Duke historian Nancy MacLean, while speaking at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in NYC on February 7, 2018, says she thinks that the villain of her book Democracy in Chains was a villain precisely because he may have been, in her opinion, autistic. And people who have what she considers an evil ideology have tended to be autistic. She is talking about James Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Public Choice Theory. See the 1 hour mark:
There is a young man who asks her a question about where James Buchanan’s ideas and ideology come from, whether from “personal greed” or “malevolence.” MacLean responds:
Such a profound question, and I have to say as an author I have struggled with this, and I could explain it in different ways. I didn’t put this in the book, but I’ll say it here [stifled laugh]. It’s striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum, you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have kind of difficult human relationships sometime.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not at all objecting to being grouped in with the likes of a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The point isn’t the comparison to the person at all. The objection is that to MacLean’s mind James Buchanan’s ideology is not just wrong, but downright evil. And why is it evil? And why is it “malevolent”? Because it’s what autistic people believe! Only autistic people could believe in an ideology with which Nancy MacLean disagrees.
In case you’re wondering, James Buchanan was a classical liberal. That is, he believed in small government, free markets, and that people should be generally left alone. MacLean interprets this as being evidence of Buchanan being autistic (she doesn’t directly say it, but certainly implies it–which is her M.O. in her book, by the way). She accuses us of not feeling solidarity with other people and of not feeling empathy. Naturally, those of us on the spectrum know that we are certainly empathetic, as I myself have discussed several times–in some cases and ways, more so than others. I know that I have the ideology I do precisely because of my strong concern for the poor.
Is this the only time? Not at all. In Democracy In Chains itself, she notes that economist Tyler Cowan, because he is on the autism spectrum, “was not inclined to sentimentality or solidarity” (202). Clearly this is congruent with her comments about Buchanan.
We on the spectrum ought to be outraged that a Duke University historian is going around telling people that the reason someone has an ideology that she herself considers malevolent is because the person is autistic. Meaning, people with autism, in her opinion, create malevolent, unempathetic, antisocial ideologies. I’ve discussed how ableist people like MacLean use autism as a slur, but I don’t think we’ve ever been accused of being the source of malevolent ideologies before.
If I lived anywhere near Duke University, I would be outside the History Department tomorrow protesting her. I can only hope the students of Duke, the residents of Durham, NC, and anyone who comes to learn about any of her speaking gigs begin protesting her. It’s time we insisted that we not be slandered by anyone, including Duke University historians.
Update: This blog post has been cited in Reason and DC Weekly and Latest Autism News (they are the same piece, in different outlets). And Latest Autism News also has its own piece on it, citing this blog. This blog post has also been reposted on the History News Network. And I have an interview here.