The Great Awokening: The Puritan Roots of the Social Justice Warrior
Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and Its Postmodern Parentage
By Michael Rectenwald
Publisher: New English Review Press
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
American philosopher Peter Redpath likes to remind his students that “the formal object of the human intellect is truth.” We are made to know what is true; this is why we were given minds and souls. The end-all, be-all truth is God, and all the little truths point inexorably to Him.
As Redpath would be the first to admit, this idea is hardly his own invention. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Aristotle are just three of many thinkers who have articulated what has been generally obvious to men of every age and culture: The world is not an illusion, and our senses do not usually play tricks on us. What we see and touch is really there. What we know, we know. What we understand, we can express in plain language and make intelligible to others.
This consensus came apart in the West after the sophistic shenanigans of the Protestant rebels and the hasty-pudding attempt of René Descartes (1596-1650) to find common philosophical ground with atheists. Descartes, for his part, ill-advisedly substituted method for the mind, and then he compounded his folly by doubting the reality of the world around him. In what now sounds like a bit of a stretch, Descartes’s thesis was that closing your eyes and freefalling into inner-space was the one sure way to prove that the universe exists. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.)
Descartes has been hailed ever since as the man who freed the West from enslavement to dogma. To be fair to Descartes, this is pretty much the opposite of where he wanted to end up. But to be fair to everyone else, we can still blame him for much of how the past five centuries have turned out. A Cartesian world is a paradise of license, a freethinker’s dream. All that’s required is to agree that truth is passé. Once that first step is taken, there are no others — it’s just one endless tumble down the post-truth pit.
We hardly need to travel back in time to Descartes’s Western Europe to see what a world without truth might look like. For Descartes himself, the truth wars manifested in actual armed conflict between Protestants and Catholics. One group maintained the old creed, that the Church was the Body of Christ; the other ran a printing press. Runaway secularization since then has removed the trappings of organized religion from our world, and what we are left with is a hell in which there is neither truth nor its residue. In such an environment, everyone is a little lord, a fortress of impregnable certainty surrounded by an uncrossable moat of radical doubt. The name that thinkers since Descartes came up with to describe this bedlam is liberalism, or the doctrine of Do as Thou Pleaseth, but Leaveth Me Alone. We are all Cartesian emperors, each justified by the interior state of our “faith” or whatever.
As you might imagine, this arrangement quickly descends into total pandemonium. The melee of millions of sovereigns in collision — what today we mistakenly call society — makes the Battle of Agincourt look like a late-night C-SPAN rerun of the proceedings of the Agricultural Appropriation Sub-Committee. We are all kings — so who can tell us what to do? It is my “nature’s god”-given right, the liberals tell us, to do whatever I want, whenever and wherever I want to do it.
What controls this liberal billiard table of autonomous individuals ramming up against one another’s hard force field of “rights” is exactly what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) predicted in Leviathan: naked power. A world without truth is a world of absolute tyranny. A world without truth, in short, is the cultureless, crass, crude, mercurial nightmare of the United States of America in 2019. We have no need to read Descartes’s Discourse on Method; we are living the CliffsNotes version.
Nowhere is this descent into post-truth madness more pervasive than on American college campuses. As anyone who has had the misfortune of being in a university classroom during the past few decades can attest, the Hobbesian mob of godless Cartesians runs amok in the hallowed halls of academe. There is no difference between professors and students, except that the former are able to wield the weapons of nihilism much more effectively than the latter. If you are truly cynical and willing to commit yourself to spreading the Cartesian gospel, then toward the end of your ultimately meaningless existence you might — might — be crowned with the laurels of tenure. And then your colleagues will plot to remove you from your post. In a world without truth, this is the best we can hope for. There is no guiding principle, only the lemming-rush force of fashionable opinion, the ever-shifting gales of denunciation and ostracism. If you are not way out front of the left-galloping vanguard of the “herd of independent minds,” then you are dead meat, prey for the social justice warrior wolves who prowl the quad in search of unwoke nonconformists to destroy.
Yes, today’s mediums of Hobbesianism on campuses (and in the rest of the U.S.) are the so-called social justice warriors, or SJWs. They are soi-disant “woke,” meaning they have achieved enlightenment in the PC Mysteries and are in tune with the cosmic vibrations of Race, Gender, and Class. They are better than we are, and in their zeal to tell us this, they combine all the charm of a tax collector with all the subtlety of a can of pepper spray. The SJWs are the Hobbesian stormtroopers who police a world in which there is no standard of thought or behavior beyond the swiftly swung fist. Although they now ride under the black banner of Antifa, SJWs ought properly to be called the René Descartes Fan Club.
In recent years, the term snowflake has come into currency to denote these jackbooted princesses (in my time on American college campuses I have seen far more than my fair share of young men in old-lady calico dresses) who roam around blowing air horns in the faces of anyone who looks like he might have voted for Trump. It might sound strange to call a thug a snowflake, but there’s good reason for the name. Convinced of their moral superiority, SJW snowflakes are also convinced of their uniqueness. They are one-of-a-kind, perfect, like snowflakes falling from the heights of wokeness to cover the unwoke world foul as Luther’s heap of dung. Snowflakes are the reason the universe gets up in the morning.
How do these shrieking pantywaists keep everyone in ideological line and get away with their bad behavior? And why do we let them bully us with their slogans? In what possible way are they the conduit for the Hobbesian iron fist?
It’s simple, really. The U.S. has become a victim culture umpired by the state. Normal people are harassed by the behemoth state, but victims pass through its jaws unmangled. Victimhood, it turns out, is the swami song for lulling the Leviathan, which then obeys victims’ orders under this strange swoon. If you are a victim, you can sic the lumbering state-monster on anyone you choose. You can have people arrested for not giving you and your same-sex friend a marriage license, or for not baking you a cake, or for not calling you by whatever pronoun you made up on your way to work. If you are an officially designated victim, then the state is your ally, and your tantrums are backed by the full force and credit of the U.S. government.
In a world without truth, this is what we’ve become. And yet, this is not all there is to the story. The nightmare of Cartesio-Hobbesianism is real, but there’s a twist. We can ignore and deny truth all we like and attack those who speak or even think it. We can force everyone to bow down before us in homage to the lies by which we live. But we can never get rid of truth itself. It’s beyond our reach. The truth is always there, quietly knocking at everyone’s heart. We can try to drown out the soft rapping at the heart’s door by shouting obscenities and screaming that everyone who disagrees with us is a racist, but the truth is unperturbed. It keeps on gently knocking. And sometimes, even those — especially those — in the deepest swamp of lies wake up and start listening to what the truth has to say.
This scenario is not wishful thinking; it really happens. Stragglers emerging from the PC apocalypse have started recounting how they unwoke and awakened, finally learning to let truth back in. Springtime for Snowflakes, a new book by Michael Rectenwald, professor of global liberal studies at New York University, is the story of how an attack by SJWs jarred a self-described woke academic so badly that he realized the truth was on the other side of the us/them divide. The SJWs never let anyone quit, of course — they fire you, not the other way around. Rectenwald got the social-justice treatment after taking a stand against the insidious pathology of victimhood. Springtime for Snowflakes is the tale of his survival, even flourishing, after leaving the snowflakes behind.
Like other professors whom SJWs in “feeling frenzies” have hounded out of their offices and even their jobs — e.g., biologist Bret Weinstein; Gad Saad and Jordan Peterson, two of about three sane professors left in Canada; and psychology scholar Jonathan Haidt — Rectenwald is hardly what most people would call a right-wing extremist. In fact, it would be difficult to come up with a more unlikely candidate for conversion to common sense. As a teenager growing up in a working-class neighborhood, Rectenwald defied the pleas of his father and studied long-form poetry with über-hippie Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, an institution of — ahem — “higher” learning adjoined to the very groovy Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Not many Naropian alumni have ended up on the payroll of Fox News, I suspect.
After finishing the poetry internship and completing his bachelor’s degree, Rectenwald took a high-paying advertising job (echoes here of Jerry Rubin) but left years later to pursue a master’s degree in English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He read voraciously all the impeccably leftist thinkers: Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Jean-François Lyotard, Herbert Marcuse, and Michel Foucault. As might have been expected, if you go swimming in bleach, you’ll eventually dissolve. Lyotard’s “rejection of ‘master-narratives of legitimacy’” and Jacques Derrida’s “escape hatch” from Marxism, the eternal deferral of the différance, were especially corrosive. With a copy of a Paul de Man book in his pocket, Rectenwald completed his master’s program and headed for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to pursue a Ph.D. in literary and cultural theory.
With training like this, Rectenwald is as fluent as one can be in the language of the academic Left. The phrasings of postcolonialism, feminism, and transhumanism flow from his pen like rainwater from a gutterspout in a summer storm. Rectenwald was in the thick of the postmodernist hive for decades, wingtip-to-wingtip with the queen bees of the transgressive academy. Rectenwald does not think of himself as a conservative, and no sane person would either.
But along the way, Rectenwald experienced firsthand the contorted logic of the Left. He taught at a black university only to find that the black professors there were racist — toward their own students. Then he went to another university where a hiring committee on which he sat offered a job to a woefully unqualified candidate because she was black. He was ostracized by a feminist professor for having written a review of a Virginia Woolf biography in which he dared to deploy the “phallogocentric” heuristic that is apparently the English Department equivalent of membership in the Ku Klux Klan. But the sin that put Rectenwald beyond redemption among his peers was when he noted — without satisfactory condemnatory histrionics — a 2016 news story about a young man at the University of Michigan who responded to the school’s call for students to name their own pronouns by asking that everyone henceforth refer to him as “His Majesty.” After that incident, and the obligatory shunning that followed, Rectenwald began to rethink his commitment to social justice as his former friends understood the term. He began to wonder, heretically from their point of view, if social justice might not be a postmodern scam.
Eventually, Rectenwald launched a Twitter account, @Antipcnyuprof, that took aim at the SJW ship of fools from which he had secretly defected. In one hilarious tweet after another, Rectenwald unleashed a withering barrage on the SS Snowflake, each shot hitting devastatingly below the waterline. How infuriating it was for the SJWs to read these treasonous sentiments from within their own academic ranks: “Every SJW — no matter which of 72 genders it claims to be — is agent Smith at the core.” “How many in Antifa may be simply sociopaths hiding behind a banner of virtue to commit violence?” “The shaming techniques that the Left engages in — callout culture, self-criticism, privilege checking — all have Maoism as their provenance.” “‘Social justice’ — the worst misnomer of the 21st century, so far.” Rectenwald didn’t keep his apostasy to himself; he nailed his theses on the SJW’s front door.
When NYU’s campus newspaper broke the story that the anonymous tweeter was none other than dear old Prof. Rectenwald, the fallout was predictable: pained pinchings of brow by spineless deanlets; swift condemnation by Rectenwald’s equally craven peers, who circulated emails denouncing him for leaving academia’s only acceptable tribe; conniption fits from the SJW mob. A chorus of Hobbes-bots in the media called for Rectenwald to be fired and, if possible, burned at the stake for his deviation from the faith. As Rectenwald argues, the SJWs are the manifestation of Nietzschean slave morality — and they have the icy benediction of the godless state to support them, along with the cheerleading of essentially all the nation’s institutions. When Rectenwald defied this monogenous consensus, he became a national news item and a serious embarrassment for NYU and the institution of higher education as a whole.
Having lived among the true believers for his entire career, Rectenwald’s description and analysis of the snowflake phenomenon are pitch-perfect. If anything, he does not go nearly far enough in detailing just how insufferable SJWs are, and how ready to use violence. Springtime for Snowflakes is an erudite takedown and a work of bracing courage. Supporting the bravery of the author is alone worth the price of the book.
But for all its merits, Springtime for Snowflakes has a flaw. In one blistering tweet, Rectenwald said of SJWs that “we are now dealing with a lunatic cult of vast proportions. It’s like Heaven’s Gate, only without the Nikes.” Rectenwald sees campus SJWs as religious fanatics, and he recommends that we re-secularize the universities to restore order and clear the field for open debate.
Rectenwald is right to point out the chilling similarities between SJWs and unhinged charlatans. The SJWs are most certainly trying to bring Robespierre-level ideological purity to every single person in the country. They do behave like cult members. But Rectenwald is wrong to prescribe more secularism as the cure for the social justice disease. In his otherwise brilliant analysis, Rectenwald leaves out the most important part of the taxonomy of the SJW. He discusses how postmodernism is thought to have sprung from Marxism, and he makes a compelling counter-argument that it was French deconstructionists who brought postmodernism to America in the form of warmed-over Freudianism. But however one pulls the intellectual history levers — Marx, Freud — these are only skin deep.
The SJW phenomenon is, at bottom, a denatured form of Puritanism. The SJW mob constitutes a cult, true, but not a new religion. It is a corruption — a bad one — of the One True Religion. The SJWs are not Heaven’s Gate revivalists but little Cromwells. Had they lived in 1648, the average SJW’s Facebook status might have been, “Just another Puritan who enjoys killing everyone who doesn’t agree with me.” Puritanism is a strain of the virus known as Protestantism, which, in truth, is Catholicism’s inky shadow. The SJW mob is, therefore, not a kind of angry postmodernist glee club masquerading as a religious cult. It is a religious cult — Protestantism, but especially its Puritan variety — in the form of angry, woke postmodernists.
Rectenwald discusses tactics for arguing with SJWs, but the overall problem is not tactical. We don’t merely need better methods for dealing with snowflakes. Thanks to Descartes, method was what got us into this mess in the first place. The way to begin to solve the problem of the SJW, and postmodernism as a whole, is not to re-secularize the universities, as Rectenwald suggests, but to re-spiritualize them. And that starts with acknowledging that the campus mobs are what Puritanism looks like after the lapsing of several half-lives of decay since the original Protestant rebellion. The priesthood of all believers, carried to its logical conclusion, is the believer in all three million genders — the endlessly fracturing legion that enforces ideological conformity in lieu of creedal accord. Hobbes, after all, was trying to prop up the British state after it had left the Church and struck out on its own in defiance of Rome. Five hundred years later, the state is still all the Protestants have to rely on.
Rectenwald has written a highly readable, often laugh-out-loud-funny book that lays bare the idiocy of the American university — its whiny smugness, its penchant for sudden violence, its promulgation of secular redemption. The universities’ pretensions are all lies, of course, but those lies go much deeper than postmodernism. The way forward is in the root of the West: truth. “What is truth?” secularism asks, because it doesn’t really want an answer. Truth, real truth, is not a position but a Person. We start from Him or, like the postmodernists and the secularists alike, we end up nowhere.
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