On yesterday’s Counter Points, we had as our guest the architect of the culture war we’ve been waging around “critical race theory,” right wing activist Christopher Rufo. The occasion was the release of his new book, called “America’s Cultural Revolution.” I actually read it, and so did my co-host, Emily Jashinsky. What I can say, and what I said on the show, is that as a matter of craft, of polemic, of storytelling and research, it’s unusually well done. I’ve thumbed through more than my share of right-wing hatchet jobs destined for warehouses after being bought up by a rich donor to juice the best seller rankings – and this isn’t that. As I also told him on the program, all that talent, however, ends up masking the book’s internal contradictions and the nihilistic worldview it represents. My take, I told him, is that Rufo’s work is more accurately thought of as a continuation of Lee Atwater’s famous confession from 1981:
Ryan - Really like your work, but this interview was awful. You had one of the smartest ideologues of the far right on, and you let him tell a revisionist story of the 60s that justifies the ongoing naming and purge of Marxists and Marxist influenced people from academe and other places. On Marcuse - his and other people in the Frankfurt School major contribution was a critique of consumer culture and the commodification of social life. His major liberating idea was about ***authentic*** social relationships between people and how these are destroyed in capitalism by people treating other people as commodities (objects) and not subjects with agency. This critique of capitalism was part of a larger understanding of the importance of culture in advanced capitalist societies. Consumer culture was seen as oppressive and repressive, and de-mobilized people from taking action to change things. The critical claim was that you could have formal democracy (elections, parties, debates) but still have people elect their oppressors because politicians promised to deliver more and more stuff that people could consume. Marxists and those influenced by Marxists felt it important to challenge the dominant culture with a counter-culture that focused on liberation, collective action (solidarity), de-commodification, and nurturing genuine authentic (“democratic”) social relationships. They did this critical work both in everyday life and in institutions, especially educational and other cultural institutions, where they sought to uncover the history that had been buried and forgotten. On violence - the implication of Rufo and others like him (and maybe also you a bit) is that the left violence was misguided and instigated (and then justified) by Marxist ideas. This is total bs. The violence of this period was caused by the police and the state more often than not. Read America on Fire by historian Elizabeth Hinton, which is about the many small rebellions during this period. Violence is always problematic, but understanding it, especially in political movements requires looking at who controls the means to be violent and use force. Bottom line - you let Rufo present his revisionist view of history with little if any critique of it. Now to the bigger point. People like Rufo and those involved in right-wing think tanks like Heritage are leading a purge, a new red scare, that is very very ominous and must be taken seriously as they are having lots of success. You should read the Heritage report How Cultural Marxism Threatens the United States—and How Americans Can Fight It if you have not already done so. As you heard in your interview, they view the civil rights movement and legislation as a setback for America and want to dismantle it. In fact, the civil rights movement and Great Society programs were America’s second reconstruction period where a second attempt was made to extend democracy to persons of color, especially black Americans. And as with the first reconstruction, there is an ongoing counter-reconstruction movement that is attempting to dismantle that extension of democracy. Of course this is not how Ruffo and others like him view the Great Society. As you heard they see it as an attempt by Marxist influenced people to find another oppression (racial) that they could critique and mobilize around given that the left’s ability to mobilize around economic class had failed. But this is all revisionist history. As we know, people continued to mobilize around class, the labor movement remained strong during this period, and many people wrote and thought about how race and class intersect, including the Critical Race Theory people. So in sum you and others need to be clear about what Rufo and people are doing, which is not all that hard to see as they are actively purging schools and universities in Florida and laying out their action initiatives for all to read in reports. It is fine to interview and debate with people like Rufo, but you can not let them get away with revisionist stories that they then use to justify their new McCarthyism.