[Michael Rectenwald was a professor of liberal studies and global liberal studies at NYU from 2008 to 2019. He holds a PhD in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University, a master’s in English literature from Case Western Reserve University, and a BA in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh.
Professor Rectenwald is a pundit and champion of free speech and opposes all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, including socialism-communism, “social justice,” fascism, and PC. He has appeared on numerous major-network political talk shows (Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox & Friends, Fox & Friends First, The O’Reilly Factor, Varney & Company, and The Glenn Beck Show).
He is the author of eleven books, including Thought Criminal, Beyond Woke, and Springtime for Snowflakes and delivered the Ludwig von Mises Memorial Lecture at the 2019 Austrian Economics Research Conference. ]
JEFF DEIST: Professor Michael Rectenwald, it’s been nearly four years since the events which led to your departure from NYU began. In hindsight, does the whole episode (Rectenwald’s story of being outed for an anonymous Twitter account and ultimately leaving his professorship is recounted in his book Springtime for Snowflakes) shock you more or less today?
MICHAEL RECTENWALD: It shocks me more as I think about it further, just how, by virtue of making criticisms of institutional mechanisms such as safe spaces and trigger warnings, no-platforming speakers and bias-reporting hotlines, that that was enough to get a whole platoon of social justice warriors on my trail and for them to try to ruin my academic career.
JD: Reading your book, it struck me how your decades as a dutiful left-wing academic didn’t buy you an ounce of sympathy or leeway with your antagonists.
MR: No, nothing, and I was even an advocate for black rights and I even came out in support of Trayvon Martin, and people knew that too, and it didn’t mean anything to them when it came down to it. They still convicted me of thought crimes.
JD: Give our readers a brief biographical sketch. How far left were you?
MR: Well, I was a left communist, as I called myself, I was left of the Bolsheviks if you will. That is to say that I believed in working-class revolution and overthrow of capitalism, but I didn’t believe it necessarily led to a dictatorial state. I believed that the state would be coterminous with the people once they assumed complete control of the means of production.
I was very deeply in it, I wrote plenty of treatises on Marxism and economics, identity politics, political treatises, economic treatises, all kinds of essays that were published by Marxist groups and their periodicals. At one point, I flirted with a Trotskyite sect, but they wouldn’t have me. They thought I was too bourgeois for them. Even in the Left there’s all these shibboleths that you have to pass through, that you have to mouth. One of them was basically that you would accept anything having to do with transgenderism or any
kind of new-fangled identity category. This is where I started to draw the line. I couldn’t buy into it. As much as I’d tried, this became like a third rail that I eventually touched, and that was part of my evolution out of it.
I also saw what was going on in the university with the hiring practices in my own department. It was just outrageous. They were hiring people just on the basis of identity and not qualifications whatsoever, and I thought it was a complete sham, the way they were basically overlooking credentials in favor of identity categories and completely skipping really highly qualified people, in order to pick people that met these criteria. It just stunned me.
JD: I’m struck by your descriptions of upper-middle-class academics dominating the Left. Wokeism is not a bluecollar, union hall movement to put it mildly.
MR: Yes. They’re trying to control and overtake the system using propaganda and through education. They are trying to inculcate their ideology throughout the whole social body by making everybody that comes through the educational institutions subscribe to their belief system. And that’s really how they’ve done what they’ve done to date in the US; it’s this long march through the institutions that they’ve undertaken, and really quite successfully from the standpoint of what they’re trying to accomplish.
JD: Something prevented you from ever becoming as vicious as your colleagues.
MR: Yes, I always considered myself a libertarian, believe it or not. I even called myself a libertarian, not a communist. I just didn’t believe in imposing anything on people through force or threats, and also I didn’t believe in this kind of mob mentality. In fact, I can recall when I was involved in various marches, I would be marching down the street with all these leftists chanting phrases over and over again and I just thought to myself, What am I doing? This isn’t really what I think. I have other thoughts than Hey, such-and-such has got to go and all these mantras. I always felt it was sort of betraying myself deep down, that there was something individual about me that was being overridden by leftism.
JD: That’s a powerful lesson. You spent a lot of years steeped in and studying postmodernism, which enjoys a resurgence today. When we consider Derrida or Foucault or Marcuse, should we be dismissive? Is there a real scholarship in postmodernism, or is it all BS?
JD: The postmodernists active on Twitter, some of them academics, really do defend the concept of 2 + 2 = 5. They argue math is a construct, not a description of an underlying reality. But how can we ever have social cooperation in such a world?
MR: That’s right, but there is one thing that they do to create the social cooperation: they force it on you. In other words, what I’ve argued is—and I argue that in Springtime for Snowflakes—is that while this willy-nilly anything-goes postmodern epistemological presumption may seem to be liberatory, or it may lead to liberation, that everybody can assert their own truth. (Gee, isn’t that wonderful. We’re free from these master narratives, as they call them.) What I suggest is that in fact, when there’s no objective criteria for a truth claim, then anybody can impose a truth claim of their own and then when they’re collectivized, it becomes a mob insistence that you believe something that’s completely insane and that’s exactly what’s going on.
JD: Without truth claims, the ultimate authority in society comes down to force.
MR: That’s what it comes down to. It comes down to force. By collectivizing this subjectivism, they end up imposing it on you through mob force.
JD: Earlier in your academic career you began to sense something was wrong.
MR: All I wanted to do was become an English professor. When I got back into academia after a ten-year interim in advertising from 1983 to 1993, this invasion of theory had taken place, and that means critical theory and postmodern theory. They weren’t reading literature anymore. They weren’t writing about Shakespeare, they weren’t writing about Milton, they weren’t writing about any of this, except to politicize it in some cases. Mostly what I had to read was a bunch of postmodern and Marxist tracts of various sorts, and they just keep coming at you with it. Sooner or later you realize this is what you have to do and that obviously, after a while, when you’re fed nothing but certain perspectives, ad infinitum, then you’re going to adopt them or you’re going to lose, you’re going to be out. So, that’s sort of how they roped me in.
JD: You mention ’83 to ’93 as transformative in academia. We imagine those as the conservative Reagan years, but the cultural undercurrents were radical. It was happening in universities under our noses.
MR: Yes, that’s right. It was all being done very surreptitiously at that time, these people were in mourning, but they were also concocting new approaches for cultural Marxism. They were trying to subvert the academe, first of all and they did it through English departments, to begin with.
JD: Many mises.org readers undoubtedly are very jaded about academia today. Can you offer any optimism?
MR: Well, when I look at what’s passing for “scholarship” today, I have to say that it’s absurd. All that’s happening in the humanities and social sciences, in particular, is a kind of elaborate propaganda and virtue signaling. They’re pasting together these plug-and-play phrases and counting it as scholarship. It seems to me to be completely rotten to the core. I can’t see any redemption there. There’s no rigor, there’s no real scholarship, there’s no analytical thinking. It’s simply a bunch of pasting together phrases that sound good to them. I mean, critical race theory has infected everything now, and of course, that derives from critical theory. It looks like a complete waste of time to me, to be competing in a game that makes no sense and has no criteria that I respect at all. So, it’s worthless.
JD: But we can and should still defend a broadly liberal arts education?
MR: Yes, but not under the terms that they’re undertaking now. I do believe in real critical thinking and real learning: how to argue, how to debate, how to defend positions, how to think. I don’t really distinguish between what to think and how to think. I think we should try to think the best things that have been thought and said, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, to think and read and argue about and understand the best that has been thought and said and that certainly isn’t what’s happening now, it is garbage.
JD: Let’s say a brilliant kid comes out of an Ivy League school with a rigorous STEM or finance program and ends up at Goldman Sachs or a Silicon Valley tech firm. If he knows nothing about history, about music, poetry, literature, foreign languages—is he really an educated person?
MR: No, he’s not. He’s not an educated person and frankly, he’s somebody that can be easily swayed by this cartoon version of history that’s being taught, this kind of idiotic notion that the only evil that’s ever been done on the face of the earth is by white western Europeans and Americans. It is absurd to think that this is the cartoon history that they’re teaching and you’re very susceptible to it if you don’t get a much broader and deeper historical background. You won’t know what’s worth anything if you never are exposed to great thinkers and great writers.
JD: Earlier in your career you did research on secularism in the West.
MR: Yes, and especially in Britain.
JD: Secularism appears to be wildly successful. What does it mean for us? What replaces God?
MR: The secularism that I discovered, the first usage of the term was not atheist, that’s one of the things that I was actually driving home, and I resuscitated this. It was well-established by the time I finished my work that the founder of the first movement called secularism—which was the first use of the term as such—was George Holyoke in 1851 and 1852, and what he was arguing for was secularism. What he was proposing was not atheist. In fact, he was developing this—as opposed to atheists that he was involved with—and he was trying to inaugurate a movement and a way of thinking that wasn’t necessarily antitheist. In fact, he was trying to cobble together nontheists and theists in order to effect the improvement of conditions in “this life.”
You could be a theist, but it was only a problem if it impeded you from working for improvement in this life, because he said we don’t know about another one and therefore, we should not delay work in matters of temporal importance. That’s really what he was arguing, but it got taken over by another camp that was headed by Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh was a dogmatic atheist. He said secularism was atheist, there was no other way of interpreting it. They argued this for years, well into the 1870s when, I think, Holyoke gave up. Then he let them more or less take over the movement. That’s pretty much the conception that people have about secularism today that it is effectively atheist, but it was never intended to be, at least as it was first used by its founder George Holyoke.
I’m not a secularist in that sense. I’m a secularist in the sense that I agree with Holyoke that you should be able to work with other people in improving conditions without subscribing to either atheism or theism, necessarily. I think we live in a pluralistic society and you’re not going to be able to organize the whole society on the basis of theism or atheism, but secularists are attempting to organize the whole society today on atheism. And what it leaves is basically this kind of leftism that we’re talking about because there’s no other authority but them, it becomes a matter of imposing their will.
JD: Mises talked about how there is not one true God or one true faith for everybody, so we have to come together through markets and liberal society.
MR: Yes, I agree. That’s essentially the same viewpoint that I hold, that I can’t as a libertarian, try to force people to adopt my beliefs, but I also believe that I should be free to have them and so should others. I think we should work to persuade people to believe what we think is right. Obviously, or else why would we hold such views? But, nevertheless, we shouldn’t attempt to impose them. There has to be another broader framework for cooperation, and I mean cooperation not in the communist sense. I just mean that we have to have a system…we have to have some more fundamental and overriding values that are broader than specific religious creeds and so forth.
JD: Is America heading toward an unpleasant form of cooperation?
MR: It sounds like it. That’s certainly the direction it’s headed. I’m just hoping and praying that we can forestall this, that we can prevail with real classical liberal ideals, and that the market survives and it’s not completely destroyed in the process. As Mises pointed out, this is an anti-civilizational prospect that we’re facing with socialists. They want to take everything and raze it to the ground. They think we should effectively start over and build up a civilization from the ashes, and that’s a devastating idea, just devastating.
JD: A year zero mindset. Imagine how much you hate humanity if you refuse to benefit or even acknowledge its accumulated wisdom.
JD: Just sickening.
MR: It’s very sickening. In the case of white people, you have to despise yourself and you have to despise your ancestors and you have to despise your entire cultural legacy and heritage, plus every creed that has ever been held that’s antithetical to socialist ideology.
JD: I’ve heard you describe all of this as a demoralization campaign.
MR: Yes. They’re trying to demoralize us by making it seem like we have no recourse to what’s going on by continually assaulting people and every vestige of historical memory and culture. And then with the covid lockdowns—effectively isolating everyone—they’re trying to demobilize us and demoralize us and tie our hands behind our backs while they’re undertaking a complete rampage.
JD: And provoke a reaction. I’ve heard you say Antifa needs to create fascists to justify its existence.
MR: That’s right. They have to have fascists and without fascists they have no future. So, they need fascists and they’ll produce them if they have to. They are trying to provoke the Right, if you will, to rise up with arms because then they’ll say, There they are, the fascists, and we said they were there. On the other hand, we’re supposed to sit back as they burn things down. So, it’s a really horrifying prospect.
JD: They’re getting plenty of help from CNN and MSNBC and the Washington Post in creating this narrative.
MR: Absolutely, the whole mainstream media is not, you know, the ministry of truth. They are telling inversions of the truth at all times. In other words, we’re being fed complete 2 + 2 = 5 narratives on a regular basis. We’re not necessarily trying to pay attention to it, but you can’t help but bump up against it and say, Oh my God, this is what these people think is happening. And that’s another source of extreme demoralization.
JD: What about social media companies? The pure libertarian position says you can’t regulate them, you can’t sue them for defamation—regardless of how bad or biased they might be. You have to build your own platform.
MR: These are not entirely privately held organizations at all. They’re not in the business of expression. They have been “governmentalities” from the start. That is, they have been extensions and apparatuses of the state from the beginning, all of them, except maybe a couple, but certainly in the case of Google and Facebook, in particular. They are appendages of the state. I go into their funding and their governmental functions, so we’re not dealing with some sort of corporate-held utterly private industries here. We’re not talking about free and fair competition. These people were propped up by the military industrial complex.
JD: Tech companies aren’t run by some noble businessman from an Ayn Rand novel.
MR: Not at all. This is the illusion from the start.
JD: Before we wrap up, I love your Pittsburgh story. You’re from Pittsburgh, your dad was a blue collar guy. It’s clear he played a role in keeping you grounded, even as you became a dyed-in-the-wool left-wing academic.
MR: That’s right. My father was an independent contractor and he never had an employer. He had his own small business. My brother took it over and turned it into a rather large enterprise. I had to work from an early age and deal with material reality.
JD: And work with your hands.
MR: Yes, work with my hands and actually have pride in work and industry. My father was self-made. Looking back, and even during the time, I really respected what one can make with one’s own industry: one can build, one can make things, one can do things, one can create and not rely on the state or on handouts. He was even anti-union, which I get too. He was always a Democrat because that’s just the way it was, but then he became a Reagan Democrat. When I was a teenager, I used to argue with him about the Soviet Union. I would say it would be better, and he would just go into these diatribes about it. So we had these battles that kept me from going off over the edge.
JD: You had a big Catholic family, nine kids. He had a lot of mouths to feed!
MR: Yes he did, and we lived fairly well for having nine kids and him making every dime with his own labor. We had a middle-class lifestyle. I can’t say that we were dirt. We had things, so it went well.
JD: You live in Pittsburgh today. You went to Pitt and then later Carnegie Mellon. If you had grown up in, say, Brooklyn—and gone to Columbia or Harvard—I suspect you might be a very different person today. You might have gone along with the crowd at NYU.
MR: Oh, absolutely. There would be no grounding for me to come back to. I would have been completely sucked up in it and I would be in the resistance today. I would be one of them and completely deranged, as far as I’m concerned. That’s where they’re at. So, yes, I’ve been spared that thankfully.
JD: One happy result of your departure from NYU is becoming an unbelievably prolific writer. You’re writing fourteen to fifteen hours hours a day, six to seven days days a week, and it looks like you’re going to publish two books in 2020.
MR: I’ve already published two books in 2020. One, it’s already printed. It’s just that it won’t be released until December 1, but I’ve got advance copies and I’m selling them. The other one came out in the summer and then I have another one I’ll have done by June 2021. So, that’ll be five books in three years. So far, it’s four in two years.
JD: I think your dad would be proud of that. You’re working without a university sinecure. You stuck to your guns at NYU when you could have rolled over and had an easier career path.
MR: Absolutely, that was almost a sinecure there, and now I’m an intellectual entrepreneur going it on my own and I’m proud of it, very proud.