The Final Stages of New Leftism: From Anti-Intellectualism to Character Assassination at Evergreen State College

By Jonathan Michael Feldman

June 7, 2017

@KyngStyle [Tweet, May 26, 2017]

If u think #ExposeEvergreen is only about bret weinstein or 1 email, u dont have a clue. Thus u should stop telling POC how 2 feel about it

@willmcwill2   [Tweet, May 30, 2017]

Replying to @KyngStyle

No one is telling POC how to feel. That’s in your head. What’s going on is that a scientist called out critical race theory for the bs it is

Birds, Atheists and Radicals

The recent student protest movement at Evergreen State College provides a useful signpost that we are seeing the final stages of New Leftism.  In the present stage, so-called oppositional movements objectively aid their alleged political target because they simply lack the capacity to do otherwise.  They end up replicating the very systems they attempt to oppose.  Let us start with three analogies.

We know that birds sometimes are trapped in buildings, but they ram their heads into glass windows.  They attempt to free themselves, but they just hurt themselves. The window, which some have described as a metaphor for openness and closure, shows us the contradictory position of the bird.

We know that some atheists vehemently attempt to deny the existence of God or religion as a kind of obsessive and sole explanation for a larger reality.  Yet, these very same atheists seem defined by God, if only by spending most of their time denying God.  Some atheists use God as their window.

We know that some radicals regard the system as defined by a narrow group which wields police and media power, yet they design social movements whose main fuel is referenced by what the police and mainstream media do.  Like some atheists, they live vicariously off of what they claim to oppose.

Background

The background to the protests were outlined in an article in The Olympian by Matt Driscoll, who wrote on June 5th that there have been a series of protests and demonstrations at Evergreen that go back at least to September of 2016.  These were tied to “a strained relationship between students of color and local police and campus police — similar to tensions between communities of color and law enforcement across the country — to accusations of unequal punishment for white students versus students of color.” In addition, Driscoll’s informants have said, “there’s mounting anger over what’s viewed by some as a lack of action from the school’s administration to deal with a number of longstanding issues of racial equity.”

A series of meetings with the college administration proved to be less than fruitful and according to students were the other side of being ignored for years:  “For years students of color, trans and queer students and other minorities have been asking, then demanding, for mandatory equity training for staff and faculty.”

When The Left Turns on Its Own

In an article in The New York Times published June 1st, Bari Weiss explains the case of Bret Weinstein, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, the Occupy Movement, and Glen Greenwald.  Weinstein is a Professor of Biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  Weiss and a post in the Heterodox Academy explain why Weinstein suffered the wrath of so-called, “left” students and activists.  According to Heterodox Academy: “For several years, Evergreen has held a ‘day of absence’ in which students, staff, and faculty of color are invited to stay away from campus and take part in discussions about racism and other intersectional issues, organized by the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, Rashida Love. But this year, the event was inverted; people of color were invited to stay on campus while all white people were asked to stay away from campus. White professors were asked to not teach their classes. White students were asked to not attend their classes.”

Weinstein objected to this move which he saw as oppressive.  But students claim that white absence was voluntary. This argument may have been a red herring as Weinstein explains in an interview: “There were several emails inviting people to participate…Let’s be very careful about this.  There was no implication that white people would not be allowed on campus. There was, however, the implication—when this finally was described—the implication was that white allies would be off campus and therefore there was the implication that if you were white and you showed up on campus that you were therefore not an ally and that is the thing that pushed me to respond.  I did not like the implication that by the very act of being there [on campus] I was not allying with people of color.”  Weinstein says he received private support, but was attacked for being against students of color.

Frank Bruni, a columnist for The New York Times, blames Weinstein for “quickly” taking “the part of lightning rod” and “repeatedly characterized the Day of Absence as coercive, though it didn’t seem to be.”  He adds that “Evergreen’s president, Bridges” to him “that it flat­out wasn’t.”  Weinstein, in an “exchange with protesters outside his classroom, he proclaims, ‘History could pivot on this hallway right now.’ It’s Olympia, Professor Weinstein, not Iwo Jima.”  Assuming hypothetically that Weinstein’s claim that white absence was coercive was inaccurate, we see nevertheless that Weinstein’s email objecting to the event was part of a trigger for student demands that he be fired.  Thus, given that firing is coercive, the aura surrounding students’ demands seems rather coercive to me, irrespective of the accuracy of Weinstein’s specific claim.   As for Bruni’s other point quoted here, I think he fails to see that the Evergreen episode has wider implications for the left and the whole problematic of identity politics and styles of acting that lack any sense of reciprocity.  This essay will demonstrate why.  Nevertheless, one informant interviewed by Driscoll argues that “the ‘Day of Absence’ email…was actually one of many emails that (Weinstein) had sent over the course of the year.”  Students of color according to Driscoll’s sources view “Weinstein’s written words — taken in total — as ‘tone deaf.’”  Nevertheless, no one offers any proof that Weinstein’s tactical disagreements are a reason to send a group to his office and demand that he be fired.

I can’t find any evidence that being “tone deaf” or having tactical disagreements (which may actually be the same thing stated differently) is a good reason to demand that someone be fired, but some of the video material referenced in this essay shows students’ being “tone deaf.”  Another report appearing in a blog post connected to USA Today, points to a press release attributed to student and custodian Blake Vincent and posted on a Facebook page.  It claims that students were not threatening, but is a crowd demanding that someone be fired and speaking in harsh tones not “threatening”?

The paradigmatic split in this dispute centers on what students feel they are entitled to do and say and how they are allowed to act without expecting a response that reacts in kind.  The press release continues: “The students chanted and continued to try to make their feelings known to Weinstein, but he was refusing to listen and instead attempted multiple times to take over the discourse and make the students listen to him. During all this, some of Bret’s students were surrounding him and verbally attacking the group of protestors.”  If “make their feelings known” equals, “demand that he be fired,” and Weinstein does not want to patiently listen to that, who can blame him?  And, as there seems no valid reason to fire Weinstein, why shouldn’t his students react to what they probably view as an absurd demand?  In essence, Evergreen State students appear to have a valid grudge and set of demands against police harassment and perhaps institutional racism, but their way of dealing with Weinstein makes their rights appear devalued by a sense of entitlement regarding persons who disagree with them.  The coercion of police violence from above is matched—in a different form—by the coercive demand for firing from below.  To the extent that the students’ larger claims are valid, their tactical mis-steps seem all that more absurd.

Some of the controversy at Evergreen State rehearses the New Left era practices of nationalism and separatism and their appropriateness in different contexts.  To make a long story short, we can say that the New Left did a good job in making the case for tactical separation for regrouping, consolidation and advancement of specific interests, but the tactic advanced into a strategic failure which clearly played into the right’s hands.  Separatism and casting whites out of all kinds of organizations appeared to validate racism in the name of opposing it.  As in the Weinstein case, separatism required that even white allies have to be castigated when they don’t obey the dictates of would-be activists who are simply acting according to a managerialist impulse.  A related problem, as we will see, is how personal politics leaves larger social structures off the hook.   In sum, the moral high ground is quickly lost by political styles that quickly help deflate the value of political action.  The students’ certainly got their administration’s attention, but they also provided soundbites nationally for right-wing and liberal pundits whose interests in opposing institutional racism (or necessary national policy shifts) are mixed at best.

Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed blog also explains that: “Weinstein…has come out against a recommendation on faculty hiring by the college’s Equity and Inclusion Council. That recommendation, currently under consideration by college leaders, would require an ‘equity justification/explanation’ for all faculty hires.”  Various structures tend to perpetuate the bias that significantly over-represent whites and men in the hiring of faculty.  These structures are rather deep and selective, short-term quotas can help break down the cycle of exclusion in which the absence of a diverse faculty helps perpetuate ethnic and gender stratification.   Yet, quotas or equity investigations based on intersectional criteria don’t necessarily generate a competent faculty or even an ideologically diverse one.  In this sense quotas are rather much like the status quo systems of hiring.  One might therefore think of alternatives (or possible supplements) to both approaches, e.g. more investment in quality primary and secondary education upstream.  Even if Weinstein were wrong on the equity issue, the larger problem for me is how his “community” has treated him.

The Times reports that Weinstein “has become a victim of an increasingly widespread campaign by leftist students against anyone who dares challenge the ideological orthodoxy on campus.”  Fifty students confronted Weinstein outside his office, calling him a racist and told him he supported “white supremacy.”   Following the protest, the college police informed Weinstein that they were unable to guarantee his safety on campus.  Jaschik notes that “‘Fire Bret’ graffiti is visible on campus.”  Weinstein claims that he and his “students were specifically followed, harassed and doxed.”

These are clear acts of character assassination where a difference of opinion leads to harassment of another person as a racist who has no relationship to racism.  Here the students believe that they themselves embody anti-racism such that opposition to the students’ will equals racism.  Yet, the students through their tactics actually pass over many significant representations of anti-racism.  Very much like robots, they have been coded—likely by their academic milieu—to deconstruct and oppose narratives which run counter to that which they religiously deem acceptable.  In the Stalinist model, the primary flow of oppression is top-down, directed by bureaucrats, but sometimes enlisting the populace as spies.  In the new model with roots in the New Left, various ideologies manufactured by academics take the form of a kind of disease which flows from the bottom up and engulfs the bureaucracies.  The disease I speak of is not the self-righteous (or even angry) opposition to racism, harassment, police violence and surplus hierarchy.  Rather, it is the disease of using the ideas of racism, intersectionality, whiteness, police violence and professional authority to justify just about any arbitrary action which goes against politically correct and peer group-defined norms.

A video which opposes the protestors shows a student or students cursing at Weinstein and demanding that he resign.  A large group chants that he resign. That is clearly harassment and even if Weinstein is wrong about various claims and his positions, he certainly has the right to express his opinions without such a backlash.  Tolerating his speech does not constitute repressive tolerance as there is nothing overtly oppressive in his speech.  The film shows a student complaining about police harassment, but in turn the very same student engages in a kind of verbal harassment.  A timeline of key events by the campus newspaper reported that on May 23rd, students disrupted Weinstein’s class “to discuss emails,” with some declaring that he should be fired. This led the campus police to be called, who in turned called the County Sheriff’s office for backup: “When the cops arrived, student protesters formed a protective ring around the students of color conversing with Weinstein. This ring of students was ripped apart by Officer Timothy O’Dell when he shoved through protesters, injuring two students.” In any case, disrupting the teaching of a class because of a tactical disagreement seems could be interpreted as a violation of free speech. Blake Vincent’s press release, quoted earlier, mentions state troopers and Olympia police threatening students with mace.  What happened?  As best I can surmise, the pursuit of Weinstein helped trigger the intervention of the police in a way that has made the students involved looked very bad from a national media lens.

One might argue, as the Afropunk journal claims, that the protests at Evergreen were centered on racial justice, without Weinstein being the main event. His suspension is just one of many other demands by students. Others claim in social media that other forms of marginalization were also central to student concerns. The problem with this line of argument is that the protestors’ harassment of Weinstein has made that the main event, providing ammunition for both Breitbart and Fox News as well as The National Review and scolding commentaries from The New York Times.

The Occupy movement used protest to leverage an equality discourse in mainstream media related to the larger national if not global society; its cousin in Evergreen uses protests to manufacture right-wing debating points, centered on a narrow preoccupation with university governance and outing dissenters who reject their tactics.  The student demands express a total disinterest in affecting the larger political system which it turns out leverages their mistakes to reproduce systems of racist, militarist and class power. In contrast, Occupy had a kind of internal discipline based often fostering mutual respect among dissenting views, i.e. there was a tendency to oppose sectarianism.  Yet, there were also tendencies in Occupy to normalize some ideas that were off the wall.  The problem is that both Occupy and Evergreen never transcended the limits of the earlier New Left’s failures, partially because they have assimilated these failures through academics and other ideologues who recycle separatist and politically correct tropes.  As Kenan Malik explains there are “common bonds between racial and multicultural notions of human difference.”

It should not surprise us therefore that the students were supported by a group of faculty who blame Weinstein for assisting right-wing media.  This group wrote a letter stating that: “Weinstein has endangered faculty, staff, and students, making them targets of white supremacist backlash by promulgating misinformation in public emails, on national television, in news outlets, and on social media.”  A June 1st, press release by the group Stand with Students, posted on faculty member Melissa Ponder’s Facebook page, explained that Thurston County officials received an anonymous phone call from someone threatening “to murder as many people on…campus as I can.” The threat led the campus to be shut down as safety measure.  The press release argues that “the caller was likely emboldened by incendiary misinformation in the media about recent protests on campus.”  Yet, the press release denies harassment of Weinstein.  One major charge against Weinstein is that he or others falsely claim that he was threatened with violence.   The displacement of consciousness about how Weinstein was harassed by debunking the charge of violence is a clear indicator of what has turned out to be a dangerous lack of introspection.  The bubble surrounding the protestors and their allies seems to be a side effect of their post-modern disdain for truth and the way in which they dogmatically filter out facts that contradict their self-righteous narratives.  The students are likely victims of racism and negative engagements with police, but this has clouded their thinking about how to act politically as they are under the toxic influence of identity politics and faculty-sanctioned narcissism.

An Alternative to Postmodern Politics      

The student actions, supported by various faculty and parts of the administration, represent a case of what Stanley Aronowitz called “Postmodern Politics.”  This is the term he uses for intellectuals who “have abjured ‘grand narratives’ (antitotality), and utopian visions and have abandoned the search for a new or significantly altered paradigm of social transformation.”   Basically, we have a disagreement on tactics and persons purporting to be leftists harassing someone who disagrees with them, in the name of the left and anti-racism.  How are we to interpret this episode?

First, one might argue that the students basically only view politics as the projection of symbols and become angry at persons who do not validate their symbolic politics.  In contrast to attacking a nominally left professor for a disagreement in tactics, so-called left students could have done the following (in addition to pursuing some of their own, reasonable demands):

(a) Organize a study circle to learn about the limits of their own discourse.  This discourse, by needlessly feeding actions creating soundbites for right-wing media, has helped to endanger their community.  The readings could include Chistopher Lasch’s The Agony of the American Left, Adolph L. Reed’s essays, “Black Particularity Reconsidered” and “The Limits of Antiracism,” James A. Geschwender’s Class, Race and Worker Insurgency, and Kenan Malik’s Multiculturalism and Its Discontents.

(b) Organize a protest against the high levels of incarceration in Washington State, 482 persons for every 100,000 in the population (in 2016).  This rate was higher than Thailand, New Hampshire, the Russian Federation, New Jersey, Rwanda, New York, Panama, Belarus, South Africa, Finland, Sweden, China and Iraq (to mention more than a few). In 2013, the proportion of African Americans working in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) workforce was only 11 percent.  In contrast, in 2017, the share of African Americans in the prison population was 37.7 percent. Clearly this discrepancy is a central reproduction system for inequality.

(c) Link the above protest to a march on the state capital to demand state funding for cooperatives to help employ unemployed workers.  Develop such cooperatives on campus to create jobs for excluded populations. In 2015, 8.9% of African Americans in the State of Washington were unemployed.  These cooperatives could of course build on the tradition of African American cooperatives, a strategy for equitable economic development championed by W. E. B. Du Bois.  Here we get at a root cause of powerlessness rather than engagement in symbolic politics and harassment of individuals that one does not like.

(d) They could have established a folk high school (based in a supporting community center, church, mosque or synagogue) which gave courses for teachers and university administrators on how to combat institutional racism.  A Google search of these terms: “anti-racist” “folk high school” “Washington State,” yielded only seven results—none of which seemed terribly relevant for intervention proposed here.  One way to put this: Don’t just get whites or African Americans off campus, remove everyone off the campus to learn how to reorganize universities and other institutions.  The university might hire an expert on British policing to train its own university police and other police forces in the region.

(e) Support national, state and regional policies that would shift budgets from military commitments towards investments in mass transportation, alternative energy and a green recycling infrastructure within buildings. They could have supported cooperative firms and banks to provide employment in disinvested areas, particularly those communities where desperation leads to support for Donald Trump or other extremists.  This approach is necessary because racism is not simply based on ideas, psychologies or identities, but also material conditions.  In contrast, the reforms proposed by Evergreen State College President George Bridges to address problems of racism and diversity are simply an inner-directed appeal to students; it lets the larger society generating racism off the hook but appears to buy off student complaints.

(f) Design and implement a pod-cast and radio network, supported by a door-to-door canvass, which championed the strategies above as well as solicited memberships which would pay for an advertising campaign on local buses supporting these goals.  Investigate extremist communities and where they are located and broadcast counter-programming to such areas pointing out how the absence of solidarity hurts unions, wage gains and solidarity, i.e. appeal to these persons’ self-interests rather than talk down to them with a language invented by university professors and associated with the professional managerial class.

Second, one might argue that many mentoring some of these students formally or informally are doing a terrible job.  In my class called Democracy, Policy and Social Change, I teach students about how to organize economic, media and political power to support democratic goals.  I teach them about the limits to their own potential class, the professional-managerial class, as well as how to democratize higher educational structures.  Most importantly, I teach students that it is not enough to argue that you are a victim and lack power, or that power can be defined by A having more power than B or even that A can make B do something that B would not ordinarily do.  Rather, I show how B can get as much power as A or at least learn about how to get much more power, more rapidly, by emulating the practices or access of power that A has cultivated.  I would not teach my students that yelling at a left-leaning professor is a way to accumulate power to challenge capitalism, racism, ecocide or even harassment.  I would tell students that this strategy is “barking up the wrong tree.”  Apparently, Evergreen has taught students that using obscenities, being rude and telling people you disagree with that they are privileged are useful tactics for gaining power, i.e. authority figures at the university have not significantly counter-acted this message.  Concessions to students on police safety and harassment are certainly necessary, but these seem to accompany a symbolic politics that easily passes over the larger social structures.

Third, Evergreen State College has embraced a superficiality filter that students are celebrating.  John Sanbonmatsu, in an essay entitled, “Postmodernism and the Corruption of the Academic Intelligentsia,” published in the Socialist Register, 2009, writes: “The destruction of the public sphere, the decline of social movements, and the virtual disappearance of an independent press has shunted much of the intelligentsia into the academic system.  There, the ‘state nobility’ finds its mental labour mediated through the tenure process and the competition for scarce federal grants and fellowships.” Sanbonmatsu goes further, explaining how social movements become distorted by the ideological dogma of universities.  He writes: “Postmodernist ways of knowing can in fact be found in a growing number of social movements.”  The intellectual vacuum represented by the absence of constructive proposals and plans to redesign society at Evergreen has been filled with moral relativism that ends up tolerating harassment.  Weinstein for his part blames the administration of Bridges (hired in 2015) for “arming the postmoderns” at the school.  He claimed that the plan to vacate whites from campus would “let the intellectual descendants of Critical Race Theory dictate the bounds of permissible thought to the sciences and the rest of the college” and that those who insisted “on discussing the plan’s shortcomings” were “branded as racists.”

We can surmise that the Administration at the Evergreen State College is perpetuating the status quo by tolerating these students’ harassment of Professor Weinstein and promoting what appears to be a pathetic mentoring and educational system for social change.  The College should know that there is no shortage of fully competent teachers who live in exile, outside the United States—or even reside within the country—who have been marginalized from the academic system by their lack of interest in identity politics or associated narratives.  Some of us regard pseudo-diversity moves, identity politics and the concealment of class realities as an elite, right-wing cosmopolitan narrative which parts of the left have embraced so that they can unwittingly promote the agenda of large-scale, transnational corporations.  These corporations support all free migration, free capital mobility, and nominal cultural representations of diversity.  They are often far less interested in democratizing their workplaces, creating apprenticeship programs linked to qualified jobs for a diversity of workers, or lobbying against the under-investment in mass transportation and over-investment in the U.S. military budget. They certainly did not put up a major fuss after Iraq was invaded, a coup was launched against Honduras and billions in arms were promised to Saudi Arabia.  Hardly any intersectional theorist embraces a systemic program for demilitarization as militarism is not one of the categories that they deploy, except as a passing (and ill or undefined) buzz word.

Awaiting the Death of the New Left Paradigm          

Fourth, we can safely regard the manifestation of the anti-Weinstein campaign as a sign that the New Left/identity politics paradigm has long outlived its usefulness.  Put differently, a large segment of the current left has its origins in a strain of the New Left which has basically followed a pattern similar to that of the U.S. Communist Party.  On the one hand, a few offshoots learn the lessons of history and are reflective about what their politics has actually been based on.  On the other hand, a great many are not reflective about anything their politics has been based on and how it is rooted in an obsolete paradigm.  Ironically, the cross-racial, ideological politics of the U.S. Communist Party was actually more subversive and authentic than the latest strains of identify politics and the politics of “resistance.”  The problem, however, is that these New Left strains (like a large part of the somewhat-related Occupy movement) are totally indifferent to a critical reflection about social movements’ history.  Of course, part of the early and later New Left associated with names like Paul Goodman, Tom Hayden, Herbert Marcuse and the like is a completely different matter.  Parts of this movement could perhaps be seen in the Sanders campaign, but that strain is clearly threatened by the developments described here.

To be blunt, there is a very American strain of anti-intellectualism here which requires far more introspection than the students or the Administration were capable of. Evergreen State College has created a milieu where such reflection is significantly weakened, probably because many academics there have such a weak understanding of the limitations of both past and present social movements and the academic symbols they use for career advancement.   The tiresome cheerleading (as opposed to reflective redesign) of social movements ends badly, sometimes in repressive tolerance, i.e. the tolerance of repressive activity.  As Paul Goodman explained, certain forms of left propaganda is “prone to arouse guilt just because it is irrefutable and on the side of the angels.”  Thankfully, Evergreen has some courses which try to promote reflective thinking, but perhaps this does not filter down to the undergraduate level.

When a nominally left organization or social movement reproduces the very inauthentic and repressive politics of the system that it claims to oppose, we know we are at the beginning of the end for that particular tendency.  We are sadly, not necessarily at the end of the end.  In the case of the Communist Party, Stalin’s crimes did not immediately lead to the death of the party in other countries.  Stalin died in 1953, but the repression of radical democracy movements in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) was still followed by diehards who stood by the party.  One final blow was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the mothership for Communist movements everywhere.

In the New Left case, one might place the epicenter of that movement in the United States.  Under the Trump regime, coming after doses of Bush and Obama, the United States appears on a trajectory of rapid decline.  We see presidents who alienate allies.  We have “Leftists” who alienate and harass other leftists. And let us not forget, the presence of ecological groups who cooperate with oil companies, rather than try to dismantle them. We see police who murder senselessly. The list goes on and on to reveal a society defined by stupidity, chaos, and narcissistic self-indulging behavior.

Trump’s election should have been a wake-up call for all persons practicing identity politics to figure out how to authentically incorporate class, economic democracy, political accountability, and the reconstruction of major institutions into their portfolio of ideas.  An explicit anti-sexist and anti-racist agenda is needed, but is being defeated by academic theories like Critical Race Theory which in practice validate individuals’ narcissism and personal agendas. Many social movements and university-based activists are already processed by the control systems vetted by Right-Wing Cosmopolitanism, e.g. Hillary Clinton and her allies or even publishing companies who cash in on identity politics. The full death of the New Left will only come when a new movement and intellectual tendency emerges that outs the New Left and identity politics for what they really are.  We see some tendencies in that direction, but they are currently far from the hegemonic power seen manufactured by the stupidity of our contemporary social movements and their allies in the knowledge factories of mediocrity.

The author can be reached on Twitter here: @globalteachin.  He encourages sympathetic readers to contact the Evergreen State College Board of Trustees by writing them here

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