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Shaming & Shunning, Part II: 'You Must Be a Rightwing Nut-job'

One of the many difficulties that attends a mass attack by hordes of cyber-critics is getting around to answering them. I would never try to respond to every critic, for, as the late O.W. Crane often admonished me: "If you stop for every barking dog, your path will never end." Yet I have wanted to address at least the most egregious cases and also to answer one or two of the predominate types. Mind you, I am not hereby issuing any apologies or attempting to regain any love or appreciation from my critics. I, myself, don't care what they think, frankly. What I do care about involves how others may be misled by utter misrepresentations, falsehoods, defamation and in some cases, libel. I simply do not want bald, bizarre and sometimes libelous defamations of character floating around in the simulacrum -- without providing Google an opportunity to de-list my responses, that is.

A rather non-specific characterization implicit in leftist attacks of my position has been that I am "guilty by association." The Left believes avowedly and unreservedly in guilt by association, and perhaps not unreasonably. After all, mass politics is a matter of association. Likewise, one's associations, as leftists see it, are crucial, and one has a responsibility on account of them. Indeed, one can be "charged" of apostasy on the basis of so-called associations, and associations alone.

But first, the standard-issue leftist critic does not seem to grasp that my criticism of PC and "social justice" authoritarianism represented and continues to represent -- to an even greater extent -- a criticism of mass politics en se. I'll leave that aside for the moment and simply address the apparent "charge." Because I am followed by right, right-leaning, Trump supporters, and others of whom leftists disapprove, and because I maintain friends on Facebook of these persuasions, without attacking them, I am thereby "guilty."

First, I reject the very self-arrogating claim implicit or explicit in the attacks of such presumptuous arbiters of behavior and expression. I keep a short-hand response handy that at least literally elides vulgarity: "IGAF!"

But seriously, at some point, one must reference the characteristics of these hurlers of ad hominem epithets and throw the ad hominems right back in their faces. The actually-existing Left not only attacks those on the Right. Leftists also attack those who won't attack the Right as they do. And they will do so with nearly if not the same level of vituperation, vehemence and violence that they direct at the actual Right.

According to the new New Left, toleration equals association. I reject this premise entirely -- because I am first and foremost a believer in what leftists once prized: self-determination, or, to use an unfashionable word, liberty.

resisting the tribe

Meanwhile, the assumption represents the very sort of authoritarianism that I deplore, and the main reason that I criticized in PC/SJW authoritarianism in the first place. Why would I accept other leftists' attempts to control and "bully" me? I have retained friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook -- of many political persuasions. The only requirement is that they do not troll or otherwise attempt to torture me for what I do or do not say. I issue no ideological or political litmus tests other than one. If a person or group of people cannot tolerate what I say, then they should leave me alone. If they persist in harassing me, I will show them the door. No, this is not a contradiction on my part; it is not tantamount to censorship. You can say whatever you want within constitutional limits -- which are very broad, by the way. That doesn't mean I have to listen to what you say. Leftists seem to be under the mistaken impression that the speech of others carries the compulsion on the part of audiences to attend to it. No wonder they try so desperately and violently to no-platform expression that they do not like, or, in some cases, do not quite understand.

My sharp "anti-SJW turn" hinged and continues to hinge on this very point. The "tipping point" was the afternoon last fall when I posted an article on Facebook about the University of Michigan student who, when given a carte blanche pronoun preference opportunity, selected "His Majesty." I posted the link simply because I thought, and still think that the satirical trope hilariously underscores the absurdity of gender and pronoun proliferation, and the institutional lunacy that attempts to keep pace with it. I don't care about the student's political persuasion. He had a point, and made it brilliantly.

I then proceeded to teach for the rest of the afternoon. By the time I noticed the pandemonium, it was too late to manage it. A sustained, billowing, vitriolic, and histrionic reaction had ensued. Hundreds upon hundreds of condemnatory threads and sub-threads multiplied beneath the link. Dozens and dozens of Facebook friends had sent private messages, demanding explanations and retractions. I was accused of betrayal, "discursive violence," and transphobia. Many people unfriended and blocked me.

This was my social justice tipping point. I decided “never again.” I would no longer accede to the demands of social justice ideologues, or restrain my words, actions, or thoughts according to demands stemming from the social justice creed.

And, as my forthcoming book will elaborate, I am a fierce critic of contemporary transgenderism -- that is, of the belief structures that underwrite transgender ideology. But my criticisms of transgenderism do not thereby make me a transphobe. A leap like this requires a category mistake of the sloppiest kind. I believe transgender theory or transgenderism represents a seriously mistaken creed, philosophically and otherwise. It is a mistaken ideology that happens to be attended by pernicious consequences. Such criticism no more makes me transphobic than criticizing Scientology makes the critic, a priori, a hater of individual Scientologists.

To return to the main path of my argument, my public criticisms of social justice ideology and politically correct authoritarianism have resonated with large swaths of the political Right. I gained a sizeable new audience and support network – through Twitter, Facebook and via hundreds of supportive emails – from the traditional Right. I also drew backing from “cultural libertarians,” as Paul Joseph Watson dubbed this newly-emergent “counterculture.” It should come as no surprise that many Trumpists backed me, especially given Trump’s regular (although non-specific) criticisms of political correctness.

Criticism of political correctness was supposed to be the exclusive province of the rightwing. For most observers, it was almost inconceivable that an anti-P.C. critic could come from another political quarter. Unsurprisingly, then, the majority of people who discovered my case, including some reporters, simply assumed that I was a conservative. As one Twitter troll put it: "You're anti-P.C.? You must be a rightwing nut-job."

But as I have explained on numerous occasions in several interviews and essays, I was not a Trump supporter; I was never a right-winger, or an alt-right-winger; I was never a conservative of any variety. I wasn't even a classical John Stuart Mill liberal.

In fact, for several years, I had identified as a left or libertarian communist. For reasons I will discuss briefly below, I no longer do identify as such and reject collectivist politics, whether communist or fascist, roundly and consistently. But at this point, that is, at the moment of my criticisms of ID politics and social justice authoritarianism, my politics were decidedly and publicly declared to be to the left (and considerably critical of the authoritarianism) of Bolshevism! I published essays in socialist journals on several topics, including analyses of identity politics, intersectionality theory, political economy, postmodern theory and the crisis of capitalism, and the prospects for socialism in the context of transhumanism. I became respected as a Marxist thinker and essayist.

As the financial crisis of 2008 struck, around the fall of 2008 and into the spring of 2009, I had flirted with a Trotskyist sect. Despite some areas of agreement, especially regarding Obama, and so forth, I soon found their authoritarianism and doctrinaire, hair-splitting line to be absurdist. In any case, after I shared a paper I had written in my field regarding the historical (evolutionary and familial) ancestors of Charles Darwin, the group ironically and idiotically declared my thinking to have been irremediably tainted by postmodern theory, and thus rejected my application to join the party. They had no idea what they were talking about. They thought that taking account of social context in the history of science and rightly noting that Darwinian evolutionary theory is not teleological represented "postmodernist thought." Ludicrous! I remain grateful that they spared me who-knows-how-many-otherwise-wasted years peddling a crusty and defunct Trotskyite line as if it were the indisputable gospel truth.

I later became affiliated with a loosely organized left or libertarian communist group, a group that I had believed more closely resembled my own perspective. The ultimate liberation, as Marx suggested variously, will not involve the liberation of a class or other groups, but rather the liberation of individuals to become themselves, to be full expressions of their own singularities.

It wasn’t only strangers who mistook me for rightwing or conservative. So too did many who actually knew better. I attribute a lot of the backlash to the anti-Trump mania and the reactionary fervor that gripped liberals and leftists of nearly all stripes, and still does. This "resistance," as I suggested in an earlier essay, has long ago been co-opted, if it ever had any legitimacy in the first place. It's an astro-turf movement whose prefabricated ideology is matched by the rapidity with which it produces cliche slogans and slick signage. But previously unaffiliated and warring left and liberal factions, even the "social justice" warriors and communists that had hitherto been utterly dismissive of each other, now consolidated and circled the wagons. Anyone who failed to signal complete fidelity to “the resistance” risked being savaged. I wouldn't and thus I was.

After my appearance on Fox Business News, such rabid ideologues ambushed me. The social-justice-sympathetic members of the left communist group to which I "belonged" denounced me in a series of group emails. Several members conducted a preposterous cyber show-trial, bringing charges against me on a number of alleged transgressions. From what I could tell, my offences included appearing on Fox News, sounding remotely like a member of an opposing political tribe, receiving positive coverage in right-leaning media, and criticizing leftist milieus just as Trump became President.

I denied that these self-appointed judges held any moral authority over me and declared their arbitrations null and void. Meanwhile, the elders of the group (supposed friends of mine) had remained silent, allowing the abuse to go on unabated for a day. When they finally chimed in, they called for my official expulsion. I told them not to bother as I wanted nothing further to do with them; I quit. In their collectivist zeal, they later stripped my name from three essays that I’d written for publication on their website, and assigned their authorship to someone else entirely. Upon discovering this fraudulence, I publicly berated them for plagiarism. A prominent member of the American Association of University Professors noticed my complaint and investigated the alleged breach of intellectual integrity. Verifying my authorship of the essays, he condemned the group's actions in a popular blog. Only then did the benevolent dictators return my name to the essays' mastheads.

Friends and acquaintances from other communities also turned on me with a vengeance, joining in the group-think repudiation. After my appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News, the Twitter attack was so fierce, vitriolic, and sustained that my associate Lori Price and I spent a whole night blocking and muting tweeters.

Even to this day, former friends and acquaintances continue defaming me and misrepresenting my views, while ascribing intentionality to my actions and their outcomes as if I had masterminded some sinister plot. They ascribe to me an ambition to become "famous" at any cost, a willingness to sacrifice principle for popularity. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I risked my career and reputation to express what I actually thought, thoughts I have since developed further.

An essay posted by Ross Wolfe on his blog and written by Juraj Katalenac provides the most recent example of this kind of mendacious, reckless, and libelous imputation to me of political malice and naked opportunist ambition.* As much as I loathe providing it exposure, I will quote from the essay, entitled "Intellectual Imperialism." But first, I must note that the hypocrisy embedded in the title and post is stunning. It suggests a criticism of intellectual imperialism of some sort. Huh? As if the author does not hope and work for a day when the author's essay(s) might become "hegemonic," when it spreads as far and wide as possible and "colonizes" whatever ideological and mental space it can possibly penetrate, while carrying the author's name with it. In any case, Katalenic merely repeats and extrapolates from a vulgarized and completely errant version of events propagated by U.S. leftists. Katalenic's reiteration of the same, tired, and baldfaced lies promulgated by "American Thought" makes the essay all the more ironic. Katalenac merely reproduces the very same vulgarized "American Thought," precisely while complaining about it:

Social networks are crucial for spreading of 'American thought' not only because they promote simplified expression, but also they are simplifying language itself which suits this narrative of theoretical simplification and impoverishment. Also, social networks allow certain academics, who have not published anything genuine or important in their lives and that cannot even grasp the basics of their own academic disciplines, to gain attention and a following just by saying “shocking things” on the Internet. I am talking about cases such as George Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets about 'white genocide' or Michael Rectenwald's stunt to get tenured employment at New York University. Narcissistic need for constant attention is certainly one of the most important missions of “American thought,” but unlike academia of the past it is unable to fulfill its basic social purpose: to educate and to develop theory. Even though, one could point out that they are still developing theory that serves the agenda of the ruling class in this present capitalist epoch with its identitarian and individualist discourse. Also, this narcissism is present in activist circles too. Some of the worst examples of this were the various “thinkpieces” surrounding the recent murder of Heather Heyer.

As I responded in the comment section below the post, Katalenac's pot shot is both factually errant but also tonally condescending and beneath contempt. Further, the statement betrays a blatant and transparent ressentiment. Has Katalenic ever even published a single book? I have published four scholarly books, two of which are used in classes all over North America. I have also published two books of poetry and a book of short stories. Eh, the comment says enough.

Wow, Katalenac gives me far too much credit. If this had been a planned operation, I would have to be a mastermind. But it wasn’t planned and Katalenac makes two wrong statements about it.

1) I did not get “tenured employment” at NYU. I did receive a promotion from “Assistant Professor” to “Professor” (full professor). I got a promotion and a raise. But there's no tenure in my program, so that was not an option and I didn’t receive it.

2) I had applied for the promotion in April 2016, over six months before my kerfuffle over PC/social justice authoritarianism. My application portfolio was unparalleled among the other applicants in my program. I had published three books in one year. None of the other applicants came even remotely close to that. I had published in top Cambridge University Press periodicals and anthologies...[Cut comments about the journals my "colleagues" have published in...I shouldn't have deigned to remark on them.] I had the idea for the first international conference (on secularism) hosted by our program. The proposal was accepted. I chaired it and ran the whole thing. It was a major success. Scholars from around the world presented. I produced an anthology on the basis of the conference.

So while on the one hand Katalenic gives me credit for being some sinister and successful schemer, as if I had planned this entire scenario and predicted how it would end, on the other, Katalenic is clueless about the actual conditions of my promotion, and the fact that of nineteen other applicants, who all received the promotion by the way, my application was unparalleled in terms of accomplishments, and that includes my excellent teaching evaluations. (Errata corrected here but not on his blog as it has no edit function.)

Katalenic should get get the facts straight before spouting off erratically. These kinds of ideologically-induced and libelous lapses are unfortunate, in an otherwise interesting essay.

Katalenac's remarks merely represent one of the most explicit statements to the same, spurious effect. Many others drew similar conclusions with no knowledge of context, or me, my career history, or anything. These include a post on Libcom.org, suggesting that I was "doing a Christopher Hitchens." The post is followed by comments by others, who, without the slightest knowledge base about me or the institutional context in which I have worked, make the same baseless and libelous claims, even, like other leftists, endorsing the version of events surrounding my case given by the institutional behemoth, NYU -- NYU, whose "ethical standards" have been well-illustrated and documented by me and others, especially my good friend, Mark Crispin Miller.

But the worst treatment came from the NYU Liberal Studies community – to which I had contributed a great deal, and of which I had striven for years to be a well-regarded member. Soon after the open letter appeared two days after my interview (see "Shaming & Shunning," Part I), I recognized a virtual universal shunning by my faculty colleagues. One after another, colleagues unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. The few that didn’t simply avoided me entirely, until I saved them the trouble and unfriended them. Most stinging were the betrayals of those who once relied on my generosity, some whose careers I had supported and considerably advanced.

Despite the harsh treatment doled out to me by the social justice Left and the warm reception I received from the Right, I did not become a right-winger, or a conservative. But after the social-justice-infiltrated Left showed me its gnarly fangs and drove me out, I could no longer identify as a leftist. Yet I also resist the libertarian label, even though the denotation of the term addresses many of my concerns.

Part of the problem is that our conventional political vocabulary has been adulterated beyond recognition – utterly ruined. In any case, I no longer feel at home in any political grouping. I am committed to and believe that the ultimate liberation is liberation of and into the singularity of the individual, the emergence of the autonomy to become who one wants to be. I cannot adopt a label or declare an allegiance to a political perspective without feeling that I would thereby misrepresent my viewpoint and reality itself. What this makes me is a specimen of a vastly outnumbered, widely dispersed, and still uncharted breed – a political animal with a (weakened) herding instinct, yet without a herd.
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*Note: An earlier version of my installment here attributed the essay "Intellectual Imperialism" to Ross Wolfe. The essay was written by Juraj Katalenac and reposted by Wolfe on his blog, with an introduction. I missed this fact as I skipped to the libelous bit about me. I apologize to Ross Wolfe for the mistake.

Meanwhile, Katalenac's essay betrays an utter ignorance of my case that is somewhat excusable owing to the author's distance from the context.

To be continued...

Michael Rectenwald is a Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University and author of seven books, including Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (2016), Academic Writing, Real World Topics (2015), and Global Secularisms in A Post-Secular Age (2015). A prominent spokesperson for academic freedom and free speech, he has published widely and has appeared in numerous national and international media venues regarding politically correct authoritarianism and social justice ideology. He is currently working on a memoir tracing his encounters with the postmodernist theoretical precursors of social justice ideology. Follow him on Twitter @antipcnyuprof.

Copyright 2017, Michael Rectenwald and CLG News, www.legitgov.org. Any reproduction of this essay without permission is prohibited by law.