“In the fall of 2016,” New York University professor Michael Rectenwald recently told The Daily Caller, “I was noting an increase of this social justice ideology on campuses, and it started to really alarm me. I saw it coming home to roost here at NYU, with the creation of the bias reporting hotline, and with the cancellation of the Milo Yiannopoulos talk because someone might walk past it and hear something which might ‘trigger’ them.”
Rectenwald, himself a leftist, created an initially anonymous Twitter account, @antipcnyuprof, to speak out against that ideology and the “absolutely anti-education and anti-intellectual” classroom indoctrination he was witnessing, as well as the collectivist surveillance state that the campus was becoming, as students were urged to report each other for the sin of committing microaggressions.
In October of that year, he outed himself as the man behind the controversial Twitter account, and “all hell broke loose.” He swiftly found himself the target of shunning and harassment from his colleagues and the NYU administration. In true Cultural Revolution fashion, several colleagues in his department in the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group published an open letter declaring him guilty of incorrect thinking. “The thing that is interesting here is that they were saying that because I don’t think like them, I am sick and mentally ill,” Rectenwald said to the Daily Caller.
Instead of kowtowing to the campus totalitarians, Rectenwald declared himself done with the Left in a February 2017 tweet (“The Left has utterly and completely lost its way and I no longer want anything to do with it.”) and has gone on to become an even more fervent defender of free speech and academic freedom. He has appeared often in conservative media to discuss those issues and the harassment he has received from the Left.
Recently Rectenwald even filed a lawsuit against NYU and four of his colleagues for defamation. He consented to answering some questions for the Freedom Center about his conflict with the NYU ideologues.
Mark Tapson: A year ago on Twitter you wrote, “Goodbye to the Left, goodbye.” Can you describe your intellectual journey from “left-liberal activist” to outspoken “deplorable” and what drove that seemingly sudden transition?
Michael Rectenwald: In hindsight, I think that the transition was less sudden than it might have appeared. I had gone from a left-liberal activist to a left communist before I became “deplorable.” I narrate the history of the transition in my book, discussed below. But I’ll tell something of the transition here.
My public criticisms of “social justice” ideology and politically correct authoritarianism resonated with large swaths of the political right. I gained a sizeable new audience and support network – through Twitter, Facebook and via hundreds of supportive emails. I also drew backing from “cultural libertarians,” as Paul Joseph Watson dubbed this newly-emergent “counterculture.” It should come as no surprise that many Trumpists backed me, especially given Trump’s regular (although non-specific) criticisms of political correctness.
Criticism of political correctness was supposed to be the exclusive province of the rightwing. For most observers, it was almost inconceivable that an anti-P.C. critic could come from another political quarter. Unsurprisingly, then, the majority of people who discovered my case, including some reporters, simply assumed that I was a conservative. As one Twitter troll put it: “You’re anti-P.C.? You must be a rightwing nut-job.” But as I explained in numerous interviews and essays, I was not a Trump supporter; I was never a right-winger, or an alt-right-winger; I was never a conservative of any variety. I wasn’t even a classical John Stuart Mill liberal.
In fact, for several years, I had identified as a left or libertarian communist. My politics were to the left (and considerably critical of the authoritarianism) of Bolshevism! I published essays in socialist journals on several topics, including a Marxist critique of postmodern theory, analyses of identity politics and intersectionality theory (here and here), analyses of political economy (here and here), and an examination of the prospects for socialism in the context of transhumanism. I became a respected Marxist thinker and essayist. I had flirted with a Trotskyist sect, and later became affiliated with a loosely organized left or libertarian communist group.
It wasn’t only strangers who mistook me for rightwing or conservative. So too did many who knew better. An anti-Trump mania and reactionary fervor now gripped liberals and leftists of nearly all stripes. Previously unaffiliated and warring left and liberal factions consolidated and circled the wagons. Anyone who failed to signal complete fidelity to “the resistance” risked being savaged.
After my appearance on Fox Business News, such rabid ideologues ambushed me. The social-justice-sympathetic members of the left communist group to which I belonged denounced me in a series of group emails. Several members conducted a preposterous cyber show-trial, bringing charges against me and calling for votes on a number of alleged transgressions. From what I could tell, my worst offences included appearing on Fox News, sounding remotely like a member of an opposing political tribe, receiving positive coverage in right-leaning media, and criticizing leftist milieus just as Trump became President.
I denied that these self-appointed judges held any moral authority over me and declared their arbitrations null and void. Meanwhile, the elders of the group (one a supposed friend of mine) had remained silent, allowing the abuse to go on unabated for a day. When the elders finally chimed in, they called for my official expulsion. I told them not to bother as I wanted nothing further to do with them; I quit. In their collectivist zeal, they later stripped my name from three essays that I’d written for publication on their website, and assigned their authorship to someone else entirely. Upon discovering this fraudulence, I publicly berated them for plagiarism. A prominent member of the American Association of University Professors noticed my complaint and investigated the alleged breach of intellectual integrity. Verifying my authorship of the essays, he condemned the group’s actions in a popular blog. Only then did the benevolent dictators return my name to the essays’ mastheads.
Friends and acquaintances from other communities also turned on me with a vengeance, joining in the groupthink repudiation. After my appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News, the Twitter attack was so fierce, vitriolic, and sustained that my associate Lori Price and I spent a whole night blocking and muting tweeters.
But the worst banishment came from the NYU Liberal Studies community – to which I had contributed a great deal, and of which I had striven for years to be a well-regarded member. Soon after the open letter appeared, I recognized a virtual universal shunning by my faculty colleagues. One after another, colleagues unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. The few that didn’t simply avoided me entirely, until I saved them the trouble and unfriended them. Most stinging were the betrayals of those who once relied on my generosity, some whose careers I had supported and considerably advanced.
Despite the harsh treatment doled out to me by the social justice left and the warm reception I received from the right, I did not become a right-winger, or a conservative. But after the social-justice-infiltrated left showed me its gnarly fangs and drove me out, I could no longer identify as a leftist.
MT: As a staunch First Amendment defender, do you think it is possible to reverse the culture of politically correct totalitarianism that seems to be dominating academia today, and how can we do that?
MR: It is possible but reversing a forty-year trend that has finally resulted in what we have today – the complete takeover of academic pedagogy, philosophy, and policy by “social justice” ideology – will take a long, sustained effort, and the support of elements of the culture outside of academe, including media pundits, writers, independent scholars, public intellectuals, and a growing body of disaffected and vocal academic apostates and other renegades willing to take risks – as Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, and others, including myself, have done. The way will be treacherous because the “social justice” left controls academic departments and administrations almost entirely, and everyone else within academia has been cowed into submission for fear of being “called out” as well. We are dealing with a Maoist-like Red Guard as we undergo a soft cultural revolution of our own. David Horowitz has been right all this time about the communists lurking in academia. Their impact has now been manifested through the “social justice” movement.
I put “social justice” in scare quotes because this term is a misnomer if there ever was one. Although the movement trades on a euphemistic name and the good will that movements that have gone by the same name have earned, including the Civil Rights movement, contemporary “social justice” has nothing to do with justice and is anything but benevolent. It is a movement based on postmodernist theoretical notions and as I have pointed out (here and here), the postmodern adoption of Stalinist and Maoist disciplinary mechanisms, such as “autocritique” and “struggle sessions.” It is totalitarian through and through. We must learn from and employ the tactics that served to defeat totalitarian leftism in the past.
MT: Apart from personal vindication, of course, is there some larger objective you are hoping to accomplish through this defamation lawsuit against NYU?
MR: I want to make clear that social justice activists cannot get away with replacing the First Amendment with their own speech codes. They are not the official arbiters of acceptable speech, despite their self-arrogation as such.
The First Amendment does not protect all speech. It does not, for example, protect speech that leads to illegal activity and/or imminent violence. It does not protect defamation, slander, or libel. The First Amendment does not protect speakers from liability for the foreseeable consequences of their speech.
The “social justice” leftists are now claiming that I am a hypocrite because I am suing over insults, and that I am seeking a safe space of my own. But they apparently do not understand the difference between an incidental differing of opinion, an insult, and the real damages of defamation. I never claimed to be a free speech absolutist. And my own exercise of free speech and so-called academic freedom amounted to criticism of the “social justice” ideology and the mechanisms prevalent in academia and beyond. I never once mentioned any individuals by name. I never once engaged in ad hominem argumentation.
My attackers, however, showed no such restraint. In fact, they maliciously and mendaciously attacked me using official university email list servs, with the explicit aim of damaging my professional reputation and destroying my career.
Meanwhile, irony, contradiction, and hypocrisy are all on their side. Based on the postmodern theoretical notion of “social and linguistic constructivism,” the “social justice” left deems language use a material act. Thus, they excuse shutting down speech they disapprove of, “by any means necessary.” Yet “social justice” leftists actually have no problem with truly damaging language use – as long as it’s being undertaken by them, that is. While Antifa, the “social justice” extracurricular infantry, burns down campuses to prevent the airing of “dangerous” speech, the “social justice” leftists seek safe spaces – not as protection from the violence of their compeers, but from the so-called “discursive violence” of non-PC-left speakers. Yet “social justice” ideologues undertake the most virulent forms of libel and defamation when dealing with speakers who express views at variance with their own.
Ironically, precisely while calling me a “racist,” “sexist,” “bully,” and “Satan,” I was bullied, abused and pelted with racist, sexist and other remarks that denigrated me on the basis of my race and sex or gender. The irony, double standard and hypocrisy are astounding. If the reverse had been the case, all hell would have broken loose. The defendants apparently thought that individual rights are not real and that because I am of a certain category they could make such statements with impunity. But the law doesn’t agree.
So, while this suit is not merely symbolic – I have actually suffered from defamation, from malicious and mendacious speech intended to destroy me professionally and otherwise – it is also meant as a symbolic case in point, as an example to demonstrate the intent and scope of the First Amendment, which differs markedly from “social justice” speech rules. The main “social justice” speech rule is this: “social justice” leftists can say (and do) whatever they want to say (and do). And they can shut down whatever they don’t want said (or done) – “by any means possible.” The only problem is that they are legally wrong.
MT: You have a new book in the works about the postmodern roots of social justice ideology. Can you tell us a little about that and when we can expect it?
MR: The book is a memoir whose central argument is that the contemporary “social justice” creed and movement is the child of postmodern theory, while also incorporating some of the methods of Stalinism and Maoism. Just as postmodern theory lay dying in the academy, it gave birth to a child: “social justice” ideology.
I demonstrate the genealogy of “social justice” by recalling and retracing my own graduate education in Critical Theory (The Frankfurt School) and postmodern theory (deconstruction, poststructuralism, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, third-wave feminist theory, Science Studies, gender and transgender theory, and so on). The book explains just how social justice derives from postmodern theoretical notions and how and why these notions are not only philosophically wrong but also extremely pernicious. I recall my own indoctrination into these schools of thought, as well my emergence from them. The book is 95% complete, so hopefully it will appear in matter of a few months. The tentative (and hopefully final) title is Springtime for Snowflakes: ‘Social Justice’ and Its Postmodern Parent. (I am currently on the market for a new publisher.)
MT: With a title like Springtime for Snowflakes, it's bound to be a great read. Thanks, Professor Rectenwald, and congratulations on your escape from the dark side into the light!