In the fable describing a frog slowly boiled alive, the premise is that a frog suddenly dropped into boiling water will immediately leap out, but a frog placed in tepid water, with the temperature increasing slowly, one degree at a time, will not sense the danger and will be slowly cooked to death. NYU professor Michael Rectenwald is a frog who jumped out of the pot before he was boiled alive. Rectenwald first came to fame when he was outed by NYU’s school newspaper as the previously anonymous @antipcNYUProf. His new book, Springtime for Snowflakes: ‘Social Justice’ and its Postmodern Parentage chronicles the slowly increasing temperature of the water—the ideological climate of elite universities—which nearly killed his academic career.
Taking the metaphor up a level, academia itself can be seen as the frog, and the style of thought that predominates within the institution as the water. Reading Rectenwald’s memoir about the gradual growth of social justice thinking within academia is like watching helplessly as education as we know it is slowly boiled alive. One wonders whether the temperature has increased beyond the point at which the university as an institution can survive. Schools like Evergreen and Mizzou are already in trouble. More will struggle unless this trend is recognized and reversed. And those that do not change and yet survive will continue to constrain inquiry, restrict speech, endanger knowledge-making, and suffocate the collected wisdom of human experience.
Academia is in the midst of an existential crisis. The near total hegemony the left enjoys over its institutions has turned them into tribal communities, in which most people think more or less the same way, and in which there is almost no one left to push back against the questionable orthodoxies that have metastasized there, no one to say, “hold on a minute, there may be another way to interpret this issue.” By voicing his objections in this book, Rectenwald is one of very few who have pushed back. Springtime for Snowflakes suggests that social justice ideology is far more entrenched, its reach far deeper and pervasive, and its impact far more insidious than groups like Heterodox Academy apparently realize.
The few who have pushed back share a common trait, which I will discuss below.
By most indications, Rectenwald’s educational history would seem to make him a prime candidate to become a full-on social justice warrior. Although, because of his mixed cognitive style (the trait shared by those who’ve pushed back, discussed in more detail below), he did not.
After graduating from a Catholic high school, Rectenwald studied pre-med at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. But, even as he was earning good grades and working his way through the pre-med curriculum, the life of the mind—and, in particular, the study of literature—beckoned him like a siren song. Their appeal eventually became too strong for him, and Rectenwald abandoned pre-med to become an apprentice to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
This was to become a pattern in Rectenwald’s life. After graduating from The University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Literature, he worked in advertising for nine years. But, upon becoming financially established, Rectenwald decided to abandon this second successful endeavor and return to the life of the mind, eventually earning an M.A. in English Literature from Case Western Reserve, followed by a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie-Mellon. As he describes it:
The story of my postmodern education begins with a successful escape—from the “prison house” (Frederic Jameson) of corporate America—where I had been consigned for nine years—and into what I took for the last remaining haven of intellectual independence—academia.
Early in his graduate studies, Rectenwald encountered the first signs of the social justice thinking that would engulf academia. Studying under Martha Woodmansee, who practiced “new historicism,” Rectenwald noted that such an approach
can veer toward an environmental determinism that portrays human beings as hapless objects of circumstance. As for the “genius” of a “great writer,” like Herman Melville for example, it could be cultivated on an ordinary tomato plant, given the right soil and other environmental conditions.
Woodmansee assigned readings like Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and The Culture of Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The latter essay, Rectenwald confesses, “hacked into my head and planted a bug.”
If Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay was a bug, then Rectenwald’s innate cognitive style, with its partially idealist tendency, was a relatively receptive cognitive algorithm. The environment of academia was the operating system that allowed such thinking to run with minimal interruption.
Springtime for Snowflakes is much more than just a memoir of Rectenwald’s experiences at the hands of postmodern inquisitors. It’s a history of postmodern thinking, a survey of the movement’s prominent thinkers, summaries of their main ideas, trenchant analyses of those ideas, a summing up of the movement’s current thinking, and a critique. It describes the intellectual lineage of concepts like cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech as violence. We learn from Rectenwald the thinking behind postmodern concepts such as deconstruction, toxic masculinity, biologism, standpoint epistemology, social constructivism, radical constructivism, transgender theory, etc.
Rectenwald’s grasp of postmodern thinking is wide and deep, which makes his critique all the more devastating. As such, the book constitutes an argument and supporting evidence in favor of the cognitive theory of politics, which in turn is an explanation of the psychology behind the thinking Rectenwald describes.
According to the cognitive theory of politics, the crux of the ideological divide is not what people think, it’s how they think—the cognitive processes from which viewpoints follow. The political left and right are best understood as psychological profiles—ways of thinking—which in turn influence the viewpoints each side tends to hold. In his book, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, Arthur Herman identifies the two predominant cognitive styles and traces them through 2,400 years of human history. Plato and Aristotle serve as emblems for them, as the following passage from Herman nicely summarizes:
Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it.
The psychological profile of the political left leans toward Platonic idealism, while the right has a greater tendency toward Aristotelian empiricism. Under the former, everything in the real world is but a pale imitation of its potential ideal being, and it is incumbent upon the enlightened, with their special abilities, to describe the ideal and help others to approach it. Since John Locke, such idealism has involved belief in the blank slate model, in which human thought and behavior are the products of the social environment and can be perfected once the right environmental conditions have been properly established. This is the world of Plato’s Republic and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The political right, on the other hand, gravitates toward Aristotelian empiricism, which operates under the assumption that, while striving to improve the world is desirable, reality places hard limits on what is possible. We risk catastrophe if we do not remain cognizant of these limits.
Academia is nothing if not an idealist environment of mind. In that milieu, Rechtenwald found himself unconstrained by the realities of his early years, during which time he had worked for his father in home remodeling: where walls, ceilings, and floors were often not square, and the material world appeared to conspire against the best intentions of producing a perfectly-constructed kitchen.
The academic environment is naturally attractive to minds like Rectenwald’s, possessing as he did a cognitive operating system partially predisposed toward the Ginsbergian freethinking of Platonic idealism, where the only limit is the imagination:
The allure of postmodern theory’s différance overwrote any impulse I may have had for theoretical closure. If becoming a “theory head,” as it had earlier been called, required a thorough understanding of Marxism and Critical Theory, it also required a more than a passing familiarity with postmodern theory. The latter supplemented one’s tool kit and might provide escape hatches from the “totality,” like Ginsberg’s poetry had done for me previously—a space for “the play of signifiers,” a “ludic” valve for letting off the pressure of systemic steam.
What’s more, freethinking feels good. Psychology Today has summarized multiple studies that suggest that creativity and the feeling that one has gained a new insight feel psychologically rewarding. People on the ideological left tend to score higher on the personality traits of openness to new ideas and novelty-seeking. This can turn the attractiveness of academia and the concomitant endeavor of freethinking into an addiction. People spending years of study to obtain an advanced degree—and then pursue a career within academia—can remind one of lab mice, constantly pushing a lever to receive a never-ending flow of food pellets or drugs.
It’s not difficult to understand how, in the relative peace and prosperity after World War II, the percentage of people within academia who were Platonic (vs. Aristotelian) thinkers would gradually increase. As Charles Murray and Bill Bishop describe in their books, Coming Apart and The Big Sort, human beings have a strong tendency to self-segregate into groups of individuals similar to themselves. The freethinking environment of academia and the cognitive style of Platonic idealism are a match made in heaven.
The flourishing of social justice thinking within academia seems almost inevitable. If academia is a greenhouse, then Platonic thinking is the fertile soil and “Imagine”-like “unconstrained” ideas are the seeds.
The multiple anecdotes in Springtime for Snowflakes, relating Professor Rectenwald’s experiences as he progressed through his academic career, appear like the developmental stages of a plant, from seed to flower. From the historical example of Lysenkoism in the USSR; through the observation of the “willy-nilly” imposition of political desiderata upon literature by literary critics involved in identity politics; to recollections of the Sokal hoax in science studies (in which science itself, like gender, is held to be a social construct and a power center from which to control and oppress others); and so much else, Rectenwald traces the flowering of social justice and his own growing disaffection with the movement. Yet these encounters seem quaint and anachronistic compared with today’s hysterical proclamations that any idea with which one disagrees is tantamount to “hate speech,” that hate speech is literally murder, and that anyone to the right of a social justice warrior is a Nazi.
This book-length compendium of overwhelming anecdotal evidence proves that it’s not what we think—our viewpoints—that divides us, but how we think: the cognitive operating systems from which our viewpoints naturally follow.
Ronald Reagan was famous for his communication style, which bypassed, or did an end-run around, the intellectual gatekeepers of the mainstream media, and spoke directly to the people. Postmodern thought, which is to say the psychological profile of Platonic idealism, performs the same trick, but with different players. Instead of leapfrogging over the intellectual gatekeepers, it jumps past enlightenment norms of reason and evidence and appeals directly to human nature’s base instincts of jealousy, envy, and recrimination. The book exposes the roots of postmodern thinking in self-centered narcissism.
Professor Rectenwald nails the essence of the cognitive style of Platonic idealism in this summary of social justice thinking:
The social and linguistic constructivist claims of social justice ideologues amount to a form of philosophical and social idealism that is enforced with a moral absolutism. Once beliefs are unconstrained by the object world and people can believe anything they like with impunity, a pretense of infallibility becomes almost irresistible, especially when the requisite power is available to support such idealism. In fact, given its willy-nilly determination of truth and reality on the basis of beliefs alone, philosophical and social idealism necessarily becomes dogmatic, authoritarian, anti-rational, and effectively religious. Since it sanctions no push-back from the object world, which it regards with indifference or disdain, it necessarily encounters push-back from the object world and must double-down. Because it usually contains so much nonsense, the social and philosophical idealism of the social justice creed must be established by force, or the threat of force.
There’s a direct unbroken psychological lineage from Platonic idealism; through the Cult of Reason and the Terror of late eighteenth-century century France; to the purgings and cleansings of communism, fascism, and national socialism; and to today’s social justice warriors and their terrorist faction, Antifa.
The overall message of Springtime for Snowflakes is that the situation is far worse than we might think. Springtime for Snowflakes makes it abundantly clear that emotional thinking divorced from the object world is not merely a façade adorning academic life, as Heterodox Academy’s pleas for viewpoint diversity suggest. Rather, it is a virus that has infected the very operating system of academia. Diverse viewpoints are immaterial if everyone is infected with the same virus.
In light of this, many current efforts to bridge the ideological divide and bring civility back to academia and public discourse severely underestimate the depth of the problem. Consequently, the solutions they recommend seem like bringing a squirt gun to a five-alarm blaze.
It has taken decades for the infection to spread; it will likely take equally long for an effective treatment to eradicate it. The education system is going to have to rededicate itself to instilling Enlightenment norms of evidence and reason and conveying an accurate understanding of the realities of human nature at every level of the education system. The requisite knowledge is available. The question is whether academia has the will to heed and disseminate it?
The good news is that there seem to be at least a few people within academia, including Rectenwald, who recognize the problem and are working to correct it. Each of them, by virtue of publicly pushing back against it, have run afoul of the illiberal social justice mob. Among them are Bret Weinstein, Nicholas Christakis, Lindsay Shepherd, and Jordan Peterson.
To the best of my knowledge, each of these figures considers him or herself to be on—or to have been on—the political left. What distinguishes them from the social justice left is their cognitive style. They all show a much stronger tendency toward Aristotelian empiricism than do their social justice inquisitors.
Springtime for Snowflakes could be used as the core text for a course surveying and critiquing postmodern thinking. It is also an accessible volume for any layman who seeks to better understand the cultural trends swirling around us today. At one point, Rectenwald summarizes the social justice subject as follows: “Under the social justice worldview, everyone is locked in an impenetrable identity chrysalis with access to a personal knowledge that no one else can reach.”
As the weeks and months pass, it is becoming increasingly clear that the true wedge that is driving the Coming Apart is not ideology per se, but the contest between the cognitive styles of Platonic idealism and Aristotelian empiricism. Springtime for Snowflakes chronicles the slow, incremental process by which this bug in the software of human thought has gradually infected academia and Western culture at large.