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The book represents Rufo’s bid for intellectual seriousness. “Over the past two years,” Rufo announces in the Preface, “as I fought against left-wing ideologies in the political arena, I was also studying my adversaries through deeper research.” This sounds unpromisingly bug-eyed, but in fact each of the book’s four parts — on the lives and ideas of Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell — are well-researched and sometimes even sympathetic accounts of their subjects. It is common among academics on the left to dismiss Rufo and his allies as know-nothings. That’s incorrect. Although he tends to overstate the direct influence of thinkers like Marcuse on contemporary politics — an idealist tendency not unheard of in intellectual history — Rufo has done his homework, and he is not an ignoramus.
But Rufo the Intellectual mainly matters because of the other Rufos that precede and accompany him: Rufo the Muckraker, surfacing what he sees as the excesses of DEI-training programs in public and private institutions; Rufo the Exhorter, sermonizing apocalyptically on the terminal condition of the woke West; Rufo the Politician, joining forces with DeSantis to fire the leadership of New College and replace it with their own. The latter Rufo infamously, ridiculously, summarized this last achievement thus: “We are over the walls, and ready to transform higher education from within.”
Rufo the Exhorter often gets in the way of Rufo the Intellectual. Can anyone take him seriously when he insists that the Black radicals of the ’60s and ’70s “became even more dangerous after laying down their arms,” as he does in the section on Angela Davis? All too often, such menacing foreshadowing takes the place of a genuine sifting for continuities and lines of influence between the past and the present. That’s a shame, because the connections between ’60s radicalism and the protest movements of the last several years are not merely confections of Rufo’s intemperate imagination. They deserve a chronicler with a more just sense of proportion.
What limitations? Marcuse, Barnes writes, “is willing to justify censorship by the oppressed in order to further their own liberation.” Lest this seem like the abrogation of the pursuit of truth in favor of a competing value — political liberation — Barnes resolves the tension by simply equating the two: “Marcuse identifies such ‘truth’ with the liberation of the oppressed and the achievement of true equality (an identification which should not be too difficult for us all to agree with).” This equation, and the heckler’s veto Barnes says it justifies, continues to bedevil campus politics, authorizing de-platforming campaigns and pitting administrators against both activist students and the faculty members who run afoul of them.
Rufo has a lively sense of the tortured and self-serving logic of Marcuse’s theories of speech and power, and he makes a convincing case that Marcuse’s thinking led him to support, at least in theory, acts of domestic terrorism he should have known were pointless. He glances at a now-famous exchange of letters in which Marcuse’s Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno reproached Marcuse for sympathizing with a species of student activism partaking of “something of that thoughtless violence that once belonged to fascism.” Borrowing the coinage from Jürgen Habermas, Adorno called this “left fascism,” which Marcuse insisted is a contradiction in terms. (Adorno: “But you are a dialectician, aren’t you?”)
Marcuse’s insistence that, in his words, “liberating tolerance, then, would mean tolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left,” does often appear to be the unspoken logic behind student activists’ illiberal attitude toward free speech. But Rufo exaggerates when he contends that “Marcuse’s ideas, although they have often been flattened and euphemized, have risen to an astonishing prominence in public life.” To the extent that Marcuse remains directly relevant to the institutional implementation of activist concerns, it is through the influence of his third wife, Erica Sherover-Marcuse, who developed, as Rufo writes, “the training programs that became the prototype for university DEI programs nationwide.”
Sherover-Marcuse’s thinking — which has been explored by the historians Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn in her 2002 book Race Experts and Beryl Satter in her contribution to the 2015 volume Rethinking Therapeutic Culture, and most recently in a 2021 article by the journalist and economist Christian Parenti in the journal nonsite (one of Rufo’s sources) — is the “evolutionary missing link,” as Parenti puts it, in the development of contemporary activist culture out of the ferment of the ’60s.
If you are going to focus on how a disciplined ideological movement can secure real-world power, it is odd to not even mention the Federalist Society.
The story is a weird one. In the 1970s, Sherover-Marcuse became convinced, as she explained to Marcuse, “that the difficulties the left had in the ’60s and also in the ’30s are precisely because there wasn’t in the Marxist tradition a theory of the development of subjectivity … it didn’t deal with how do you transform people’s consciousness? How do we actually transform our own consciousness?” The workshops she developed to achieve those goals were based on the methods of Re-evaluation Counseling, a still-extant organization founded in the 1950s. Re-evaluation Counseling, or RC, encouraged group-therapy sessions designed, as Satter summarizes, to “eliminate damaging biases and liberate innate rationality, thereby enabling people to solve the problem of exploitation and injustice.” As both Satter and Parenti discuss, RC’s founder, Harvey Jackins, was an early adherent of Dianetics — what would later become Scientology — and RC’s techniques of emotional conditioning are modifications of the pre-Scientological phase of L. Ron Hubbard’s thinking. Rufo deserves credit for bringing this peculiar history to a wide audience.
That elision may have been politically efficacious, but it left Rufo vulnerable to charges of ignorance. His study of the Harvard law professor Derrick Bell and the intellectual movement he led might serve as a rebuke to the charges of ignorance — although it confirms the charges of dishonesty.
Having begun his career as a civil-rights litigator in the Deep South, Bell in 1971 became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, where he launched an influential and controversial scholarly career as the author of Race, Racism, and American Law (1973) as well as a series of odd fictional works allegorizing American race relations. Bell’s approach to law was essentially sociological; he and his followers hoped to show that apparently neutral legal concepts encoded power relationships between dominant and dominated groups. The basic move is demystification: Bell’s concept of “interest convergence,” for instance, attempted to explain gains in Black civil rights in terms of the interests of powerful whites. “I contend,” he wrote, “that the decision in Brown to break with the court’s long-held position” on segregation “cannot be understood without some consideration of the decision’s value to whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.”
Figures associated with the critical-race-theory movement argue that, since law cannot be innocent of racial power imbalances, apparently content-neutral concepts like free speech require exceptions on racial grounds. As the prominent critical race theorist Mari J. Matsuda writes, “in a society that expresses its moral judgments through the law, and in which the rule of law and the use of law are characteristic responses to social phenomena, this absence of laws against racist speech is telling.” Rufo reconstructs a series of critiques of this and other aspects of critical race theory by Black thinkers, including Randall Kennedy, Leroy Clarke, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The most important document here, highly pertinent to present debates, is Gates’s 1993 New Republic essay “Let Them Talk,” occasioned by the publication of Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, a collection of essays by Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. (Gates’s essay, contrary to Rufo’s implication, does not mention Bell at all.)
According to Rufo, the critical race theorists won: “One by one, Bell and his disciples dispatched their critics through smears and character assassination. Bell called his Black opponents ‘minstrels’ and accused them of participating in ‘the slave masters’ practice of elevating to overseer and other positions of quasi-power those slaves willing to mimic the masters’ views.” (Bell wrote the latter about Thomas Sowell specifically, in a much-cited law-review article called “Racial Realism.”) Having neutralized the opposition, they could now pursue “the next phase of their campaign: conquering the institutions.”
But what is Rufo talking about? There has been no flurry of race-based exceptions to legal neutrality. There is no Matsuda Rule, enacting a hate-speech exception to the First Amendment. Affirmative action, a conspicuous exception to race neutrality that had nothing to do with the work of the critical race theorists, is now unconstitutional. Nor were Matsuda, Crenshaw, Delgado, or Bell cited by any of the three dissenting justices in SFFA v. Harvard or SFFA v. University of North Carolina.
Despite his gestures toward dispassionate intellectual history, Rufo cannot prevent himself from treating Bell and his followers’ ideas not merely as dubious or debatable but as part of a deliberate conspiracy to seize power. Characteristically, the metaphors are military: “The broader goal, from the outset, was conquest.” “Their first beachhead was the law school.” Even if the critical-race-theory movement was as tactically self-conscious as he implies — something Rufo in no way proves — does that discredit it? Don’t all intellectual movements want to propagate their ideas and secure institutional shelters for them? Rufo would presumably not subject conservative intellectuals to the same test. In fact, he prefers to pretend that the university contains no conservative intellectuals at all, an especially obfuscatory move when it comes to legal academe. If you are going to focus on how a disciplined ideological movement can gain a foothold in elite legal institutions and then secure real-world power, it is odd to not even mention the Federalist Society.
Rufo does show that, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the diversity-training industry persuaded agencies across the federal government to avail themselves of its services. Is it good that taxpayer dollars funded diversity consultants like Howard Ross and a former Spelman president, Johnnetta Cole, to lecture federal employees about systemic racism? Perhaps not. But does it signal that Cole — who, Rufo stresses, was in the ’60s a Vietcong sympathizer, Weather Underground fellow-traveler, and member of the Castroite Venceremos Brigade — has “attained ideological power within the American state”? Her workshops have made no dent in foreign policy; the Cuban embargo remains in place. Rufo sees a coup where others might see only lip service.
By the end of the book, Rufo the Intellectual gives way entirely to Rufo the Exhorter. He warns that soon “the substitute morality of critical race theory” will “replace governance by the Constitution with governance by the bureaucracy.” To bolster that claim he cites a pipe dream of Ibram X. Kendi’s: a constitutional “anti-racist amendment.” That amendment, Kendi writes, “would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-Racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts and no political appointees. … The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
No one in their right mind thinks Kendi’s proposed amendment has the slightest chance of being taken up by Congress. Rufo has either worked himself into a delusive froth or, more likely, he’s hoping to mislead his conservative readership in order to whip them up into a state of vigilant alarm. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Rufo’s penchant for hyperbole, which he shares with many of the figures he criticizes, has served Rufo the Politician well. What he writes of Derrick Bell is all too true of himself: “His characterizations descended into caricature. His insights turned into clichés.” But caricatures and clichés can be effective currency for a politician. They have certainly worked well for DeSantis, at least in Florida. Rufo fancies himself a truth-teller, and his muckraking instinct is laudable. But as long as he remains DeSantis’s court philosopher, the kinds of truth he can tell will be badly constrained. An interview Rufo recently gave to the left-wing journalist Nathan Robinson is instructive. Robinson asks, point-blank, whether Rufo believes that Thomas Jefferson was a racist. “It’s not true,” Rufo says. Robinson points out that Jefferson not only owned slaves but also wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “The Blacks … are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind” — as close to a paradigmatically racist statement as we are likely to find in the historical record. Rufo: “I disagree with that statement. I don’t know what you want me to say.” Robinson: “I want you to say it’s racist.” Rufo won’t. He knows perfectly well that in politics, if not in history writing, myths are sometimes preferable to facts.