Michael Rectenwald, Beyond Woke, New English Review Press, 2020 (Trade Paperback, 238 pages).
The “deplorable” Michael Rectenwald is once again detonating politically correct landmines, this time with Beyond Woke (2020), a welcome follow-up to his gem Springtime for Snowflakes (2018). There is jargon, but also many kernels of truth, so readers should persevere. Beyond Woke is worth the effort. Rectenwald seems intent on getting things off his chest and who can blame him.
Rectenwald correctly states that within the past few decades, “freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of inquiry have come under attack and are in full retreat in academia” (p. 41) and beyond, an attack spearheaded largely by radical feminists, “anti-racists”, LGBTQ activists, and others. Furthermore, radicals within the professoriate and student bodies have had their numbers augmented by the increased hiring of diversity bureaucrats, with bias reporting, safe spaces, and speech policing becoming de rigueur. This intolerance has spawned mobs of “true believers” who lash out against those perceived as threats. Even universities’ invited “guests” have been routinely shouted down, chased off stage, and/or assaulted.
Pushing back against mostly leftist ideologies has come at an enormous cost to Michael Rectenwald; a devastating emotional toll, which includes “unfriending”, personal and professional shunning, and eventual banishment from “the herd”, to which he had so long been affiliated. Also, from a pragmatic perspective, anyone pushing back may suffer the financial cost of losing one’s income and means of support. These outcomes do have serious repercussions in the “real world” outside the leftist “ivory tower”. Additionally, such chills undermine the university’s raison d’etre, which is to encourage the free flow of ideas, so as to gain knowledge through the back and forth of debate, free spirited or otherwise. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, as our old pal Hegel might have said.
Rectenwald recounts his experiences as a New York University writing professor in the fall of 2016 when his critical analysis of transgenderism, social justice, bias reporting hotlines, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and no-platforming of speakers came to a head. Backlash from his dean, the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group, and one hundred or so of his fellow faculty members ensued. He was called “alt-right”, “Satan”, “fragile white male”, and, of course, “Nazi”, an epithet that is frequently invoked, perhaps by many who have no clue what it means. Perhaps some “deconstruction” is in order.
Nazism is highly centralized, anti-grassroots, conformist, and totalitarian. Government either owns and controls the means of production or controls and imposes directives on those who own the businesses. Freedoms of speech, the press, religion, and association are verboten and there is anti-semitic persecution and genocide (an example of racism and anti-religious bigotry). Identity is based on the collective concept of race, not individual uniqueness, with imprisonment, torture, and murder awaiting political dissenters and races deemed “undesirable”. Modern Nazis would certainly hate Israel and support that Jewish state’s destruction and may plausibly take “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach by supporting - or at least sympathizing with - Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, and their sugar daddy, the Iranian theocracy. Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) would be “fashionable” for them and there would be distrust of churches and the family because they compete with the state for loyalty. It would be just like a Nazi to arrest ministers and/or fine them tens of thousands of dollars for conducting church services in violation of overreaching covid protocols.
While frequently labeled right-wing, Nazism has a great deal in common with communism. Indeed, both have much more in common with each other than either has with traditional Western liberal democracy; thereby reducing to the absurd any notion that they are one hundred eighty degrees apart on an ideological continuum.
Hence, Rectenwald’s chapter detailing his rejection of Marxism (2016) also renders nonsensical any claim that he is a Nazi. Marxism’s Nazi-like totalitarianism accompanied by its adherents’ fanatical belief in a “cause”, which often extends to attacking (verbally and/or physically) those who reject their orthodoxy was a turnoff to Rectenwald, who champions individual freedom, including freedom of speech. He is no fan of state control and appears not to harbour any animus towards religion generally or, more specifically, Judaism and, by extension, the Jewish state of Israel.
Nor is Rectenwald a totalitarian censor. He acknowledges the woke social justice warrior’s right to express his ideology, but not for it to be the only one on campus. Instead, it must be one of many ideologies freely expressed without fear of censorship or persecution.
Criticizing transgenderism is a campus tripwire that Rectenwald triggered and others trigger at their peril. But Rectenwald, to his credit, didn’t stoop to the appeasing apology that is all too prevalent, yet often futile. His accusers would have only said he was “insincere”, or he waited too long, or his “tone” wasn’t right, or he was forced into it, or the apology wasn’t good enough, so what the heck, let’s fire him anyway - just the usual stuff. Instead, he doubles down with ridicule in Chapter 15 by citing several “credible sources” (certainly not that “horrid beastly” Fox News!) which claim there are anywhere between thirty-one and one hundred twelve different genders. The New York City Commission on Human Rights (thirty-one genders) and Facebook (fifty-seven genders in the US, even more in the UK???) would never be wrong, so we can conclude that sometimes xx equals xy and sometimes xy equals xx. It is equally true that sometimes xx doesn’t equal xx and sometimes xy doesn’t equal xy. The plot thickens when we add that sometimes xx equals xx plus xy and sometimes xy equals xx plus xy. And lest we forget, it is even possible for xx to equal something other than xx or xy and xy to equal something other than xx or xy. Did you get all that? Commit us now!
Chapter 13, “Grievance Studies”, is interesting if only for trying to make sense of how this area of “study” or, perhaps more honestly, this cult of victimology, has risen to this level of academic inquiry. It is noted that ethnic and grievance studies have not gained wholehearted support (and have even been scorned) in the broader society, and by some, like Rectenwald, within the university community. Nevertheless, there seems to be no lessening of those who feel that their social identities should be placed firmly at the centre of their academic pursuits.
As an aside, it is often argued that radical ideologies, including wokeness or grievance studies, may be attempts to fill a void left vacant by the abandonment of religion. But Rectenwald points out an interesting difference between Christianity, which, elements of conformity notwithstanding, stresses how the individual can become a better person through relationships with Jesus and God, and wokeness, which emphasizes submission to and conformity with one’s group. Yet we are all individuals, all different from everyone else. Indeed, these differences perpetuate inequalities in intelligence, physical prowess, creativity, ambition, motivation, etc. And all of this is augmented by differences in interests and aptitudes, some of which may be more in keeping with market demands and, therefore, more potentially lucrative than others. Suffice it to say, any ideology or political system that deemphasizes individuals and their natural inequalities, perhaps by vainly trying to impose equality of outcome, will succeed only in disincentivising such attributes as creativity, the work ethic, and intellectual capability/potential.
Perhaps no review is complete without a criticism, however minor. Rectenwald notes that NYU has hired several less qualified academics since 2009, many with MAs, MFAs, and BAs. No detailed explanations are provided for these hirings and we are left to guess what they may be. Nevertheless, Rectenwald rightly questions the consequences for academic standards if educators lack the qualifications to teach their disciplines. What kind of message does this send to students who may question the importance of a university education when the institution appears not to respect the importance of a PhD degree or adequate qualifications for professors? In fairness, Rectenwald qualifies the above by adding that “teaching with a BA or MA degree may be possible - but only in the most exceptional cases or creative stardom” (p. 22).
Yet his treatment of MAs generally (or MFAs, MScs, etc.) may be unduly harsh. Kris remembers way back in antediluvian times when he was a freshman at Acadia University, enrolled in five full year courses. Only two of his professors had PhDs and three had MAs. One of the MAs was fifty something, presumably tenured, with more than two decades of experience, and probably had no intention of ever getting a PhD. The other two, either late twenty or early thirty-somethings, were working on PhDs. All three were employed full-time and all were competent teachers with strong command of their discipline. They were certainly capable of teaching undergraduates. Mind you, this was forty-five years ago and times change. No doubt PhDs were not as numerous then and competition today is perhaps more intense. However, an MA very well versed in her discipline with strong teaching skills ought not to be written off, even if she falls short of “creative stardom” or being an “exceptional case”.
In summing up, Beyond Woke is a needed push back against the mostly predominant ideas and almost totally encompassing ideology of wokeism that is synonymous with current universal orthodoxy practiced at most universities. Wokeism in most respects is anti-intellectual. It is a banning of the thoughtful discourse of ideas now deemed to be threatening and non-inclusive. Time spent at university ought to be and traditionally was a place of advanced learning and a pathway to achieving full maturity. There is, simply, more to this than “putting in the time” and cynically receiving a piece of parchment.
Is there another path forward and a will to change course? If we choose to remain on our current path, then we can’t be hopeful that the university will survive. There is a useful sentiment along the lines of “when you are in a hole, stop digging”. Obviously, mob rule and anti-intellectualism are alive and well and we have long since reached the point where the digging must stop. Kudos to Michael Rectenwald for courageously taking up the fight.