Some facts are so shocking that you don’t want to believe them. And if you do believe them, there’s a tendency to forget, downgrade their importance, and often have to be reminded of them again. Here’s one fact that falls into this category: The American education system, or at least the field of education itself, was taken over by literal communists. Those entrusted to teach children and young adults have as their greatest intellectual inspirations lunatics who would clearly have massacred their fellow Americans if they had the chance.
We know this because during the Cold War, some of the leading lights of modern academia were openly in favor of distant regimes that were engaging in mass killings in the name of equality. Some of them, like members of the Weather Underground and Angela Davis, personally participated in violent acts themselves. Instead of locking these people up and throwing away the key, we made them into tenured professors, and some of the most highly cited scholars in the world. They now are major intellectual figures in education schools, which train future teachers and administrators and ultimately control what kids learn, along with the DEI bureaucracies that exert so much control from within our most powerful institutions.
What does one do with these facts? Chris Rufo’s work over the last several years has been about taking them seriously. Tomorrow, he is publishing his first book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, which explains the history behind and intellectual foundations of modern wokeness. It serves as a wakeup call as to how bad things are. Many of the facts presented may be familiar to the reader, but taken together, they tell a story that serves as a searing indictment of the American establishment.
Rufo’s book is built around intellectual biographies of four activist-scholars: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell. He traces their influence through political organizing and propaganda efforts. Marcuse was the intellectual godfather of the New Left. Davis’ Black Panther movement can be considered the precursor to BLM. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed “became the bible of teachers colleges throughout the United States and created a cottage industry in academic publishing,” with the author’s research having garnered about half a million citations. Finally, Derrick Bell was the force behind Critical Race Theory, a movement that seems to have been resisted and laughed at by most of the academic legal establishment before it wore its opponents down and gained a foothold in top law schools.
I can’t help but feeling a certain parallelism between Rufo’s work and my own. We both started becoming well known for writing about wokeness in the last few years. We both make extensive use of Twitter and longform writing to communicate to the world, and we both have books coming out two months apart with the same publisher trying to explain the origins of the radical ideas and concepts that have taken over American institutions. He’s exactly one year and two days older than me, so we’ve lived through the same formative political and cultural experiences, watching “white” become an epithet and homosexuals go from being a leper class when we were in high school to individuals having a preference that seems almost quaint in the era of public celebration of trans and the alphabet people.
Of course, an important difference is that Rufo has maintained a laser-like focus on wokeness and avoided alienating natural allies as he’s built a broad coalition within the conservative movement to take on the enemy. And his accomplishments have been quite impressive. Rufo was almost single-handedly responsible for Trump banning Critical Race Theory in the federal government, as he’s also developed close working relationships with Ron DeSantis and other politicians. Today, when Republican-controlled states ban gender transitions for minors, forbid the discussion of Critical Race Theory in schools, or abolish DEI offices in public universities, Rufo is serving as an intellectual inspiration to decision makers when he’s not directly involved in the policy process himself. If wokeness is ever defeated, one can imagine a leftist in thirty years writing a book on the career and activities of Rufo the way he writes about Marcuse and others today.
Many will probably read Rufo and me as having different takes on where wokeness came from, but I think it’s more useful to consider us as each putting an emphasis on a different part of the story. Just as one can study the rise of Christianity through the lenses of, for example, economics, bureaucratic infighting, geopolitics, or sociology, the same is true of the radical transformation of American institutions over the last several decades.
And the various factors that contributed to this revolution must have interacted with one another. I’d say the story here, which Rufo appears to agree with, is one where civil rights law created the legal regime that committed communists were able to use to their advantage. For example, the doctrine of disparate impact, which said any hiring criterion on which whites do better than blacks is presumably racist, was endorsed by the federal judiciary in Griggs in 1971, long before Critical Race Theory existed as a movement. At the same time, as American intellectual life came to be dominated by left-wing activists who had taken over the universities and then seen their influence expand, they could push institutions to accept ever more extreme theories that took disparate impact to its logical conclusion.
It’s important to remember that while the figures profiled by Rufo were undoubtably influential, their ideas were in certain cases not all that different from what was previously accepted as mainstream liberalism. The same year of Griggs, the Supreme Court also handed down a decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. At issue was a local district that allowed families to choose which school to send their children to. As it turned out, most families, black and white, picked those close to their homes, thus recreating previous patterns of segregation. A unanimous Supreme Court held that the judiciary could invalidate such a system because what mattered was the effect of the policy. If the democratic process led to a system that allowed individual choice, and individual choice led to black and white children ending up in different schools, all the worse for both democracy and individual choice. As in the disparate impact doctrine, what mattered was the results. Critical Race Theorists haven’t managed to inflict anything as extreme or damaging on society as the school busing policies of the first decades of the civil rights era.
Thus by the early 1970s, mainstream liberalism had already accepted an ends justify the means mentality when it came to racial issues. What, then, is the contribution of Critical Race Theory, a movement that wasn’t even named until 1989? The difference appears to be one of attitude and style. There’s an adage that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, and liberals used to at least pretend that a results-oriented civil rights movement was compatible with other traditional American values like self-governance, equal treatment, and individual liberty. Newer intellectuals reach the same endpoint on policy, but openly declare themselves in opposition to freedom and the Western tradition. Critical Race Theory is little more than the id of the civil rights movement. One could argue that this new philosophy didn’t really matter in the end, or even that it was a positive development, as it’s helped reveal the true nature of the civil rights regime and the logic behind it and therefore made them easier to resist.
This would be the basis of my case that Rufo and other conservatives have a tendency to overestimate the importance of intellectuals. Leftists are correct that the issue of race has been central to American politics and society from before our founding. The 1960s saw us achieve de jure equality, but massive racial disparities along with continuing agitation on the part of black activists kept up the pressure to go further than that. White guilt is real and organic — it didn’t need Marxist intellectuals to deform our political culture. As historians of the civil rights era have shown, much in the way of race conscious governance came in response to urban riots of the late 1960s. Most of the participants weren’t reading Marcuse. This combination of white guilt and black agitation — in the forms of both political activism and rioting — had already given us many of the policies we associate with Rufo’s cultural revolution today, well before Marxist intellectuals and Critical Race Theorists could make their impact felt.
That being said, one cannot ignore the deep connections between the civil rights regime and the work of left-wing radicals. As I point out in my forthcoming book, DEI offices were an outgrowth of affirmative action compliance programs within institutions. Yet Rufo also reminds us that it was Marcuse’s third wife Erica Sherover-Marcuse who designed courses that became the prototypes for DEI trainings across institutions. Corporate America may have started out looking for ways to avoid lawsuits and signal it was taking civil rights compliance seriously, but business executives ended up letting radicals in through the back door. Rufo traces how we’ve gotten to the point where Walmart’s training program in 2021 reads like a corporate derived version of Prairie Fire, the 1974 Weather Underground manifesto.
Meanwhile, the “Black Experience” program at UC Berkeley, pioneered by some of the criminal-revolutionaries of the Black Panthers movement, served as the inspiration for African American studies departments across the country. This led to a lowering of academic standards, and universities being flooded with diversity hires whose main contribution to campus climate has been to shut down speech and pressure university administrators and staff into meeting their demands for more special treatment for others like themselves.
As they got older and realized violent revolution was a dead end, members of groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground focused their attention on controlling the universities. Between 1969 and 1970, police recorded 4,330 bombings across the country that resulted in forty-three deaths. Finding connections between politically violent radicals and influential academics isn’t a matter of playing six degrees of separation. Angela Davis was charged with providing weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into a California courtroom and took hostages in the hopes of freeing his imprisoned brother. In the ensuing chaos, a judge, two inmates, and Jackson himself were all killed. Left-wing activists, however, spun a narrative in which the “Sweet Black Angel” was simply being set up by racist law enforcement. Davis was acquitted, and has been celebrated in academia ever since. The founders of BLM now cite her as a personal inspiration.
Members of the Weather Underground were able to avoid accountability through help from left-wing lawyers and financial backers and due to the FBI having used illegal methods to bring them to justice. Bill Ayers would later become, of course, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His wife and fellow terrorist Bernardine Dohrn meanwhile found a job working at something called the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law.
While reading this book, one thing I came to appreciate was the role that emotions play in encouraging political action. My writing on where wokeness came from stresses bureaucratic and legal decisions in addition to understandable emotional impulses like white guilt and embarrassment at the plight of black Americans. Although I think this story is true, it’s probably not conducive to making people angry enough to seek change. Rufo’s approach isn’t simply valuable for its historical insights. It also makes you hate certain kinds of liberals and want to take action against them.
I had spent so much time focusing on the intricacies of civil rights law in recent years that, until I read Rufo’s book, I had almost forgotten why I find such ideas and the people who believe in them so repulsive in the first place. In his profiles, I saw almost nothing admirable in either the thought or personalities of individuals like Marcuse, Freire, and especially Derrick Bell, who seems to have been a deeply disturbed and unpleasant man. The idea that these people, who — again, I can’t stress this enough — would have murdered many of you and orphaned your children if they’d had the chance, are tolerated or even celebrated by modern liberals is a powerful thought to keep in mind.
The major danger here is that mindless anger can also lead a movement astray. Conservatives have a longstanding tendency to chase shiny objects. A decade ago, Republican state legislators were banning Sharia law while funding the growth of DEI bureaucracies within their university systems. The decade before that, conservatives enjoyed the liberal tears that were spilled in opposition to the Iraq War, while years of Republican governance under Bush gave us much higher debt and the TSA as next to nothing was done about civil rights law or leftist indoctrination in higher education, which had already gone astray.
Of course, conservatives have been complaining about this stuff for half a century now. During the 2008 election, they tried to get the media to take seriously Obama’s undeniable connections to Bill Ayers, which ended up being covered at the time, though not nearly enough. The contribution of Rufoism is convincing conservatives that they can do more than try to appeal to the good sense of more reasonable liberals. The passage below sums up the essence of his theory of political action.
Beneath the appearance of universal political rule, their cultural revolution has an immense vulnerability: the 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 taketh away.
If disciples of Marcuse and Bill Ayers simply started their own churches and were able to influence society through private donations in the way that Evangelical Christians do, there would be little that could be done under the Constitution to take away their power other than to try and convince people their ideas are wrong.
But that’s not the world we find ourselves in. As someone who sees the all too real flaws of the right and hopes for a reasonable left to emerge, it’s been depressing to watch the reaction to Rufoism in the mainstream press, where his preferred policies being implemented are treated as amounting to some kind of undemocratic coup. When states ban the teaching of certain concepts in schools or take gay porn out of libraries, we hear shrill cries about the decline of free speech and “book burning.” To talk about the free speech rights of a public school teacher on the job is akin to defending the right of a bus driver to go wherever he wants. The idea that the state sets curriculums and tells educators what to teach was never controversial until conservatives started exercising what has always been a normal function of government.
Similarly, if parts of public universities were taken over by astrology departments, Nazis, or creationists, few liberals would see the problem with cutting off funding for their activities. Why should communism or women’s studies, which denies basic biology, be any different? If you think any of these things don’t belong in a public university, then the debate is simply about which ideas lack scholarly or pedagogical merit, not whether or not some do.
What conservatives are doing seems radical now only because the movement has been asleep at the wheel for decades. They are to blame for letting it get to the point where some of the worst people in the world are in charge of educating American youth and running human resources departments. Given where we are now, Rufoism therefore must involve running roughshod over the preferences of well-credentialed experts. So be it. A glance at the state of academia, particularly the field of education, provides few reasons to defer to their judgments. The rise of the school choice movement is one reason to be extremely optimistic.
In recent years, we have seen supposed big-brained takes on the right about how conservatism has failed, capitalism itself is the enemy, and it is now necessary to agree with Elizabeth Warren on economics in order to push back against anti-white hatred and LGBT indoctrination. Rufo’s message is the opposite. By leaving civil rights law intact and letting the public education system operate autonomously, the problem is that conservatives haven’t believed strongly enough in freedom and markets.
I can’t help but wonder, if conservatives do enact all of their policy preferences and take away power from the radicals, what would come after? In his conclusion, Rufo gives some thoughts on what a healthier society would look like.
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. The system of government will protect the basic dignity and political rights of the citizen while refraining from the hopeless and utopian task of remaking society in its image. The promise of this regime lies in the particular, rather than the abstract; the humble, rather than the grandiose; the limited, rather than the limitless; the shared, rather than the new sensibility.
Those are nice sentiments, but history has shown that smart and idealistic people are attracted to universalist ideologies, rather than visions that make room for local and particularistic orders. America was founded by such men, who revolted against the superstition, hereditary privileges, and authoritarianism of their day. Communists, Critical Race Theorists, and feminists are in the same tradition of smart people with big ideas about the world, with the main difference between them and the major figures of the Enlightenment happening to be that they’re wrong.
The resistance to woke is an uneasy alliance of the last believers in the Enlightenment project and what the media refers to as “Christian Nationalists.” If the spell of critical theory, or whatever shorthand you want to use to refer to our modern insanity, is broken, one has to consider the question of where smart and idealistic people go next. Chances are the next thing will probably be better, but part of me wonders whether it wasn’t the worst option to allow some of the people with the ugliest impulses to play in their little sandbox of academia rather than try to influence policy more directly.
Given how hard it is to predict the higher order effects of any movement, however, there is nothing to do but go forward. These people are worth fighting both in the world of ideas and in the policy arena. The fact that their intellectual commitments and beliefs are repulsive to most normal humans hasn’t mattered that much when the political backlash to campus radicals and left-wing activists has been passive, disjointed, and interested in rhetoric more than substance. Those days are over. I don’t know what the end result of the war on wokeness will be, but I am sure that we’ve entered a completely new phase of the battle.