Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and its Postmodern Parentage
Nashville, Tenn.: New English Review Press, 2018
The takeover of academia by the far Left during the last several decades has been well documented. What sets Michael Rectenwald’s (MR) Springtime for Snowflakes apart is a rare insider’s critical appraisal of the ideologies and machinations of critical theory, postmodernism, social justice, and transgender theory. The book is in part an academic’s memoir and in part an ideological analysis of the various socially destructive beliefs and theories ensconced within the ivy-covered halls. “Snowflakes is a first-person embodiment of the postmodern perspective, the result of a deep and extended immersion” (xiii). Rectenwald is an apostate from the radical Left. “I had identified as a left or libertarian communist. . . . I became a well-respected Marxist thinker and essayist. I had flirted with a Trotskyist sect” (28).
At first glance MR seems an unlikely recruit for the far-Left. He is a product of a large working-/lower- middle-class German Catholic family from Pittsburgh. He attended Catholic secondary schools. Rectenwald recounts one incident that contributed to his embrace of the Left. As an eighth grader he and his father went to interview at Shadyside Academy. The headmaster informed the senior Rectenwald that although his son could do well there academically, socially he was not a good fit. “This experience and others like it increased the chances that if ever exposed to it, I would seriously entertain Marxism” (34).
The author notes that class resentment still fuels the Left, but what about ethnic resentment? Was Ted Kennedy motivated to pass the 1965 immigration act, in part, because his grandfather was snubbed by some Boston Brahmin? Does Chris Cuomo support Antifa because his grandfather was called a Guinea on the streets of New York? The contemporary Left has been moving away from class issues into racial and sexual politics. MR grapples with both race and gender, though he is more comfortable analyzing the latter.
Continuing with Rectenwald’s story, after graduating from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic High School he enrolled as a pre-med student at Allegheny College. To his father’s bitter disappointment, he left college after two years to study poetry with Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg was a homosexual Jew who used powerful psychedelics for “inspiration.” The author does not mention these traits. Rather, working with Ginsberg exposed him to “a signal participant in several of the counter-culture movements of the fifties and sixties that contributed to postmodernism, which emerged by the late sixties” (45).
After Ginsberg, Rectenwald went straight, finished college, got married, had three children, and worked for nine years in advertising. But obviously the author felt that something was missing from his life, and so began a MA program in English at Case Western Reserve. He claims he did not know what he was getting himself into. The title of this chapter is, “The Seduction of Theory.” Many English departments at the time were beginning to embrace cultural studies. “Cultural Studies was invented [by a trio of Marxists] to be a politically radical engagement with culture, especially ‘low’ forms, including mass media and other popular culture” (49).
The author believes: “Combined with Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about ‘cultural hegemony’ Cultural Studies, and not the Frankfurt School, is the real source of anything like ‘cultural Marxism’” (50). Yet the seduction referred to in the chapter’s title is critical theory (Frankfurt School). “Adorno and Horkheimer’s prose — with its ‘totalizing,’ surgical, clinical, analytical, and merciless tone and diction — acted like decryption code. It hacked into my head and planted a bug” (53). From critical theory, the product of German Marxist Jews of the 1930s, we go to postmodernism, a Marxist import from post-1968 France, to twenty-first century social justice. Yet MR insists: “While postmodern theory does derive from the political left . . . it is definitely not Marxist” (55). Later he reiterates: “Using the terms ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘neo-Marxism’ interchangeably to refer to social justice and postmodernism is a mistake” (113). But finally Rectenwald concedes: “Nevertheless, a lineage can be established between these three [Marxism, postmodernism, and social justice] relatives” (114).
One minor criticism of Snowflakes is the overly fine ideological distinctions MR formulates as he teases out the numerous threads of Leftist thought. The author is such an expert on the various species of leftist flora that at times he loses sight of the forest for the trees. I believe cultural Marxism is a useful generic term for the several Leftist theories that developed after World War I. Cultural Marxism is a combination of Gramsci and György Lukás’s ideas on culture, critical theory of the Frankfurt School, a smattering of Stalinism and Maoism, plus the identity politics and metapolitics of the contemporary Left. That some of these beliefs diverge from classical Marxism is nothing new. Neo Marxism began shortly after Marx’s death and was well established with Leninism. What we see here is a continuing evolution of strategies to subvert Western culture, creating an elaborate justification to attack and undermine Whites, especially White men, and the civilization they created.
Give the devil his due. The Left has been more creative and innovative than the Right. When Marxist/Leninism failed to spread beyond Russia after War World I, they created cultural Marxism and critical theory. When the street protests of the 1960s failed to topple Western governments, they formulated postmodernism, deconstructionism, and finally, the social justice movement.
Back to Rectenwald’s academic odyssey: While matriculating at Case Western, he found some of his courses fit into the traditional graduate curriculum, while others went far afield. Literary cultural studies have expanded to encompass history, social science, law, politics, economics, even the physical and life sciences. After his MA, the author decided to dive into the deep end and enroll in the PhD program in Literary and Cultural Theory/Studies at Carnegie Mellon.
Many on the Right lament their lack of unity. MR found that within the academic Left various theoretical paradigms, perspectives, and “camps vied against each other for ‘hegemony’ while competition raged within them” (67). They were united, however, in their opposition to Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, and essentialism (the belief that there is such a thing as human nature that differs between the sexes and races). Most also challenge positivism, the belief that objective knowledge can be gained through the scientific method.
One of the more extreme elements of postmodernism encountered by Rectenwald during his graduate studies was transgender theory. Although he initially accepted this theory, ultimately it proved a bridge too far, and helped to convince him to reject the Left. Transgender theory conceives “gender as non-binary.” Traditional sexual beliefs and mores are “hopelessly archaic, reductionist explanations of gender or even sexual differences.” The goal is to refute “ideas derived from evolutionary psychology,” as well as “biological determinism,” and “sexist stereotypes” (71). You see, sexual differences are “determined not by chromosomes, anatomy, hormones, or physiology . . . [but] by beliefs and ultimately by language, by names” (106).
At least twice Rectenwald mentions evolutionary psychology as a nemesis of the Left. “Social justice treats the fields of biology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology as anathema” (106). A few evolutionary, educational, and social psychologists have been in the forefront of research into racial and sexual differences and are thus targets for Leftist outrage. Supporting evolutionary psychology, or any sort of biological determinism, can be “career death” in the humanities. Even for an academic acolyte such as PhD student Rectenwald navigating through “the various schools of feminist and gender theoretical thought, including second-wave Marxist feminism, radical feminism, third-wave feminism, queer theory, gender and transgender theory . . . was a minefield” because “the internecine battles within feminist, queer, and transgender theory were routinely ferocious and caustic” (71–72).
This is what one would expect when all standards of objectivity are discarded. The academic world becomes a power struggle among ambitious academics striving for fame, fortune, and tenure at a prestigious university. It’s a power struggle where competitive virtue signaling is rife as academics compete to be the furthest to the left and hence most morally praiseworthy.
The latest metamorphosis on the Left, social justice, has been described as an ideology, creed, theory, movement, or doctrine. “Social justice holds that membership in a subordinated identity group grants members exclusive access to particular knowledge” (74). Social justice theory would explain, for example, why it is necessary to have “a wise Latina” on the US Supreme Court. It does not explain why one group, White, heterosexual men, could have exclusive access to the particular knowledge required to build and maintain Western civilization.
The social justice creed creates a “hierarchical inversion” where “the lowest on the totem pole is deemed a moral superior by virtue of her (previous) subordination” (75). It is not difficult to see how this ideology is designed to overturn Western civilization. The doctrine is immune from criticism: “Under social justice ideology, objective truth is a legacy of patriarchal white supremacy” (75). “Scientific evidence itself is deeded white supremacist, sexist, and patriarchal” (107). Both the Left and the Alt Right feature identity politics, but several factors differentiate them. The Alt Right’s group, White people, have a 2,500-year track record of creating civilizations, and White identity was the norm for Western societies until about half a century ago. Plus, the Alt Right generally embraces, rather than rejects, science.
It is more than a bit ironic that such irrational and totalitarian creeds as postmodern/social justice have been most successful in institutions once dedicated to free inquiry and the pursuit of empirical knowledge. From their origins in English departments they metastasized into the other humanities, then the social sciences, the life sciences, to finally challenge the last redoubt of objectivity, the physical sciences. In fact, this is where our protagonist, MR, chose to concentrate his PhD research — social studies of science, or simply, science studies.
To its critics, “Science Studies represented a stealth operation undertaken by academic leftist mischief-makers who attempted to dislodge science from its parapet in an institutional turf battle and a power play to undermine public trust in science” (77). But in the late 1990s, Rectenwald was still a loyal Leftist, and even the Sokal Hoax (1996) did not deter him from pursuing science studies.
The Sokal hoax involved a NYU physics professor who submitted a parody article to “Social Text a respected Critical and Cultural Studies periodical,” denying the reality of gravity. The essay, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was accepted at face value and published in a special “Science Wars” issue. The satirical piece, which “suggested that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct,” was characterized by its detractors as “ridiculous” and “preposterous” (78).
The Sokal hoax has not discredited science studies which remains one of the broad theoretical frameworks of critical theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. This can only be described as evidence that we are dealing with the metaphysics of a religious cult. Since refusing to accept physical reality is required to deny racial and sexual differences among humans, it is not such of a stretch to deny physical laws. One weakness in Rectenwald’s generally insightful analysis is his unwillingness to connect these dots. The author, for example, claims that the social justice movement does not have roots in the civil rights movement. It would be more accurate to see Black Lives Matter as the grandchild of Brown v. Board of Education.
Picking up our narrative: It is now the spring of 2006, MR is finishing his PhD and in the academic job market. He knew from the start that being a heterosexual White man was a handicap—a handicap he accepted with equanimity, as a given, like being 5’6” and trying out for the basketball team. The only tenure-track position offering to interview was at North Carolina Central University [NCCU] a “historically Black” college. By coincidence this was the spring of the Duke lacrosse rape hoax. The woman who made the bogus charges was a NCCU student. The author mentions this rape incident twice without referring to as a sham. At the time his main concern was that the controversy would be brought up during his campus visit. It was not.
One question Rectenwald knew would be asked was: How can you, as a White man, teach Black students? “The question implied an essentialism about African Americans, something about their essence that I as a white person did not share and could not possibly grasp. Such essentialism had been a theoretical basis for racism” (95). The author’s answer stressed his own working-class background, and his empathy with, and sympathy for, Black people. He got the job.
All his empathy could not charge reality, and NCCU and Rectenwald were not a good fit. The institution “was ranked very low. . . . Students presented some of the lowest average SAT scores of any college or university in the country” (97). Despite the author’s belief in cultural diversity, conflict was unavoidable, and when MR locked horns with a Black colleague “the charge of racism was all but inevitable” (99). The author lasted two years at NCCU, but “from the outset of my time there, I sensed hostility and resentment directed at me from black facility members. . . . The racial animus combined with the enormous difficulty involved in teaching vastly underprepared students left me exhausted and angry” (100). Fortunately for the professor, he received a job offer from NYU. So he headed north, but could not leave racial and ideological conflicts behind.
In the fall of 2015 Rectenwald chaired a hiring committee for a first-year writing and journalism position. Candidate A’s application and emails were “riddled with awkward expressions, malapropisms, misplaced punctuation, and other writing problems” (102). The author wanted to drop candidate A, a Black woman, from consideration. Another committee member, also a Black woman, became enraged by his criticism and went to the dean of liberal studies to complain. The dean then pressured Rectenwald to step down from the committee. So in a blink he went from chair to non-member, and candidate A was hired over a vastly superior male candidate. So much for “academic integrity and actual equity” (104).
By the fall of 2016 MR had overdosed on political correctness and decided that he would “no longer accede to the demands of social justice ideologues, or restrain my words, actions, or thoughts according to the demands stemming from the social justice creed” (106). He opened an anonymous Twitter account, @antipcprof and calling himself DeplorableNYUProf, to rail against the academic Left. He posted such comments as, “The ‘academy’ has officially gone ape shit. This is now merely mental illness posing as politics” (17). This in response to an article about the University of Kansas banning gorilla images on campus.
Several weeks after opening his account, he was outed by the Washington Square News, the student newspaper at NYU. Two days after that he was pressured by the head of human resources and Dean Fred Schwarzbach, the same person who dumped him from the hiring committee, to take an immediate paid medical leave of absence. “The leave was definitely punishment and I was being forced out of the classroom for my views. Period” (25). With his career gurgling down the drain, who stepped up to save the day but the mainstream media.
The New York Post closely and sympathetically covered the professor’s story. The negative publicity caused the university administration to reevaluate the situation. Not only was Rectenwald eventually reinstated, but he was made a full professor (he had been in a full-time permanent, but non-tenure track position). The professor’s experience “suggests that academic freedom and due process were more likely to prevail when external scrutiny and broader social pressure were brought to bear on academic institutions” (27). While top-level administrators practiced damage control, Leftist NYU faculty, students, and off-campus activists turned on MR with a vengeance. “With their notoriously vituperative, outrageous pack-and-attack mentality, they showed that they routinely victimize others all the while playing the victim” (30).
Although the book is about academia, Rectenwald points out that far-Left ideologies have gone mainstream, adopted by federal and state governments, major corporations, and NGOs. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, for example, states: “Most kids begin to identify strongly with gender around age 3. That includes transgender and gender-nonconforming people who also have a sense of their gender identity at this stage” (107). So we can now have toddlers advocating for transgender theory.
In his conclusion, the author speculates a little “on the reasons that social justice has been adopted so extensively — not only in education, but also information technology, mass media, the ‘deep state,’ and other corporate and state milieus. Evidence of social justice adherence in digital media firms is extensive,” as it is in journalism and advertising. The above entities “clearly find the ideology useful” (118).
The most obvious explanation is that the Left has been dominant in American society for well over a half century, so politics and culture fellow its lead. The Left is well organized, well financed, active, and motivated. Without a countervailing force it is simply easier for institutions to acquiesce than to resist the Leftist agenda. Electing a populist president might slow implementation of their goals, but it will not stop, much less reverse, social trends. Electing so-called conservatives is of no use. We see Ted Cruz, touted as the most conservative man in in senate, in a moral panic after Charlottesville, parroting the Antifa line. It is clear that cultural Marxism is the established ideology of the West. “Leftists have actually achieved their Gramscian cultural hegemony — and what a nightmare it is. Behold ‘social justice!’” (141).
Rectenwald explains that after “initially succumbing to social justice trends, organizations came to recognize that the ideology provides subsidiary benefits, including but not limited to the allegiance of new identity constituencies and disciplining of subjects, especially members of hitherto ‘privileged’ groups” (emphasis added) (118). This is as close to identifying the Left’s true objective as MR is willing to go, and he quickly changes the subject. While massive Third World immigration and transgender toddlers might seem like madness, as Polonius said referring to Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” And what better ideology to destroy a people and their culture than cultural Marxism?
The “springtime” in the title conveys Rectenwald’s belief, or at least hope, that the so-called social justice ideology has reached its peak, that there will be a counterattack by rationality and science. Earlier in the book he notes the rise and fall of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Trofim Lysenko’s theories rejected Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution. Some on the Right have called the Left’s denial of racial and sexual differences neo-Lysenkoism.
I am not as sanguine as the author. I do not see a culturally corrective sea change in the West any time soon. It is more likely that the long-term trend of increased political and social polarization will continue. It will get ugly, but such conflict is an unfortunate yet necessary step toward a new dispensation.
Rectenwald received his PhD in literary studies, and a motif of Snowflakes is the use of language to project power. The Left is obsessed with language, especially terminology—the weaponizing of words—while the Right appears tone deaf. The Left smears their enemies as Nazis and white supremacists as the Right continues to refer to their opponents as liberals and progressives, terms that could still have positive connotations. Classical liberalism, however, is all but dead on the Left, and there is nothing in their policies that will lead to social progress. The contemporary Left contains a large measure of atavism and degeneracy. Rather than the progressive Left, the author calls it the “regressive left,” a label that should be used more often. The Right needs to refer to their adversaries in clearly negative terms and use mockery and ridicule to describe the zanier aspects of the Left. It is difficult to change public discourse because the Left’s domination of news and entertainment media permits them to control the narrative, but the Right should not make their job easier.
Education transmits culture, and higher education incubates and disseminates ideas that form public policy, often funded by tax dollars. The craziness within the academy cannot be contained inside the ivory towers. Academia is a battle ground that cannot be dismissed or written off. Springtime for Snowflakes is recommended for anyone interested in the ideas animating racial and sexual politics of the twenty-first century. Though some laymen might find its detailed ideological analysis a bit tedious, the book is well suited for enlightening mainstream readers.
 See Nelson Rosit, “Assault on Psychology: Research on Race Differences Anathematized,” The Occidental Observer, Sept. 1, 2017. https//www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2017/assault-on-psychology
 The New York Post has been described as a right-of-center populist tabloid. It has the fourth largest circulation among US daily newspapers and is said to be a favorite of President Trump.