In case you haven’t heard, cultural Marxism—which in 2016 became an article category in these very pages—does not exist. At least, that’s according to RationalWiki. While its scholars admit this term “extremely rarely” refers to “the application of Marxist ideology and/or critical theory to social sciences,” it primarily “alludes to a conspiracy theory in which sinister left-wingers have infiltrated media, academia, and science and are engaged in a decades- or centuries-long plot to undermine Western culture.”
It’s plain fact that political correctness and multiculturalism derive from notions hailing from the Frankfurt School, which in turn took most of its cues from Karl Marx. But Ben Davis has mocked the “feverish underworld of right-wing kookiness” that has criticized cultural Marxism, beginning with Paul Weyrich in the early ‘70s, then by Pat Buchanan and Andrew Breitbart, and culminating in the outsize manifesto of terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. This history bypasses circumspect conservatives like Michael Walsh and Paul Gottfried, as if merely referring to cultural Marxism is to ally with Breivik’s insanity.
Davis’s essay rehashed a piece from earlier in the year by Jason Wilson, who remarked that “the theory of cultural Marxism is integral to the fantasy life of the contemporary right,” and also concluded with Breivik supposedly typifying its malfeasance. “The whole story… allows those smarting from a loss of privilege to be offered the shroud of victimhood, by pointing to a shadowy, omnipresent, quasi-foreign elite who are attempting to destroy all that is good in the world.”
If you say so, Mr. Wilson. “There are few things more delicate than the ego of the male Marxist intellectual,” quipped a reviewer of Davis’s book. Call it Red Fragility. But even Paul Gottfried agrees with them that cultural Marxism “has little to do with orthodox Marxism.”
Besides, it appears youngsters who spout the more frightening dismissals of humanistic learning have little use for Marxism. As one told Nathan Heller, “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” Jonathan Chait has noted that the “modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones,” at which point the mechanisms upon which Marxism depend go missing.
The problem isn’t what the Frankfurt School made of Marx, but what contemporary postmodernists made of the Frankfurt School.
To the extent that the postmodernist worldview can be summed up, it says narrative is the only access people have to reality, and people in power control narrative. Extreme counter-narrative on behalf of social justice is no vice, to rephrase Goldwater, because the ultimate veracity of those facts will always lie behind a veil of interpretations. There are not true and false observations, only narratives that advance human progress—defined on the progressive template—and narratives that resist it.
That outlook can warp you. Lisa Ruddick described the phenomenon: “I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities… masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured…. [This kind of thinking] encourages an intellectual sadism that the profession would do well to reflect on.”
The extremely subjective if not downright solipsistic worldview, combined with an inclination to cruelty, makes contemporary postmodernism compatible with two of the Three Faces of Fascism as described by the recently passed Ernst Nolte: hostility to bourgeois values, and what he called “resistance to transcendence,” transcendence in this case describing the increase of freedom via individualism and modernity.
Hence the pomofascist, or postmodernist fascist: someone with a PhD in the postmodern humanities, indifferent to individual rights, championing the collective good by authority of self-appointment, and disdainful of truth. The pomofascist seeks to turn history and reason upside-down so it flatters progressive causes, however many lies of omission or commission it takes.
Over the weekend, Yale University professor Jim Sleeper (PhD in education from Harvard University) penned an astonishing op-ed in The New York Times claiming that intolerant political correctness is caused “not by liberals but by the casino-like financing and predatory lending and marketing of a ‘dynamic capitalist economy.’” (He did not explain how.) He lied so flagrantly about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that the Times ran corrections immediately at the request of FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who was further obliged to outline how Sleeper has repeatedly “ignored the mountains of facts about our work [that] refute his simplistic narrative.”
The Times essay cites remarks from Yale alumnus Scott C. Johnston, who appeared in the comment section to point out that Sleeper “conveniently omits that the conference I attended, the one that campus progressives tried to shut down, was actually about the future of free speech. He also neglects to mention that some of us were spit on.”
Recently, Jeet Heer (who has been at work since at least 2008 on a PhD dissertation at York University on the cultural politics of Little Orphan Annie) responded to the University of Chicago’s announcement “it would not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’” by calling that an attack on academic freedom. UC explained it was nothing of the sort. Heer dug in his heels.
Those are just the latest incidents, and relatively mild ones. In 2014, Mirelle Miller-Young (PhD from New York University, her dissertation was “A Taste for Brown Sugar: The History of Black Women in American Pornography”) ripped the sign out of the hands of an abortion protester and assaulted her 16-year-old sister while they stood inside a designated free-speech zone at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Miller-Young was caught on video telling the victim, “I may be a thief, but you’re a terrorist.” A colleague explained the smile on Miller-Young’s face at the time as “hiding her actual state through a strategy of self-presentation that is a cultural legacy of slavery.”
In 2015, Melissa Click (PhD from the University of Massachusetts whose dissertation was “It’s ‘a good thing’: The commodification of femininity, affluence and whiteness in the Martha Stewart phenomenon”) assaulted a student journalist at the University of Missouri and later told the press that her academic rights had been infringed. In a revealing episode of abject narcissism, she complained to the Washington Post that few people had “earnestly asked whether my protected right to speak out as a U.S. citizen requires that I must be perfect while doing so.” Click was recently rehired at Gonzaga University.
Earlier this year, Trish Kahle (at work on a PhD at the University of Chicago, her dissertation—which at least sounds like legitimate scholarship—is “The Graveyard Shift: Energy-Industry Restructuring, Mine Disasters, Environmental Politics, and Rank-and-File Rebellion in the Appalachian Coalfields, 1963–1981”) argued in Jacobin magazine that forcibly stopping Donald Trump from speaking at his own rally is consistent with freedom of speech.
When Chait rightly criticized this position, Tyler Zimmer (PhD from Northwestern, whose dissertation was entitled “Relational Egalitarianism”) came to her defense. “[T]he (socialist) goal of cooperating and governing public life together as full equals gives us a principled criterion for deciding which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t. So, too, does this goal give us good reason to oppose or disrupt undemocratic forms of speech that plainly aim to marginalize, harm, or subordinate members of the political community.”
The main impulse at work here is not Marxism, but megalomania. The pomofascist sees himself as the embodiment of good and worthy causes. The less everyone else supports those causes, the less human they are, and therefore deserving fewer rights and less entitlement to their own views. Lying to them or about them is of no consequence. Beyond a not-so-far-off point of disagreement, it is acceptable to attack them, rhetorically or bodily. In this context, Marxism is merely an exculpatory device.
We owe the screaming at Erika Christakis to the screamer’s teachers at Yale. Unlike Breivik, they are typical of their milieu, and they are taking the ideas with which they surround themselves to their natural conclusions. Even if we spare the socialists’ feelings and call them something besides cultural Marxists, it is not excessive to connect them to the worst autocrats in history. Their influence is wide, and it is poison.