If anything should encourage you to read Michael Rectenwald’s newly published Springtime for Snowflakes, it is the political situation from which the book was born.
After revealing in 2016 that he was behind the Twitter account @antipcnyuprof, which railed against political correctness, Rectenwald was put on paid leave from New York University (NYU). To say that Rectenwald has endured a massive campaign of harassment since this moment would be an understatement. Aside from being labelled a “right-wing misogynist” and obliquely compared to Donald Trump in a series of articles, he has also been harassed by colleagues at NYU. Earlier this year, Rectenwald filed a lawsuit against NYU and four of his colleagues for “libelous statements” made in a series of profanity-laden department-wide email exchanges causing him “irreparable and significant professional harm, reputational damage, and emotional distress.”
It seems fitting that NYU—one of the institutions that set into action the thought-policing that has taken over higher education throughout the English-speaking world—should inspire such an eloquent riposte. Rectenwald’s book provides a compelling argument that intellectual discourse must remain politically non-partisan in order to stay true to the sense of freedom of conscience and expression that is central to both the American Association of University Professors’ own “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” (1915), which Rectenwald references, and the US Constitution.
Springtime for Snowflakes is not only a testament of what Rectenwald has gone through professionally and personally. It is also a portrait of the contemporary scene of academic freedom, which is anything but free, and even less academic.
Twitter Satire and Academic Scapegoating
Beginning with a chapter devoted to the Twitter account that he set up as satire, complete with a Friedrich Nietzsche avatar, Rectenwald explains how anonymity freed him from the circumspective culture of academia. He details his experiences as a professor at NYU during the previous nine years, noting the rise of “no-platforming,” whereby freedom of inquiry was anathema to the individual’s carefully curated identity and where Foucauldian surveillance shifted from the institutional to the individual level. To anyone who has worked in the academy in the United States over the past twenty years, these signs of surveillance and scapegoating are familiar, if not entirely commonplace and accepted.
Rectenwald shares many of his tweets, most of which mock the politically correct culture he is evaluating, critiquing the “sentinels of surveillance” who have dominated the academic scene at NYU at precisely the same moment when Americans were to choose the next president. During the fall of 2016, the entire country was caught up in a discursive battle between candidates, in which Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” would become Rectenwald’s battle cry against the politically correct forces he faced on social media and in his own department.
Rectenwald describes the eerie scene of being called into his dean’s office after his Twitter identity was made public. There, he is told that the meeting has “nothing to do with” his Twitter account. Yet the encounter quickly turns into a meeting over his “mental health” because of his Twitter account. Rectenwald recounts how the dean reported to him that several people had been concerned that his Twitter account was a “cry for help.” The university swiftly placed Rectenwald on paid leave.
Rectenwald elaborates the events that befell him in the months since then, noting how criticism of “political correctness was supposed to be the exclusive province of the rightwing,” adding, “For most observers, it was almost inconceivable that an anti-P.C. critic could come from another political quarter.” Rectenwald shows up the political myopia of the social justice warriors (SJW) by demonstrating their inability to honestly engage in academic debate as they rely on hyperbole and misrepresentation in calling Rectenwald a “right-wing nut-job.”
Autobiography and Literary Theory
Springtime for Snowflakes presents a critical reading of the literary theory that gave rise to political correctness, framed by an autobiographical narrative. In the earlier chapters, Rectenwald writes of his family and eight siblings. He grew up in the 1970s with a father who was a working-class home remodeler and a mother who worried about being able to feed her family. He frames his upbringing, class, and intellectual ambitions within his early Catholic education, his studies at Allegheny College and the University of Pittsburgh, and his apprenticeship with Allen Ginsberg in Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Recounting that he found Ginsberg to be the “least bizarre person around” his new community in Boulder, Rectenwald explains how the dialectical learning experience of Naropa equipped him with the language to approach material reality. He notes that Ginsberg “would be utterly appalled by and severely critical of the social justice left’s authoritarian character—its censorious, censoring, and prohibitionist proclivities.”
Rectenwald reviews the major literary and theoretical contributions to postmodern theory of the late twentieth century, such as Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition (1979) and Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). Noting that “Ideology works by transforming social relations into ‘natural’ categories,” Rectenwald is critical of this hat trick played by the superimposition of Marx, Althusser, Lyotard, and other critics, while confessing his own enchantment with postmodern theory as “both an addition to Marxism, and as a possible substitute for it.”
He covers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in their analysis of the author, ironizing their “death of the author” whereby the author is a “function of the text, a product of language, not its source.” Rectenwald’s critique of subjectivity is brilliant; he demonstrates how the primary humanities texts used since the 1980s fashion “individual personhood” as a “textual production,” connecting this conception of the self to the current transgender phenomenon.
Subjectivity itself is a function of language. This is the quintessential post-structuralist conception of “the subject,” or the human person, the self. The self is a product of text. This notion forms the basis of the transgender theoretical position that one’s gender identity depends, finally, on naming.
After studying these theoretical vanguards to earn his MA in English Literature at Case Western, Rectenwald entered the doctoral program at Carnegie Melon University. There, he was introduced to the Frankfurt School, Semiotics, Poststructuralism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, New Economic Criticism, and various feminisms. He notes the rapid increase in terms that populate his studies, all in an attempt to oppose the hegemonic order, such as “Eurocentrism,” “heteronormativity,” “essentialism,” and “positivism,” to name only a few.
Critiquing the current fascination with the gendered self, Rectenwald deftly points to the solipsism involved in an academic field where gender-critical feminists did not “mean to suggest that gender could be altered arbitrarily on the basis of individual will,” but rather that gender-critical feminism views genders as unrepentant social categories where “gender was no less real for being socially constructed.” He compares the transgender social trend current in western culture to the Sokal Affair of the mid-1990s: “The non-existence, disappearance, or insignificance of physical reality or the external world in Sokal’s piece anticipates the transgender belief that the facts of biology have nothing to do with the ‘reality’ of gender identity.”
Condemning Identity Politics
The final chapters are a condemnation of the identity politics that is proliferating in humanities departments. Rectenwald places the responsibility for this “ghost in the machine” firmly at the feet of postmodern theory, comparing transgender theory to Lysenkoism. Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko’s baseless scientific theories about agriculture and his complete rejection of modern genetics exacerbated famines that killed millions of people, but he denounced to the secret police anyone who questioned his ideas. Lysenkoism is a fitting example of how social and political idealism can be imposed on society, despite having absolutely no scientific merit—just like transgender ideology.
Rectenwald undertakes class analysis by arguing how, generally speaking, self-professed socialists are not even working class but instead are “disaffected intellectuals drawn from the petty bourgeoisie” whose political loyalties are “rooted in envy and resentment for those who have more power and resources, rather than in the purity of idealism or good will toward the working masses.” Like the SJWs studying at elite educational institutions, these theoretical Marxists will likely never understand poverty, economic precariousness, or the problems most people have in buying a home. Rectenwald shows how the political Marxist is no longer interested in critiquing class inequality but instead seeks to personalize the political by attacking individuals through “virtue signaling” and “call-outs.” This is a ritualized theatre that reflects the individual’s moral worth and displays her opponent’s supposedly evil core. In it, “the political is reduced to a textual system without ‘real’ referents or actions upon those referents, a symbolic register of virtue signaling or refusing to virtue signal.”
Scrutinizing the New Left catchphrase “the personal is the political,” Rectenwald observes that “the individual person is reduced to a mere emblem of political meaning, while politics is reduced to the political (moral) worthiness, or lack thereof, of individual persons. Politics becomes individual morality based on social justice standards.” Reviewing popular culture paradigms, Rectenwald shows how Derrida’s “there is no outside of text” is the flawed template for the social justice warrior with absolutely no connection to reality.
There are parts of this book that will irk Marxists, Leftists, Conservatives, the #MeToo crowd, and anyone who despises evolutionary biological science. And that is why I find this work refreshing: it offers pure analysis of the hokum that has created the incoherent machinery of selfhood today. Rectenwald’s Springtime for Snowflakes offers up passionate intellectual debate in a climate where the discursive righteousness, sexuality, sex, skin color, and feelings of the speaker too often matter more than the thoughts espoused.
Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: email@example.com