In Springtime for Snowflakes, Michael Rectenwald delivers an intellectual memoir and a denunciation of the current SJW culture obtaining at colleges and universities across the United States and Great Britain. He also unpacks how the left became so toxic in the United States.
In addition, Rectenwald answers a question I’ve always had: how does an English professor become oppositional to a discipline that is itself highly oppositional? While Rectenwald is typical of English professors in some ways, he’s very different in others.
First, I don’t think he comes from huge amounts of family money. One of the dirty secrets of the academy is that a lot of humanities professors come from huge family fortunes. Indeed, my own dissertation advisor at the University of Minnesota was the daughter of a Cincinnati department store magnate. She was financially independent. This independence seems to open up a lot of people to a lot of nutty ideas. They play at being activists because activism for some people is just a fun game.
Second, Rectenwald, before graduate school, worked outside of the academy. I did as well. When you work in corporate land, you bring a different set of skills and experiences to your work in the academy. Most Ph.D.s haven’t worked outside of the academy. You can tell. They think that it’s normal to deliver a Foucualdian analysis of just about everything.
Third, Rectenwald is a pretty good writer, and he has known personally other very good writers, including Ginsberg. Most English professors are terrible writers, filling their work with fashionable jargon. They produce and inscribe, liminally, of course, recursive hegemonic discourse. See what I just did? This kind of writing can make your head ache and your eyes tear. While Rectenwald certainly can produce scholarly discourse, he’s a cogent writer.
Fourth, Rectenwald is Catholic. Or at least he went to Catholic school. What difference does his religious affiliation make? A whole lot of difference. Because he was raised inside a meta-narrative, he’s ok with making truth claims. And making such claims is exactly what postmodernists are terrified of doing. They don’t believe in capital-T truth. They believe all truth (including biological truth) is socially constructed. Nothing is ever wrong because nothing was ever right in the first place.
We’ll talk more about that problem next week.
Finally, Rectenwald comes from Western Pennsylvania. So do I. When you grow up around poverty, the real poverty of areas of the country that have dying factories and landscapes destroyed by strip mine coal companies, you understand that activism used to be about fighting for living wages in Carnegie’s steel mills, struggling for safety measures on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and striving to ensure that old employees can retire with dignity. All of that kind of activism is gone. That activism was based on a notion of class struggle, of the absolute dignity of human beings. Today’s activism is based on trendy notions of sexual identity and, often, the protection of upper-middle class values and the creation of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
Now that we know a little bit about his background, next week, we’ll talk about his explication of social justice warrior culture.