[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 d
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