Christopher Rufo and the problem of anti-wokeness
A review of America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything
Christopher Rufo is the man of the moment. Instrumental in the resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay, the journalist is increasingly important in conservative circles; should Donald Trump win this year’s election, Rufo’s ideas will influence the new administration.
Given this importance, we should be interested in Rufo’s recent book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. Whilst the focus of this work is critical theory and its excesses, the book is more valuable as a document of anti-wokeness, an ideology which Rufo explicitly endorses.
The ‘anti’ is crucial. Every ideology has critics, yet organized opposition entails the creation of a new, counter ideology. Anti-communism and anti-fascism have specific tenets and logics, seeking retribution with little regard for liberal-democratic procedure. Recently, Polish liberals have developed a particular approach to the rolling back of authoritarianism which has its own challenges.
Anti-wokeness has long reached this stage. Whilst pre-2020 opposition to social justice ideology had an ad hoc character, subsequent years have seen the development of a political and intellectual movement which aims to reverse the gains of social justice ideology, often using illiberal methods. Early in the book and in language which oddly evokes Marxism, Rufo tells us,
‘This is, in short, a work of counter-revolution... The task for the counter-revolutionary is not simply to halt the movement of his adversaries but to resurrect the system of values, symbols, myths, and principles that constituted the essence of the old regime, to reestablish the continuity between past, present, and future, and to make the eternal principles of freedom and equality meaningful again to the common citizen.’
America’s Cultural Revolution does not always proceed like this. In most of the book, Rufo details the careers of four key critical theorists (Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire and Derrick Bell) and the influence of their ideas. These parts are well-written and gripping. Generally, I agree with Rufo’s assessments of these figures; they kept extreme company and had dangerous ideas which conflict with liberal democracy. We may regret the recent influence of such theories in public life, even if Rufo can exaggerate this.
Yet when critics recite the misdeeds of fascists, communists or the Polish conservative government, I also nod along. Opposition to such movements is easy, but tells us little about what we should do next. Sometimes, one worries that such analysis builds appetite for illiberal countermeasures.
After recounting the flaws of opponents, Rufo changes gear. In short and breathless sections, he urges the reversal of recent changes,
‘In historical terms, the counter-revolution can be understood as a restoration of the revolution of 1776 over and against the revolution of 1968. Its ambition is not to assume control over the centralized bureaucratic apparatus, but to smash it… For this movement to be successful, the architects of the counter-revolution must develop a new political vocabulary with the power to break through the racialist and bureaucratic narratives, tap into the deep reservoir of popular sentiment that will provide the basis for mass support, and design a series of policies that will permanently sever the connection between the critical ideologies and administrative power.’
This language is aggressive and vague. Like other advocates of anti ideologies, Rufo seems to think that the vices of his opponents make the need for radical countermeasures self-evident.
But this does not follow. There are good reasons for being wary of radical responses. For example, new democracies tend to do better when agreements are concluded with outgoing regimes and the revenge urged by anti ideologies is declined.
Yet such criticism of Rufo raises a problem. If radical opponents introduce changes with which we disagree, how can we reverse them in a moderate way? I would be glad to see critical theorists become less prominent on curriculums and public authorities endorse traditional liberalism. In the United Kingdom, the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act strikes a balance between the need to guarantee freedom of speech and limit intrusion into universities.
It is unlikely that Rufo’s supporters will be so measured. Whilst opposition to critical theory can wear liberal clothes – Rufo cites 1776 as inspiration – we may doubt the liberalism of Rufo’s allies, contemporary American conservatives being famously authoritarian and many supporting a candidate who attempted a coup. On critical theory, their record is inauspicious, several Republican states banning books from schools.
Given this audience, we might worry about Rufo’s vagueness and failure to explain which methods would be excessive; radicals may read anything into this. Moderate solutions might lack bite, yet maintain a liberal-democratic letter and spirit; once movements abandon this, they risk becoming as bad as (or worse than) opponents.
Should Trump win this year’s election, Rufo’s ideas may be tested on a wider scale. Rather than 1776, we might worry about alternative precedents.
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