On Christopher Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution
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.
Rufo then moves to show how the ideas of intellectuals like Marcuse led to a great deal of revolutionary violence in America in the 1960s and 1970s. Many today probably don’t realize that there was a huge number of bombings, shootings, and other acts of violence during that time. The problem for the radicals, however, is that the violence didn’t work. Instead, it brought down the full force of the federal government (particularly the FBI), which was successful in capturing (or forcing into hiding) most of the ringleaders (Angela Davis was one: she took part in a bank robbery in which several people were murdered). It also alienated the vast majority of Americans.
In response to this failure, a new breed of radicals arose in the 1980s with a new strategy. Instead of revolutionary terrorism, they would focus their energies on institutional capture. This strategy has been wildly successful. The radicals “no longer spoke in the blunt language of ‘kill a pig or blow up a building.’ Instead, they spoke in a high-minded intellectual tone and railed against the great ‘isms’: capitalism, racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism” (38). In this new battle their chief weapon would be “theory” (39). The essential strategy was one of convincing people that every aspect of American life was thoroughly corrupted by racism, sexism, colonialism, etc. (40). In this approach activists seek to cause people to hate themselves for their supposed participation in oppressive systems so that they’ll willingly give up their own power and influence without a fight.
The takeover of academia came first (universities, but eventually also K-12). The next step was media. Rufo notes that Marcuse in his own day was ridiculed by the New York Times. Today the Times has been wholly captured by the offspring of his radical ideas. Although Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (X) may be a sign of moderation, or even resistance, for the time being it is clear that nearly all elite media institutions are in the hands of those who adhere to the radicalism unleashed by Marcuse and his ilk.
Of course media capture was not sufficient either, because non-radical Americans would still have recourse to politics to thwart the radical agenda. Thus, leftists inevitably turned their attention to politics and the power of the state. While they have yet to completely take control of all legislative and executive power they have been extremely successful in harnessing the power of the state in less direct ways, namely, through the capture of the vast bureaucracies of federal and state government, nearly all of which have succumbed to CRT, DEI, etc.
Corporations had to be taken over as well, which has proven remarkably easy. The line of attack is simple: threaten companies with the taint of “racism,” “homophobia,” or some other slur and they will do anything you say. Admittedly corporations don’t really have to change much; they can simply signal their virtue (or innocence) and give large amounts of money to various causes, all while horribly polluting the world and building their products on the backs of slave labor. Rufo, however, is correct that “while executives might be adopting these programs with cynical motives–to launder their reputations, to protect against frivolous lawsuits, to recast the corporation as an instrument of redemption–the simple fact of hypocrisy does not rule out the damage that can be done” (66).
A thread running through all of these radical movements is the attempt to demolish all previous narratives about the goodness of America, its institutions, laws, and heroes. The tearing down of statues in 2020 was just the tip of the iceberg. Such historical iconoclasm has been extremely successful. Even conservative and Christian Americans who may not particularly care for the ideologies of the radicals have become (at the very least) hesitant to celebrate America’s past. Our heroes, it is said, were morally tainted. All fallen men in all times and places are imperfect. But that doesn’t mean we must scorn our national heritage. Such scorning today is but a prelude to replacing that heritage with a new, and frightful, one.
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.
What is to be Done?
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. Only a short concluding chapter (13 pages) hints at what must be done to stop it. I don’t know whether Rufo plans to write a follow-up book to expand on these brief comments, but I am certain it is needed. Rufo, with his proven record of success, is ideally suited to write such a book. No doubt he is a busy man, but I hope he will do so. He has succeeded by acting and getting others (especially legislatures and bureaucrats in red states) to act, not primarily by the intellectual dissection of ideas (of which he is clearly capable). His book, however, is mainly about ideas, not action. A kind of how-to manual, both on the theory and on the practice of fighting the cultural counter-revolution, would be of great value to those who have a general sense for what Rufo has been up to, but who would like to figure out concrete ways (like this, for example, which has been incredibly successful already) they can contribute to similar efforts in the real-world institutions of our nation (a school for conservative activists wouldn’t be a bad idea either). What is most needed today–and yet what gets very little space in his book–is an answer to the question: “What is to be done?”
That said, Rufo surely knows the path forward:
critical ideologies are a creature of the state, completely subsidized by the public through direct financing, university loan schemes, bureaucratic capture, and the civil rights regulatory apparatus. These structures are taken for granted, but with sufficient will they can be reformed, redirected, or abolished through the democratic process. What the public giveth, the public can take away. (270)
This leads me to one final thought. Rufo also argues in his closing chapter that the
great weakness of the cultural revolution is that it negates the meta-physics, morality, and stability of the common citizen. As it undermines the institutions of family, faith, and community, it creates a void in the human heart that cannot be filled with its one-dimensional ideology. (279)
It is not entirely clear to me how Rufo himself would fill that void, although comments in a few places sketch out the moral alternative that he believes must take the place of critical ideologies. In short, it is a return to America’s founding ideals as Rufo understands them. However, I was left with the impression that Rufo’s description of these ideals was somewhat thin. It seems to primarily revolve around individual freedom, mostly freedom from the restraints imposed by others, especially those who would impose critical ideologies on their fellow citizens:
[M]ost Americans still believe in the Declaration and the promise of liberty and equality. . . . the vision of the Founders strikes at something eternal (280).
Excellence over diversity, equality over equity, dignity over inclusion, order over chaos (281).
In the end, America under counter-revolution will return to being a patchwork republic: local communities will have the autonomy to pursue their own vision of the good, within the framework of the binding principles of the Constitution. The common citizen will have the space for inhabiting and passing down his own virtues, sentiments, and beliefs, free from the imposition of values from above (281-2).
In short, Rufo’s counterrevolution is “a revolution for: for the return of natural right, the Constitution, and the dignity of the individual” (280).
Rufo does argue for an alternative moral system and has written with regard to realms such as education that we need a revival of “classical conceptions of the true, the good and the beautiful: so I don’t want to overstate my case, but I struggle at times reading the book to see how the moral system he would apply to government ends up being more than “procedural neutrality,” a removal of restrictiveness, carving out space to be “free from the imposition of values from above” (281-2). Is such a moral system sufficient for the governance of a nation?
Is freedom in the abstract actually a virtue? What about equality? Freedom to do what? Equality in what sense? These questions can’t be answered without a deeper, and more comprehensive, moral system. “‘[F]reedom’,” Roger Scruton once wrote, “is not a clear and sufficient answer to the question of what conservatives believe in . . . ‘freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere’” (Roger Scruton, How to be a Conservative, p. 10). Where that somewhere is must be determined by more than the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the approach that says that government exists for no purpose other than to prevent people from harming others.
The rights to be treated fairly in court no matter who you are, to not have your own property stolen, or your life taken unjustly from you are good; the right to speak freely against an oppressive state is good. But rights such as these, which have substantive moral content, arise out of an inescapably moral system. They arise, in fact, out of a long tradition of English common law, shaped by Christian influence. The question is not whether we will adhere to a moral system or orthodoxy, but which moral system and orthodoxy it will be.
While it is largely true (at least at the federal level) that America at the founding was not explicitly Christian de jure, it was de facto, for which there is an overwhelming amount of evidence (the work of Mark David Hall is particularly helpful in highlighting this aspect of the founding). And while nearly every conservative in America (and even some centrists and moderate folk on the left) would probably agree that our nation would be in a better place if our institutions simply ceased attempting to impose woke ideologies on us, the mirage of moral neutrality is what got us into this mess to begin with. Without a clear and substantive understanding of right and wrong beyond Millian “do no harm” liberalism, and an attempt to see it enshrined in law and practice, we will remain at the mercy of those who use the demand for moral neutrality as a cover for their attempts to subvert what is truly good and replace it with their own alternative moral system, a system the origins of which Rufo has done such a good job recounting.
We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us.
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