Manning the Cultural Ramparts

Manning the Cultural Ramparts

Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Monday, September 25, 2023

One reason Rufo’s book is so helpful is that it collects information that otherwise is so scattered as to make it hard to get a good, overall picture of the radical changes taking place in American society. By doing so it shows average Americans that they’re not crazy. Things really are headed off the rails in many ways. Rufo provides copious amounts of documentation for the claims he makes. Rufo’s history is a clear, engaging, and enlightening history of the cultural revolution unleashed on America by radical leftist activists over the last half-century.

Apocalyptic Floydianism

George Floyd’s death was an apocalypse.

It was an apocalypse, not in the sense of “chaos” (though there was plenty of that), but in the real meaning of the word: it was a revelation.

Despite the lawlessness, violence, and anarchy that was unleashed by Floyd’s death, America did not fundamentally change on that day. What had been there under the surface for quite some time, however, was revealed in all of its ferocious malice. May 25th, 2020 was, as it were, the storming of the Bastille of the American left’s cultural revolution. It is a revolution still underway, though there are some encouraging signs that a counter-revolution has begun.

America’s Cultural Revolution by Christopher Rufo tells the story of how America arrived where it is today. In short, it is an exposé of the ideologies that were steadily gaining ground for many decades prior to the Floydian Apocalypse.

It is often difficult to realize how much one’s culture and nation have been altered when you are living through the change. The transformation doesn’t happen all at once; our memories fail us regarding last year’s news, and we tend to become desensitized as we are forced to live with the “new normal.” Many Americans are probably no longer shocked that police in major U.S. cities will not even attempt to stop thefts in the range of $700-800, that self-defense against violent crime is increasingly likely itself to be punished (while those perpetuating the crimes get off lightly), that vast crime- and drug-infested tent cities of the homeless have taken over urban centers, and so on.

But then you look back ten or twenty years and it all becomes blindingly obvious: America is a fundamentally different nation than it once was. Rufo begins his book with a striking example. Angela Davis, a figure now nearly universally lauded in mainstream academia and the press, was in the 1970s the darling of Soviet Russia. On a 1972 publicity tour of the Soviet Union, Davis, as Rufo recounts, “praised her hosts for their treatment of minorities and denounced the United States for its oppression of ‘political prisoners’” (1). When approached by a group of Czech dissidents who were struggling against the Soviet regime with a plea to publicize their plight, “Davis responded with ice: ‘They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison’” (1). In the 1970s such unabashed sympathy with Soviet oppression, while popular in radical enclaves, remained on the fringes of mainstream society. It is on the fringes no more:

After the death of George Floyd . . . All of a sudden the old Angela Davis narrative appeared everywhere: America was an irredeemably racist nation; whites constituted a permanent oppressor class; the country could be saved only through the performance of elaborate guilt rituals and the wholesale overturning of its founding principles. (2)

Rufo’s book is an attempt to explain how this great reversal came about.

Viva La Revolución

America’s Cultural Revolution is divided into four parts: first, a history of the cultural revolution; then a separate section on the outworking of the revolution in the areas of race, education, and power (by which Rufo is referring to the undermining of America’s founding political order through the implementation of CRT, DEI programs, and the like). At the head of each section is a biographical sketch of founding figures in the cultural revolution: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell, names that will be known to those who are familiar with the various offshoots of critical theory, but that will be less well known to many. And yet, as the saying goes, ideas have consequences, even the ideas of seemingly obscure and irrelevant academics tucked away in the dark nooks of musty university libraries. The ideas of these four have fundamentally altered nearly every aspect of modern American life. The success of the “long march through the institutions” of thinkers inspired by such ideas has been staggering. However, “the capture of America’s institutions was so gradual and bureaucratic, it largely escaped the notice of the American public, until it burst into consciousness following the death of George Floyd” (4).

Rufo’s narrative framing makes the ideological movements he describes easier to understand than a densely argued philosophical critique. Though he certainly delves into the content of these ideologies he never gets bogged down in overly technical or academic language. Some will inevitably fault him for this, but he is very clear that his book is not an academic exercise for the purpose of nuanced conversation. It is, instead, a powerful warning and a call to action. In Rufo’s adept telling of the story, it is easy to follow how all of these radical ideas have come to infect our society, and it is easy to see how devastating they are.

Put differently, the narrative approach makes it easier for non-academics to understand the origins of the complex ideas of the radical left and how they have led us to the present moment. Reading Rufo we can see that radical assaults on America’s past are not attempts to be honest about the messiness of history, or the fallenness of man, but are in fact attempts to undermine, scorn, and reject the entirety of the American project (apart from the ideology, stories, and heroes of the radical left). Today’s radicals will not be content until they have remade America wholly in their own image. Thus, founding figures in our history–whether Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln–all must go. We must tear down their statues, we must rename buildings named in their honor, we must erase them from our cultural memory. Consider how they talk about Rufo himself: He is a “shrill ideological bully” who engages in “militant fascist rhetoric” as part of a “reactionary impulse bent on the radical transformation — if not the outright destruction — of America’s leading institutions.” All of this is written about someone whose stated goal is merely to return America to the founding philosophy embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The goal of radical leftists is not nuanced historical understanding. It is total control of all levers of power, with no dissent allowed.

In a short review only the briefest of outlines can be sketched as to the detailed historical information Rufo highlights. He begins his story with Herbert Marcuse, whom he calls the “Father of the Revolution.” Marcuse’s chief insight was that class-based efforts at overturning the “bourgeois order” had failed in Western nations (especially America) due to the fact that the working class in a society that allows for upward mobility almost always remain socially and economically conservative. Absent the restrictions of feudalism or absolutist monarchies the working class would rather rise up to greater levels of wealth and social prestige than burn the system down. Marcuse, therefore, realized that the key to social revolution was convincing other groups to fight against the supposedly oppressive conditions holding them down. Race became the key at first, though other “categories of oppression” were eventually added (gender, sexual orientation, etc.). If you can convince someone with an immutable characteristic (skin color, for example) that he can be nothing other than the target of societal oppression then you are well on your way to creating the conditions of permanent revolution.

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