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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Are We In The Grip of an ‘American Cultural Revolution’?

Reviewing the new book by Christopher Rufo, architect of the right’s crusade against “critical race theory.”

Most of the bodies were naked, or at most covered with only shreds of clothing, usually skeletal or dismembered, and often headless. They’d been rendered unrecognizable by the gnawing of hungry fish, which left deep pits for eyes and a horrible, yawning cavity in place of the lips that had recited Chairman Mao’s quotes and begged for the revolutionary masses to punish them for their crimes, their joyous laughter and cries of grief having been eternally silenced. When the corpses first began floating through Daojiang Town, crowds lined the riverbanks in wide-eyed astonishment, discussing among themselves. After the sight became common, however, people took no more notice than of trees felled by a storm. Although rumors were rampant and explanations varied, who these corpses were and what had happened to them soon became an open secret. People quickly turned away at the sight of the corpses, because the weather was hot and the stench sickening, and because they had a faint inkling that the day might come when they themselves must kill or be killed. Some itched for the opportunity, while others lived in dread of that day.

Tan Hecheng, The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution (Oxford University Press) 

The Chinese Cultural Revolution was one of history’s most terrible episodes. There were widespread mass killings, and the total death toll may run into the millions. The stories of the brutality are stomach-churning: students cannibalizing their teachers; the murder of children and the elderly. Tan Hecheng, compiling records of the worst crimes, comments on how “an observer of the tragedy [finds] what people did to each other, individually and collectively, so horrific and irrational that it is almost beyond comprehension.” 

If you pick up Christopher Rufo’s book America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything, you might think that America, too, had descended into similar madness. But you’d be incorrect. The “revolution,” in Rufo’s telling, is comprised of—wait for it—diversity programs at colleges, Black Studies departments, protests against police brutality, and corporations that tweeted pro-BLM platitudes in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. His evidence for dangerous revolutionary changes in our society consists of things like the appearance of the term “institutionalized racism” in the newspaper. The most important thing to know about a book purporting to discuss the present-day “American Cultural Revolution,” then, is that the name is necessarily extreme and amounts to unwarranted hyperbole that minimizes the horrors of the original Cultural Revolution.

Rufo is a leading conservative activist who is proud of his role in adding “critical race theory” to the long, long list of bogeymen that the right uses to convince people that their culture is dying and they are in an existential war for the survival of civilization. (CRT may already be last week’s villain. Fox News is now warning that “Trantifa” are on the march.) Rufo has been quite open about his strategy of trying to get people to associate everything they don’t like with the term “critical race theory,” saying “[w]e will eventually turn [critical race theory] toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something ‘crazy’ in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Even, one supposes, if such things have nothing to do with CRT! This seems to have been effective, although his follow-up “rebranding effort”—trying to convince people to say “trans stripper” instead of “drag queen”—does not appear to have caught on. Rufo has now been appointed by Florida Man Ron DeSantis to the board of trustees of New College of Florida, where he is part of a mission to remake the college by purging it of wokeness and turning it into a classics-focused institution based on the Hillsdale model. America’s Cultural Revolution is his manifesto encouraging readers to join him in waging a “counter-revolution.”

Books like Rufo’s (the right-wing screed against the “revolution” wrought by left-wing intellectuals) are a cottage industry in the United States, as we’ve noted before. Each of them tells a familiar story: authoritarian woke Marxists have invaded the country, seized control of our institutions, and threaten to destroy what’s left of our freedoms. One could be forgiven for finding frustrating the lack of consistency in the vocabulary of conservative rhetoric. Political correctness becomes “wokeness.” Classic Marxism becomes “cultural Marxism,” then “postmodern neo-Marxism,” then “race Marxism,” then comes home as “American Marxism,” then proves Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence true by becoming cultural Marxism once again. 

Rufo does not so much offer an argument as a story, recounting the life histories of radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire, Angela Davis, and Derrick Bell and arguing that their ideas have infiltrated all of the most powerful institutions of society. Interestingly, Rufo does not make much of an actual case for why the ideas of these people are wrong. Throughout the book, he assumes that his readers will be horrified enough by terms like “institutional racism” that it will be sufficient to trace the concept’s lineage back to the New Left. Then, he assumes that by parading a series of infamous ’60s radicals in front of us (not just Marcuse and Davis, but the Weathermen, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, and Huey Newton, all of whose lives are discussed), he will have sufficiently convinced the reader that the revolution is here and it is terrifying.

But what about a skeptical reader who doesn’t just need to be shown what Angela Davis said but needs to be shown that Davis was wrong to say it? Throughout the book, Rufo does not discuss the things leftists are writing about so much as the fact that leftists are writing about things. For instance, of critical race theorist Derrick Bell, Rufo writes:

Bell sought to write American history as a long sequence of gloom and oppression. He wrote fictional stories attacking Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as racist hypocrites. He made the case that the Constitution was not a “hallowed document,” but a self-serving compact that protected the interests of whites who controlled massive “investments in land, slaves, manufacturing, and shipping.” In his lectures at NYU, Bell told students that the Constitution was a useless document, because the Supreme Court would always manipulate the law to serve elite interests, then appeal to the Constitution after the fact. “When I was a kid, we had cockroaches in the house, but we didn’t have roach powder,” Bell told his students. “So we killed the roaches by stomping on them. What the Justices do is stomp on the roaches, and then spray them with roach powder. The Constitution is like the roach powder.”

A reader who already shares Rufo’s politics might be horrified. But anyone who doesn’t might well reply “Yes, and?” Where we might expect an argument that Bell was wrong, that the Supreme Court doesn’t invoke the Constitution selectively to rationalize decisions based on preexisting political preferences, we get nothing. Rufo just goes on to describe more of Bell’s work, including his famous “Space Traders” science fiction story. He says that Bell “believed that the entire arc of America’s racial history—from the Declaration to the Emancipation to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Civil Rights Act—appeared to be in the service of freedom for blacks but, in actuality, served the self-interest of elite whites.” Instead of evaluating Bell’s arguments, Rufo quotes Thomas Sowell, who speculated that Bell’s extreme pessimism came from his desire not to be a “nobody” in academia.

Rufo’s book is actually uncommonly well researched for a Left Panic tract. Admittedly, the bar is not high—this is, after all, a minor literature where standards have fallen so low that one can hear diatribes against the “Franklin School of Critical Theory” delivered with a straight face and senior intellectuals can breathlessly anguish about ubiquitous “postmodern neo-Marxists” without being able to name a single one when politely asked. Rufo’s book contains copious endnotes and is even unexpectedly generous in parts, conceding the brilliance of some of the figures discussed and giving sympathetic accounts of their early lives.

What the book lacks is an actual argument, such as making the case against the beliefs of the people it identifies as dangerously destructive. One can read America’s Cultural Revolution with care and find few, if any, engagements with the concrete claims of left-wing authors. Rufo cites them plenty, but he doesn’t seem to have understood them below the level of partisan polemic. Take Herbert Marcuse’s complex (and problematic) account of how technological rationality and consumerism have flattened our capacity for critical thinking. This gets reduced to trite slogans of the kind we expect from a Ben Shapiro: “Rationality had devolved into irrationality. Freedom had turned into slavery. Progress had produced barbarism.” Rufo misrepresents Marcuse’s philosophy as a “great refusal” to suppress instincts, grow up, and mature. But Marcuse is insisting that it is precisely the reactionary demand that one repress, rather than acknowledge, the psychological drives that leads to the violent expression of the instincts and the development of incomplete authoritarian personalities. Or, in more banal forms, the immature turn from what one really desires—community, love, solidarity—to the cheap substitutes offered by technology and mass media. It’s a complex point. It can be disputed. But to dispute it, it’s best to try to understand it first. We’ve come a long way from a serious conservative intellectual like Roger Scruton, who at least appreciated the originality of the critiques put forth by Marcuse and his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School (a collection of anti-fascist academics who sought to unite Marxist theory with a critique of culture and social psychology) even if he dismissed their solutions.

For Rufo, most of his truths are self-evident, in need of no substantiation. For instance, he tells us that the Department of Education has funded programs for “systematic change to improve equity.” So? And Angela Davis “identified the justice system—law, courts, prisons, and police—as the primary ‘instrument of class domination’ and physical enforcer of America’s ‘racist ideology.’” Indeed, but what arguments did she and other Black Marxists make for why they believed this? 

Consider this list of dystopian funding activities by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities: 

The NEA and the NEH pursued the same political line, funding, for example, a speaking series on “race, reconciliation, and transformation,” a national black writers’ conference on “reconstructing the master narrative,” an artist-in-residency program for “racial equity,” a leadership certificate program in “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” an art exhibit on “race, gender, and globalization,” an overseas research program that “aims to dismantle hierarchies of race and civilization,” a biography exploiting “the Black Power movement,” a “dance theater trilogy on race, culture, and identity,” and a stage play for “a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate.”

That last one turns out to be Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Breach.” Here’s a description of the plot:

Margaret uproots her life, including her dead-end job and fizzling relationship, after finding out that she is unexpectedly expecting. She finds support and humor from her sassy and sharp Aunt Sylvia and her new friendship with Carolina, a pregnant cleaning lady at her office. BREACH is a smart comedy about friendship, motherhood, and family, and tackles the mother of all challenges: learning to love yourself.

Is this really what a “cultural revolution” of the Maoist type is made of?

Nowhere does Rufo give generous consideration to the arguments actually made by the people he despises. He treats it as obvious that if the term “racism” is appearing more often in the newspaper, this is a sign that Marcuse and Davis are winning. The alternate explanation—that Americans are (rightly) starting to pay more attention to inequalities that had previously (unjustly) been overlooked—is not entertained. 

Rufo’s theory that leftist radicals have taken over everything runs into trouble whenever he has to account for the fact that radicals have taken over almost nothing. For instance, he believes that New Left thinking has come to dominate not only academia, the state, and the media, but the whole corporate world. This creates a paradox, he admits, because “the critical theorists were vicious critics of capitalism and wanted nothing more than to abolish it, … yet their ideas have made inroads into the centers of capitalist power.” How to explain that capitalists are now apparently anti-capitalist? All Rufo says is that “the corporation is no longer the domain of the conservative establishment,” offering as proof the fact that many prominent CEOs are Democrats and JPMorgan Chase billionaire Jamie Dimon took a knee for BLM. But surely a more sensible explanation is the leftist one: corporations have embraced superficial social justice rhetoric because it’s cheap and allows them to look good and doesn’t threaten the fundamental relationship between capitalists and workers. McDonald’s doesn’t declare itself pro-BLM because it’s a hotbed of radicalism but as a branding exercise, because corporations will gleefully co-opt rebellion to sell hamburgers. 

Left Wing Resentment and Disintegrationism

We have seen that Rufo doesn’t care to deal with the left’s arguments. Instead, near the conclusion of his book, Rufo develops an account that pathologizes the motives of many of the figures he looks at. Rather than understanding that these figures were fighting for justice or yearning for emancipation, Rufo follows a long line of Nietzschean-inspired reactionaries in describing the left in terms of “resentment”:

The true heart of the quest for liberation—the driving force behind its theory and praxis—is nihilism. [Eldridge] Cleaver believed that raping white women was “freedom.” Angela Davis believed that taping a shotgun to the neck of a county judge was “justice.” Black Lives Matter activists believed that looting and burning down shopping malls was “reparations.” But all of these are, in truth, pure resentment. The black liberation movement rationalized violence, first dressing it up in Kant and Hegel, and then, in the contemporary period, using it as a method for extorting corporate and public support. But this method of liberation is ultimately a dialectic of destruction.

It’s certainly possible to be a leftist motivated by resentment, and leftists would be wise to spend their time substantively defending the merits of universal healthcare and condemning the enduring cruelty of white supremacy and the criminal punishment system. But from occasional snide comments by Derrick Bell or Angela Davis about their desire to piss off white society, Rufo generates a sweeping and unsubstantiated theory of left-radicals’ supposed psychological motivations and historical ambitions.

Pathologizing the left rather than arguing with it is just one of the well-worn conservative responses Rufo wheels out in the book. Rufo follows the “counter-revolutionary” strategy of inverting the causality of more nuanced progressive arguments by relocating the source of social discontent from the content of what leftists are writing about to the fact that malicious leftists are writing about things. This strategy has a long history on the right, including in the writings of some of its founding figures. Sophisticated critics like Edmund Burke chafed at revolutionary criticisms which condemned the monarchical regimes of Europe as tyrannical, unaccountable, and unrepresentative and their citizenry subject to the arbitrary whims of these very flawed rulers. While Burke was far more willing than Rufo to confront these arguments with arguments of his own, one of his more interesting responses was to accuse the left’s “sophisters, economists, and calculators” of stripping away “all the pleasing illusions which made power gentle, and obedience liberal.” The implication becomes that it is not the injustices highlighted by the left which prompted the revolution, but the left’s stripping away of the “illusions” which conciliated subjects to their betters. Rufo’s book follows in this mold. Indeed he gestures to the “counter-revolutionary” genealogy of his work early on in the book.

The task for the counter-revolutionary is not simply to halt the movement of his adversaries but to resurrect the system of values, symbols, myths, and principles that constituted the essence of the old regime, to reestablish the continuity between past, present, and future, and to make the eternal principles of freedom and equality meaningful again to the common citizen.

Like a lower frequency Burke, Rufo gestures to “truth” and “myth” “values” and “principles” and “history” and “eternity” and “order” against “chaos,” along with “reason” and “instincts,” to justify a “counter-revolutionary” approach to dealing with the left. Except no effort is made to explain what any of these terms mean or reconcile the potential contradictions between them. If it’s true that Rufo is interested in “history” and tradition, how does he square that with a commitment to “eternal” values which may well confront our established dogmas? This wasn’t a small problem for Plato, for whom eternal truth and justice required us to be critical of the established “doxa”—or unreflective public opinions—of one’s time (was he a critical race theorist avant la lettre?). This is an especially vexing problem for conservatives who want to revere the “Western” canon while ignoring that much of it inveighs heavily against “doxa” and “heteronomy” and “ideology.” Consequently, their efforts to “conserve” the Western canon’s authority means denying that much of it is authoritative. After all, there is no thinker more “Western” than Marx—a thinker who synthesized German philosophy, French radicalism, and English political economy and wrote for American newspapers. Or take Rufo’s concerns with chaos and order. If Rufo is so concerned with maintaining order against chaos, shouldn’t he be in favor of the established DEI institutions and resist “counter-revolutionary” efforts to disrupt them? This applies doubly for free marketers and anti-socialists, who should be the last people wanting to coerce major corporations into jettisoning a commitment to social justice rhetoric if that’s what their shareholders and corporate boards want. 

Of course, trying to make sense of this may be beside the point. As Rufo makes very clear, his pitch isn’t largely to the rational intellect—at least noy beyond a few rhetorical appeals—but to the “feelings” and “instincts” of his readers. But it’s worth pointing out that the appeal to so many different foundations is intended to glamorize Rufo’s counter-revolutionary inclinations and attribute to them some kind of sublime insight. In truth it comes across like a postmodern pastiche: a grab bag of appeals to historicist traditionalism, natural right and natural law, brute power politics, right-wing doxa, and the pure instincts and feelings of those who have a “sense” that something is rotten in the state of Florida and beyond.

In his classic book Natural Right and History, the conservative(ish) philosopher Leo Strauss (in)famously criticized Edmund Burke for completing the modern world’s intellectual descent into relativism and nihilism through his very efforts to defend the ancien régime from liberal radicalism. Something very similar could be said about Rufo, who seems to have decided that the best way to respond to bad arguments by left-wing postmodernists is to become a distinctly postmodern conservative.

Rufo’s Intellectual Pastiche

But it is probably pointless to show that Rufo is uninterested in actually proving a case against the left. After all, despite the copious endnotes, he doesn’t really pretend to care about being intellectually serious. Rufo is open about the fact that he sees as his central task the manipulation of people’s minds toward those views he likes and away from those he doesn’t. This is very different from the pursuit of truth. In an interview from about a year ago, Rufo said:

The man who can discover, shape and distribute information has an enormous amount of power. The currency in our postmodern knowledge regime is language, fact, image and emotion. Learning how to wield these is the whole game.

This attraction to the symbolic over anything concrete is very apparent in Rufo’s book, right down to its lack of analytical argument and rebuttal. Rufo often thinks that just coding something as left or “revolutionary” conveys the “sense” that it must be bad, despite the fact that one would have to prove it. Despite chiding critical theorists for wanting “to dismantle the pillars of Western society—rationalism, individualism, capitalism, natural rights, the rule of law,” Rufo never bothers to defend any of these or even say how they are mutually compatible. At some points, Rufo doesn’t even seem to think they can be effectively defended rationally or argumentatively. As mentioned, the conclusion of his book is not about why “rationalism, individualism, capitalism, natural rights, [and] the rule of law” are true and good. Instead, he talks about the need to renew “symbols” and “myths” and construct the “narrative of the counter-revolutionary” which is to be restored to “political rule”: 

Under the cultural revolution, the common citizen has been shamed, pressed, and degraded. His symbols have been subverted and buried below the earth. But he still retains the power of his own instincts, which orient him toward justice, and the power of his own memory, which makes possible the retrieval of the symbols and principles that contain his own destiny.

As the point about leaning into “instincts” suggests, at times Rufo even decides to simply eschew facts and argument entirely for the feelings of those who accept his preferred symbols and narratives. The result is a very abstract book that exists in the spacy realm of summarization but that doesn’t bother to refute intellectual discourses and is deeply disconnected from the material world. We are not talking about the distribution of wealth, mass incarceration, or the way health services are distributed, or the threat of the climate crisis. Instead, we get a story about a series of nasty intellectuals (the most successful of whom sold about 100,000 books) who ruined everything. The powerful people who used the institutions at their disposal to throw those dissident intellectuals in jail were responsible for little. 

What is one supposed to make of a book like America’s Cultural Revolution? Is he serious? Does he really believe that corporate racial sensitivity trainings are the direct descendants of the Weathermen, and that the NEH funding of plays about Black women’s self-discovery is tantamount to the Maoist persecution of nonconformity? No matter how many endnotes a book like this has, or how elaborately it may lay out the doctrines of Marcuse, how can anyone do anything but laugh at the evidence Rufo puts forth for the existence of a great threat? Derrick Bell’s sci-fi stories? Angela Davis is part of a movement that has “taken over everything”? As always with this stuff, real leftists can only wish we lived in the conservative fantasyland where socialists are everywhere. In fact, socialists are a marginal group politically, as are people who actually call themselves Marxists, whether in academia or politics. (As one example, if you search the tweets of AOC, one of the most prominent self-described democratic socialists, you’ll find that the last time she tweeted the word “socialist” was in 2021.) Ethnic studies and gender studies programs are small, and university campuses are dominated by business and economics majors

It’s clear that Rufo does not want an actual debate on whether the injustices identified by the left actually exist. The question of whether leftist analysis is accurate is simply assumed away in America’s Cultural Revolution. Instead, he is interested in precisely what he says: crafting a compelling narrative that will help build the counter-revolution. Those who would prefer to dismiss this book should be warned that as a salesman of narrative, Rufo is an expert. He thinks carefully about how to construct stories in order to whip up a frenzy of resentment against the Marxist menace. Does it matter whether the menace exists? Does it matter whether the Marxists make some good points? Not to Rufo, who has made it clear he is on the same mission as Ron DeSantis: the complete purging of leftist ideas from institutions. We should be far more afraid of his plans for us than of any present or imminent American “cultural revolution.” 

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