Michael Rectenwald, Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and its Postmodern Parentage; New English Review Press; Nashville, London; 2018; Trade Paperback; 174 pages.
Professor Michael Rectenwald mercifully retired in 2019, but not before publishing Springtime for Snowflakes (2018), a slim gem of a personal odyssey detailing years of ideological indoctrination, plus problems encountered when he had finally had enough and began running afoul of campus social justice zealots, who continue to bully and silence those who dissent from their orthodoxy. While the book is sometimes opaque, especially when discussing postmodernism, politically incorrect readers may appreciate much of what this author says if they stick with it. Springtime..... isn’t exactly an eight-hundred page tome.
In any event, Rectenwald was teaching first-year writing at New York University when he established a Twitter account, @antipcnyuprof, in September, 2016. Horror of horrors, he proceeded to criticize transgenderism, identity politics, no-platforming, speech policing, bias reporting hotlines, diversity, and other politically correct sacred cows, including trigger warnings and safe spaces, which are supposedly required to protect poor dear snowflakes from the likes of Christina Hoff Sommers and Milo Yiannopoulos. Shame on you, Michael Rectenwald.
He outed himself several weeks later by giving a refreshingly candid interview to his campus newspaper, Washington Square News. Aforementioned politically correct landmines were detonated and a firestorm ensued.
A meeting was scheduled with the Dean of Liberal Studies, plus the head of Human Resources and, while at this meeting, Rectenwald assented when reportedly encouraged (coerced?) to take a medical leave, all of this on the heels of a denunciation letter to Washington Square News, courtesy of the university’s Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group. What a handle! Might they have taken Jordan Peterson to heart by not placing “inclusion” ahead of “equity”? Of course, inclusion, equity, and diversity (IED) is also fitting.
“Friends” and colleagues piled on and Rectenwald was the recipient of angry tweets. OMG (!!), he even appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, thus torpedoing whatever was left of his “cool” cred.
How did we descend to this? Rectenwald traces the roots of this politically correct social justice tyranny to postmodernism, a nihilistic philosophy that denies objective truths, even conceptions of right and wrong, all while holding western civilization in contempt. He too was seduced by left wing ideology (where “pomo” has its roots) in the late seventies and early eighties when he, an idealistic pre-med undergraduate and aspiring poet, became a fan and student of counter-culture leftist poet, Allen Ginsberg. Even recently, he described himself as “left of the Bolsheviks” and, for good measure, a “libertarian communist”, whatever the heck that is (unless it is believing in that glorious day when the “arc of history” finally leads us to a brave new global utopia where everyone is perfect all the time, thereby eliminating any need for a government to enact and enforce laws.
Mention is also made of Rectenwald’s Catholic working class upbringing in Pittsburgh, where snobbery reared its ugly head when he was deemed not the right type for a toney prep school. Might this have contributed to his Marxist sensibilities? There is scant reference to his Roman Catholic faith subsequent to high school, which suggests that it ceased to be instrumental, especially since it didn’t dovetail with communism.
A nine year broadcast advertising career, post BA, left Rectenwald unfulfilled and this, coupled with a love of reading, ultimately helped prompt his return to academe. Left wing perspectives held firm during this period, perhaps in part thanks to literary tastes, which included Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.
Graduate and postgraduate training in the nineties and early two thousands piled it higher and deeper. New historicism, a deterministic creed which ultimately deemphasizes personal responsibility, was supplemented by the works of Marcuse again, with his “repressive tolerance”, plus fellow Frankfurt School Marxists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who co-authored a scathing critique of capitalism, arguing that it stressed conformity to (lowbrow?) mass culture, thus rendering individuals “walking-talking replicas of the system itself” (p. 53).
Writings by Derrida, Foucault, and other seventies-era French postmodernists added more gasoline to the fire. And all of this was augmented by notions of oppressor and oppressed categories based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences, with Western civilization, males, and heterosexuals seemingly responsible for much of the world’s ills. How could Rectenwald or anyone else subjected to such an onslaught not become a far-left postmodernist?
Indeed, many indoctrinated in similar milieus become social justice warriors who teach in public or post-secondary institutions, thereby perpetuating the cycle. But even SJWs who aren’t educators comprise a critical mass with significant influence (as employers, employees, consumers or clients) in such areas as popular culture, sports, and the media, plus the legal, corporate, government, and tech sectors.
Rectenwald notes that some social justice warriors schooled in identity politics and group grievance believe the oppressed should replace presumably privileged oppressors at the top of the hierarchy. Question their “pet assumptions” and you, like the “oppressors” may be individualized and demonized with cruel labels (mean-spirited, racist, misogynist, transphobe, fascist, etc), perhaps even physically attacked. This is so much easier than debating, especially when you may not know enough (or be too lazy) to intelligently defend your position, all while disrespecting many who have worked hard and earned whatever they have achieved and/or accumulated. What better term than “snowflake” to describe those who are so childish as to throw tantrums when confronted with speech or ideas they dislike.
We can also condemn social justice ideology as a race to the bottom, where groups jockey for positioning in a victims’ hierarchy. May the most oppressed “win”, a situation further complicated with the advent of “intersectionality”. Here, a visible minority individual who is gay and disabled is preferred to someone who is a visible minority and gay, but not disabled. Likewise, the bloke who is a visible minority and gay rates higher than the unfortunate soul who is “merely” a visible minority and one of those dreaded heterosexuals. All of this makes urgent the question: who “wins” between gay visible minorities and disabled visible minorities? What can you do? Why not deemphasize group identity with its (mis)perceived baggage and judge individuals by “the content of their character”, their merits and demerits?
Childlike make-believe also thrives with Rectenwald citing the University of Michigan’s decision allowing students to choose their personal pronouns and henceforth be addressed accordingly. One hopes the “guardians” realized the joke was on them when one especially clever pupil chose “his majesty”.
Last but by no means least, we have transgender theory where “belief claims trump empirical evidence” (p. 107) and biological reality. Some with male genitalia claim to be women while others with female genitalia claim to be men. Like personal pronouns, this is the child’s world of make-believe and wishful thinking. Even worse, it denies objective biological truths. Yet anyone publically critical of such claims, as Rectenwald is/was, does so at his peril.
A cautionary note: studies indicate that most gender-confused children and adolescents will sort things out and accept their “accident of birth” biological gender by the time they reach adulthood. Other than counselling, it might often be best to leave well enough alone prior to maturity, or at least not opt for radical solutions. On the other hand, competent adults making informed choices ought to be free to pursue gender reassignment and, if medically cleared, have their gender status officially changed upon completion of necessary medical procedures.
Be all of that as it may, postmodern nonsense, coupled with the vitriol directed at him from the left for speaking his mind, convinced Rectenwald that he could no longer be a communist. But to his credit, he is fair minded, rejecting censorship and supporting the rights of SJW ideologues to freely express their views in conjunction with everyone else on campus, but not to bully and shame into silence those
with disparate views. In essence, they must not be the sole voice. This might be easier said than done, but it is heartening that others are taking up the torch. He gives shout-outs to Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad, and Bret Weinstein. And there are more, plus organizations like the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and the National Association of Scholars advocating for the same principles.
Finally, in a society seemingly dominated by postmodernism, political correctness, and SJWs, we, the great unwoke, may be forgiven for occasionally questioning how we can possibly be right when everyone else is so wrong. Thank you, Michael Rectenwald, not only for swimming upstream, but for helping us realize that it is not us, but the politically correct snowflakes and social justice warriors who have jumped from the edge of the abyss. Happy landings, folks. If you are halfway to your “utopian” destination and enjoying the rush, you will doubtless think things are great so far.