steven Pinker’s same-year dismissal of CofC as not exceeding “the onerous threshold of attention-worthiness” (despite apparently not having read it).
Despite this, many people have read it on the Dissident Right, where both MacDonald (as the editor of The Occidental Observer and The Occidental Quarterly) and CofC have increased greatly in stature and influence. The Occidental Observer has become the center of scholarly counter-Semitism, attracting many academic writers who keep their analysis of the influence of Jews and Judaism much less secret than their identities. This has not gone unnoticed among mainstream academics, and, with the election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalism and populism in many parts of Europe and America, some of them have decided that enough was enough. Whiles Cofnas claims that CofC offers “some degree of prima facie evidence” for serious consideration, he feels that perhaps the most important reason for taking on CofC is MacDonald’s status as guiding light for anti-Semitism in the “Alt Right.” In other words, better to address MacDonald now lest he continue to grow in the Right-wing wilderness and become an even bigger problem down the road.
Thus, the MacDonald-Cofnas debate was born. Here’s a brief timeline of events:
- March 10: Cofnas Publishes “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy: a Critical Analysis of Kevin MacDonald’s Theory” (23 pages)
- March 19: MacDonald publishes his “Reply to Nathan Cofnas” (42 pages)
- March 21: Cofnas replies to MacDonald in by adding comments to the “Reply to Nathan Cofnas” (10 pages, copy-pasted into Word)
- April 2: MacDonald publishes his “Second Reply to Nathan Cofnas” (42 pages)
- April 16: Cofnas publishes “Analyzing Kevin MacDonald’s ‘Culture of Critique’ and the Alt-Right’s Embrace of Anti-Jewish Ideology” (5 pages)
- April 19: MacDonald revises his “Second Reply to Nathan Cofnas” (still 42 pages)
- May 2: MacDonald publishes “Kevin MacDonald Responds to Criticism of his Theory of Jewish Ethnocentrism and Influence” (5 pages)
- May 2: Cofnas publishes “Kevin MacDonald Won’t Accept Evidence Supporting Alternative Theories about Jewish Influence” (2 pages)
This debate may still be continuing, but the principals have recapitulated themselves so many times now that I think it is fair to say that this entire incident is ready for summation and analysis. Such an analysis might find a ready audience in both camps given the daunting amount of time and work required to slog through nearly 130 pages of scholarly (and sometimes not-so-scholarly) debate. In this series of essays, I will attempt to summarize the relevant aspects of CofC, conceptualize the major differences between these two men regarding CofC, categorize and assess Cofnas’ major findings and MacDonald’s responses, and finally offer critical analysis of both CofC and Cofnas’ treatment of it, if only to find ways of making the core of this issue clearer and easier to understand. If you have followed the debate, this essay will offer new angles for you to cogitate upon. If you haven’t, it won’t be as comprehensive as the debate itself, but it will get you up to speed.
Full Disclosure: I am a big fan of CofC and of Kevin MacDonald and believe that both have had incalculable influence on the race-realist Right these past twenty years. That I will write favorably of him here should surprise no one since Counter-Currents as a Dissident Right institution is ideologically and politically aligned with The Occidental Observer. Nevertheless, I will do my best to give Cofnas a fair hearing, as he has promised to do for CofC. I will offer some critical opinions of CofC as well which may surprise more than a few readers.
I see the purpose of debate as not to persuade one’s interlocutor but to win over disinterested observers who don’t yet have a dog in the fight. Observing MacDonald wrangling with Cofnas these past couple of months, however, makes that fairly difficult. Much of Cofnas’ analysis has forced MacDonald into making picayune arguments about obscure points of history in order to defend CofC. Of course, I don’t blame MacDonald for this. It’s his book, and his reputation is at stake, so he’d better defend every word of it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t exactly blame readers for preferring to skim much of their discourse. It’s also difficult to determine who won the debate. Following it is a lot like following the ebbs and flows of a war by observing individual battles. Some battles are more relevant to the bigger picture than others, and without a broader perspective, it is difficult to determine the degree to which some battles are more or less important than others. If you can suffer another analogy, it’s as if both men descended into a rabbit hole to duke it out and then reemerged covered in blood, each declaring victory. You don’t know which one to believe and whose blood is on whom.
I use such visceral analogies because the infighting between these two has been fierce and at times quite nasty. They each accuse each other of scholarly malpractice and resorting to ad hominems. Cofnas calls into question MacDonald’s competence as a researcher and accuses him of engaging in pseudoscience, while MacDonald has labeled some of Cofnas’ criticisms as “outrageous,” “obtuse,” and (my favorite) “mind-bogglingly, head-bangingly wrong.”
Such analogies are apropos also because the stakes of this debate couldn’t be higher. Figurative blood will become quite literal if the issues surrounding this debate are not resolved in the coming decades.
The Culture of Critique: A Quick Recap
As the third part of a trilogy of volumes dealing with Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism (the first two being A People that Shall Dwell Alone and Separation and Its Discontents), CofC focuses on several highly-influential twentieth-century intellectual and political movements which MacDonald describes as Jewish. That is, such movements were spearheaded by people who strongly identified as Jews, attracted many highly accomplished Jews, benefitted greatly from Jewish social cohesion and networking, and were either designed or co-opted to further Jewish group interests. MacDonald makes it clear early on that he does not discuss all Jews or even a majority of them. Further, just because a movement is dominated by Jews (for example, physics in the first half of the twentieth century), does not mean it qualifies for discussion in CofC. Over and over, MacDonald defines Jewish identity as primarily the ethnic character of a movement which encapsulates its raison d’être and couches what he describes as Jewish interests within a broad, evolutionary framework. Since physics as an intellectual movement lacked both of these aspects, despite being helmed by many world-famous, perhaps even self-identifying, Jews, it does not warrant attention in CofC. The movements that do, however, include Franz Boas’ anti-Darwinist school of anthropology, the Left as a Jewish political movement, Sigmund Freud’s school of psychoanalysis, and the Frankfurt School of Social Research.
In all cases, MacDonald strives to prove that these movements were Jewish in nature and pursued Jewish interests. Further, he demonstrates how these movements had negative impacts on white gentile society, for example by pathologizing feelings of tradition, patriotism, and racial identity among whites. CofC concludes with the culmination of this assault upon white gentile interests: the 1965 immigration bill which opened the doors of the West to non-whites of all types, thereby leading to the ultimate eradication of white majorities in traditional white homelands.
The De Facto Ranking
My take on MacDonald’s program, however, is to arrange (or rearrange) his findings in the following order of importance:
- The movements described in CofC were highly influential.
- These movements can reasonably be described as Jewish in nature.
- These movements had disastrously negative impacts on white society.
- These movements furthered Jewish evolutionary interests.
I would call this the “De Facto Ranking” since, regardless of MacDonald’s intentions in CofC, whites today are feeling the pinch more from points 1, 2, and 3 than from Point 4. From the perspective of a people on the verge of losing their majorities in their own homelands, it doesn’t really matter why points 1-3 occurred; only that they did. The following thought experiment elaborates. Supposing in a Bizzaro world, Boas, Freud, and the others were secret, self-hating Jews who were perversely acting against Jewish evolutionary interests. Suppose they fervently believed that by undermining white, gentile culture they would eventually open the doors to anti-Semitic immigrants who would then oppress Jews. From the perspective of a white person, would this make even slightest difference? Absolutely not! This is why what constituted Jewish interests appears at the bottom of the De Facto Ranking. This is not a critique of CofC per se, nor am I suggesting that MacDonald is incorrect. Rather, the De Facto Ranking offers a fairly strict framework through which to interpret his work in order to best serve white interests today. The first three points are about life and death. The fourth is a controversial social science theory about human evolution.
Finally, it should be noted that MacDonald does not take a universalist approach to his subject matter, but rather a particularist one. Not all Jews or Jewish movements are worthy of consideration in CofC. He makes this clear in CofC and throughout his numerous replies to Cofnas.
Cofnas Challenges The Culture of Critique
Cofnas challenges CofC as a work of scholarship in two primary ways, one I would describe as fair, and the other as unfair. Cofnas’ fair objection involves proposing what he calls the “Default Hypothesis.” According to Cofnas, the phenomena MacDonald describes can be more parsimoniously explained by high Jewish IQ and the high concentration of Jews in urban centers. In Cofnas’ words (emphasis mine), “Because of their above-average intelligence and concentration in influential urban areas, Jews in recent history have been overrepresented in all major intellectual and political movements, including conservative movements, that were not overtly anti-Semitic.”
Of course, all theories should be measured against a simpler, more elegant default theory which explains the same thing, but with less effort. In the spirit of Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is likely the best one, and this has played out countless times in the past. As such, Cofnas does not have to work as hard as MacDonald, who admits that his theory is more ambitious than Cofnas’. In a sense, this debate resembles a race in which one runner has to run 500 yards (MacDonald) while the other has to run only 100 yards (Cofnas). If it seems unfair, it’s not. This is exactly the approach one should take when suspecting a theory is more complicated than it needs to be.
Cofnas’ unfair challenge to CofC involves his resorting to universalism when MacDonald never intended his work to be interpreted in such a manner. MacDonald limited his treatment of Jews to a handful of highly influential twentieth-century intellectual and political movements and explicitly ruled out all other movements that may have been dominated or populated by Jews. Cofnas, on the other hand, attempts to refute MacDonald by bringing these other movements into the discussion and showing how they undermine MacDonald’s central thesis. In other words, he’s criticizing a book MacDonald didn’t write. He seems to view CofC as flawed scholarship not so much because its conclusions are not logically derived from specific sets of evidence (although there is some of this in Cofnas’ approach) but because MacDonald never adopted a universalist approach to begin with.
As a result, both talk past each other, making their discourse quite repetitive and at times annoying (for them as well as for us, I would imagine). I think this difference stems from one’s overall interpretation of CofC: is it anti-Semitic or not? A strict interpretation (that is, one that involves CofC and only CofC) would say no. How can something be anti-Semitic if it’s based in truth? MacDonald provides copious footnotes, an index, and a bibliography. He clearly did a tremendous amount of research to write CofC. In it, he observes due diligence and argues his case conscientiously. Regardless of his personal opinions of Jews, he kept the language of CofC impersonal throughout. He could be right or wrong, of course, and mistakes may have been made (Cofnas or one of his reviewers indeed caught one). But that does not constitute anti-Semitism. Is it MacDonald’s fault that certain influential, twentieth-century Jews behaved in certain ways and had negative impacts on whites? To say so would be shooting the messenger for delivering bad news. It stands to reason that MacDonald would insist upon a strict interpretation of his work and its particularist approach to the subject matter.
A loose interpretation, however, looks not only at CofC but also at how it can abused by anti-Semites. This is Cofnas’ approach, and he makes this clear early on when describing how an Alt Right luminary such as Andrew Anglin (who is an explicit anti-Semite) has taken to MacDonald. Therefore, whether CofC is actually anti-Semitic becomes less important than whether it is effectively anti-Semitic. Cofnas seems to think that it is, and therefore seeks to defend all Jews from it as if CofC were attacking all Jews. And this is fine on Cofnas’ part; he just shouldn’t pretend to be criticizing CofC while doing so. I believe this is why he rejects MacDonald’s particularist method and constantly brings up Jews who act as counter-examples to MacDonald’s theories. Of course, Cofnas employs other tacks against MacDonald, many of which I will explore in later parts of the series. But these two are necessary for the integrated anti-CofC analysis he attempts to provide.
Is Cofnas Being Objective?
I suspect Cofnas has very little objectivity when it comes to CofC and delved into this project with the unscholarly intention of condemning it. He claims to want to give MacDonald a “fair hearing,” but that seems to be a sham. As MacDonald himself points out, the Left-wing totalitarian nature of academia today would simply not allow encomium of CofC to be published. Thus, it would be impossible for Cofnas or anyone else to take up this task unless it was to condemn. The first sign of this appears on page 4 of “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy,” when Cofnas strongly implies that MacDonald needs to be refuted. In Cofnas’ words:
The refusal of scholars to engage with MacDonald has had unintended negative consequences. Many of his enthusiasts see him as credible because there has never been a serious academic refutation of his theories.
Catch that? People finding MacDonald credible is an “unintended negative consequence,” a consequence Cofnas presumably wishes to reverse. Note also how Cofnas doesn’t allow for the possibility that scholars engaging with MacDonald might actually praise his work. It’s as if he’s following in Pinker’s footsteps by making up his mind about CofC before even reading it. Of course, I cannot prove this. Then again, Cofnas did not leave the door open for any other interpretation. It’s on him if he wanted to give the impression that he really intended to give MacDonald a fair hearing.
A second sign is that the same Steven Pinker who dismissed CofC eighteen years ago without having read it now appears in the acknowledgements section of “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy.” In it, Cofnas thanks him for “helpful comments on earlier drafts” of his paper. If a biased actor like Pinker had had a hand in the crafting of this paper, how could we expect this paper not to be tainted with bias as well?
A third indicator is the fact that Cofnas rarely, if ever, gives MacDonald credit for making valid points. He’s not in the least bit impressed with the scope of CofC or the amount of work and risk that went into writing it. In fact, at one point he even hints that MacDonald had not been persecuted by the academic community for writing CofC. In his words, also on page 4 (emphasis mine):
The strategy employed 18 years ago—declaring his work to be anti-Semitic and/or to not reach the threshold to warrant scholarly attention—had the doubly unfortunate effect of intimidating scholars with a legitimate interest in the topic of Jewish evolution and behavior, and creating a perception among some laypeople—even if it was false—that MacDonald was being persecuted by the academic community.
This is galling. It also reveals a tacit approval of the thought-policing that goes on in academia these days. And when MacDonald, on pages 1–3 in his “First Reply,” describes at length the ordeal he had to endure as a result of CofC, Cofnas has said nothing.
Cofnas’ final giveaway occurred when he responded to MacDonald’s “First Reply” with comments in the PDF file rather than in a proper essay. This is how a professor might respond to work submitted by a student, not how scholars on equal footing would exchange ideas. It was inconsiderate at the very least since it forced MacDonald to copy-and-paste his ninety-eight comments one by one into Word in order to properly assess and respond to them (MacDonald then announced that he would not respond to PDF comments again). I personally found it insulting that Cofnas would do that. Perhaps Cofnas, being a mere graduate student, still needs to acquire the appropriate amount of tact and consideration for dealing with fellow scholars. I don’t think this is true, however. Given the hostility and prejudice Cofnas has shown toward MacDonald throughout this debate, I think the more direct explanation is that Cofnas certainly has the appropriate amount of tact and consideration; he just thinks MacDonald doesn’t exceed the so-called “onerous threshold” of deserving it.
Now that is a default hypothesis I can get behind.
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel, White Like You.
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