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Springtime for Snowflakes (A Review)

July, 2020
By John C. Huckans

Michael Rechtenwald is an academic who after setting sail on an academic career as professor of liberal studies at a well-known eastern university, gradually learned he had signed up to crew on what some people might call a ship of fools.  Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and Its Postmodern Parentage  [London & Nashville: New English Review Press, 2018] is an unusual blend of a memoir of his formative years growing up in a working class home in Pittsburgh; the undergraduate gap-period interlude at the Naropa Institute where he served as an apprentice and teaching assistant to Allen Ginsburg who ran Naropa and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in a store-front location on Pearl St. in Boulder, Colorado during the 1970s; his post-graduate studies at Case Western Reserve and Carnegie Mellon universities; unusual experiences as a professor at NYU; and an appendix comprised of a mix of initially anonymous social media postings that got him into hot water with many of his colleagues.

Rechtenwald's father was an independent contractor who ran his remodeling business from the family home on Waldorf Street on Pittsburgh's north side.  When it came time for high school his father tried to enroll Michael in the exclusive Shadyside Academy, considered the city's best prep school at the time, and the headmaster's discouraging response “... although I believe your son would do well here academically, I'm afraid that he wouldn't fit in... socially...” probably influenced his later decision to pursue Marxist critical theory.  At any rate he was subsequently enrolled in St. Fidelis, a Catholic boarding seminary attached to a Capuchin monastery, but two years of near monastic life were too much… “by spring of sophomore year, when I showed my spiritual adviser love poems I'd written for Carol Sajko, a girl back home, I had already decided to leave”.  He finished high school at Pittsburgh North Catholic.

During his gap period at Naropa, at first he “was afraid of the strangeness in the New Ageist, Eastern-spiritual, patchouli-scented, Carlos-Castaneda-mountain-peak-hopping, mushroom-tripping, floatation-tank-filled Boulder and its Naropa epicenter. So I clung to Ginsberg, who at least seemed familiar, and regularly ate matzo ball soup in the nearby New York Deli. That Allen Ginsburg was perhaps the least bizarre person around should tell you much about Naropa ...”

As Ginsburg's apprentice and teaching assistant “I typed his poems while he looked over my shoulder and screamed if I made the lines break where I thought they should, rather than at the end of the page... helped with the editing of the long-verse anthology that included Mayakovski and Neruda...” And so on. One of his most unusual duties was taking care of “Billy” while Ginsburg left for a poetry reading tour of India, China and other countries in the far east. “Billy” was William S. Burroughs Jr., son of the Beat novelist, William Burroughs II, and whose only published work, as far as I can tell, was the co-authored Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr., which was published not long after he died from cirrhosis at age 33.

Later, in a graduate school paper entitled Radical Niche Marketing: Allen Ginsberg, Postmodernism, The Body and the Media, Rechtenwald argued that Ginsburg prefigured and probably contributed to the Postmodern movement, while hedging his conclusions by noting “his poetry and politics had roots in a much older, liberal humanist tradition that stems back to the Protestant Reformation”. In Springtime for Snowflakes... he re-accesses somewhat — “...were he alive today, I believe that Ginsburg would be utterly appalled by and severely critical of the social justice left's authoritarian character – its censorious, censoring, and prohibitionist proclivities.”

Before pursuing post-graduate studies full time, Rechtenwald worked in the advertising business for several years to support his growing family, all the while reading intensively, submitting his poetry and short fiction to literary magazines, and finally achieving a level of recognition by being published in William Packard's New York Quarterly. He took this as a sign to escape from the “prison house” of corporate America into what he thought was “the last remaining haven of intellectual independence – academia.” Years later he would learn that academia demanded more conformity than any other corporate field — you not only have to conform to the prevailing social ideology but “must rehearse and recapitulate it without fail... otherwise you are deemed politically regressive.”

At any rate, during this period “cultural studies” (cultural criticism), sometimes formalized as Critical Theory and Media Studies, was expanding on many of the Marxist ideas of Adorno, Marcuse, et al. of the Frankfort School, just as later on “science studies” would outlandishly attempt to subsume the disciplines of genuine science. A lot of this was taking place in the English departments, where individual authorship and early texts were becoming de-emphasized as toxic relics of the past — to be replaced by an amorphously-produced “cultural product”. Words are simply words with no real meaning beyond themselves, yet “postmodern theory” and “deconstructionism” were two words signifying a sort of secret handshake known only to the people who invented the construct. You get the idea.

Other examples of irony abound and in citing a New York Times article by Christy Wampole, Rechtenwald comments “By making fun of themselves, ads, politicians, and television shows preempt criticism and assure the complicity of consumers, voters and audiences... the sitcom The Office works by shamelessly exposing its characters' meaningless lives, thus preempting criticism of the show's frivolous plot-lines...”

And in an elaborate hoax that not many people have heard of, NYU physicist Alan Sokal ultimately lampooned an entire field of study in the summer 1996 issue of Social Text, a critical theory and cultural texts periodical. This amazing story is best told in Rechtenwald's own words:

In the October 2, 1995 issue of The Nation, NYU Critical Theory professor Andrew Ross reported on the science advocacy conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences called The Flight from Science and Reason. Ross dismissed the conference speakers' attacks on Science Studies... (and) demeaned the science boosters by calling them “Science Warriors,” mere carnival barkers of science conservatism (who) caricatured Science Studies scholars as boffo nihilists who deny outright the existence of natural phenomena like recessive genes or even the law of gravity... (whereupon) NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted a parody to Social Text... (and) the editors... (unsuspectingly) ran the piece in a special “Science Wars” spring/summer issue in 1996.

Sokal's Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was the final article in the issue... (and) Sokal demonstrated as possible exactly what Ross had dismissed as preposterous – that Science Studies might go so far as to deny the reality of gravity. Sokal managed to put the hoax past Ross himself, who had so recently denied the prospect as outrageous. Transgressing the Boundaries... suggested that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct and that one could understand quantum mechanics with postmodern theory. Sokal satirically criticized his fellow scientists, because they accepted “the dogma imposed by the long post-enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole...”  Littered with jargon and excessive citations of postmodern theorists and signaling radical relativism... with every turn of phrase, Sokal's essay mimicked Science Studies so successfully that even given knowledge of the hoax, I wasn't sure just where it merely strained credulity as opposed to being patently ridiculous...

At any rate, Sokal allowed the article to marinate a while in the minds of the science studies community before announcing some months later in Lingua Franca that the entire paper was a hoax. Ross and his colleagues were not amused. Rechtenwald then goes on to suggest that the entire dust-up presaged current social justice positions, including those that assert “facts of biology have nothing to do with the reality of gender identity.” And so on.

His teaching experiences at North Carolina Central University, Duke and NYU provide more interesting insight into intradepartmental politics on university campuses than what many institutions would care to admit.  Although shunned by many of his colleagues at NYU, Rechtenwald has been supported by a growing avant-garde of gad-fly intellectuals and academics including NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (founder of the Heterodox Academy), Gad Saad, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein and others. Responding to Haidt's suggestion that he soften his tone and use less incendiary and more conditional language that might resemble [George Jacob] Holyoake's approach to Secularism, Rechtenwald's response has been that he will continue to use both — the language of the academy, when appropriate, and in some cases the more direct and to-the-point language of social media. His social media postings are sometimes suggestive of the pithy, aphoristic styles of Eric Hoffer (The True Believer; Reflections on the Human Condition, etc.) and Montaigne, a few of which are appended for your consideration.

From Twitter:

“Diversity is a code word for uniformity of thought” (March 7, 2017)

“Romantic utopianism is the opiate of the leftists” (February 28, 2017)

“The moon is the sun because I say it is. And if you disagree, you're a bigot” (February 25, 2017)

“Social justice ideologues both inside and outside of academia do not make arguments or have what we can call thoughts. They merely piece together vacuous plug-n-play social justice phrases like children playing w/blocks – only they're less creative than children.” (January 31, 2017)

“Much of what passes for scholarship in the humanities & social sciences amounts to highly formalized virtue-signaling rituals.” (20 May, 2017)

From Facebook:

“The postmodernist is like a person attempting to milk a tree. When asked why he is trying to milk a tree, he responds that the word 'tree' is an arbitrary designation and bears no necessary correspondence with the object designated as such. The word to designate what we call a 'tree' could very well have been the word 'cow'. Thus, he proceeds to milk the tree, I mean 'cow.' (August 14, 2017)

“Trumpism represents the scraps of identity politics that the Democrats left for dead.” (August 19, 2017)

“The educational system in North America is a giant SJW sausage factory.” (August 24, 2017)

“I don't require that my friends pass ideological litmus tests or recite shibboleths & slogans. If anything, I demand that they don't. I demand that they think.” (November 6, 2017)

“It's official: I am a cultural and social libertarian.” (November 14, 2017)

At 174 pages Springtime... is a deceptively short memoir, yet dense with analysis and explication of postmodern theory as it relates to the present day anti-intellectual social justice movement, which at its core essentially proposes the accusatory “I feel therefore you are” as its anthem.  With apologies to Descartes.