In September, NYU professor of Global Liberal Studies Dr. Michael Rectenwald published an essay to his site LegitGov.org arguing that the institutionalizing of political correctness on campus — specifically “trigger warnings, safe spaces, and bias reporting” — created a type of panopticon, a prison whose singular, central guard tower, leads the inmates to believe they are being watched at all times.
“Contemporary academic panopticism, operating under the guise of protecting and encouraging ‘diversity,’ is anathema to academic freedom and inquiry, while simultaneously undermining any potential for collective agency, or solidarity, among its subjects. Above all, panopticism individualizes.”
Although the subject matter involved common talking points of the cultural civil war between the right and left, the essay itself received no controversy at the time. Rectenwald wasn’t denouncing progressive student struggles; instead, he argued that university bureaucrats adapt the ethical vocabulary of anti-oppression politics to actually suppress self-organization and expression. They become the arbiters of campus life and activism, channeling it towards identity-based activism that often does not think critically about its engagement with a broader movement or neoliberal institutions like universities or the Democratic Party.
Word of the leftist defector spread amongst alt-right Twitter, as the “Deplorable Prof” pledged to dress as his hero, Nietzsche, who had been “trigger warned out of the curriculum”
Rectenwald, whose work in the past focused on secularism, counterculture literature, and polemics against neoliberal capitalism, tweeted the essay from his personal account, followed by many fellow left-wing academics. The essay was met with little controversy or attention — it received four likes and one retweet. But the most positive response was from an anonymous account called Trumpeting Trump: “NYU prof @drrectenwald *obliterates* trigger warnings, safe spaces+bias reporting — a must-read essay.”
That tweet contained the potential for a broader audience: attention and support at the cost of values and decency. With surprisingly little hesitation, Rectenwald, like many others before him, seemed to accept the Faustian bargain.
Later that day, a Nietzsche avatar-ed account called @AntiPCNYUProf appeared, tweeting condemnations of Hillary Clinton, defenses of Donald Trump, and distributing stories mocking campus-based social justice movements from the right-wing blog Campus Reform. It was unremarkable from thousands of other anonymous pro-Trump accounts, aside from its conceit that the user was an NYU professor on a crusade to take down the school’s liberal campus culture from within. “I’m a real full-time NYU prof,” he tweeted on September 15th, “who has inside stories that will blow yr mind. When I reach 500 followers the floodgates open.”
Word of the defector spread amongst alt-right Twitter, and the account gained thousands of followers (although the “gates” never unlocked). Over the next month the account mocked liberal students, asserted Hillary Clinton to be a demon, and decried media bias against the Trump campaign. One of its more popular tweets referred to a favorite subject of the anti-PC right, the backlash against mocking Halloween costumes of Native Americans or blackface. The “Deplorable Prof” pledged to dress as his hero, Nietzsche, who had been “trigger warned out of the curriculum.”
In November, NYU student newspaper Washington Square News reporter Diamond Naga Siu discovered @AntiPCNYUProf’s real identity and published an interview with Rectenwald. In the ensuing interview, he clarified that he was not “alt-right” or pro-Trump, but a left communist: The account was a satirical character, he said, demonstrating how panopticism leads to an inability to express how one really feels for fear of punitive measures, leading leftists to defect right.
“I don’t support Trump at all,” he told Siu. “I hate him — I think he’s horrible. I’m hiding amongst the alt-right, alright?” The account’s ideological positioning was, he claimed, a means to speak freely. He clarified that he was pro-diversity, but that “a cis, white, straight male like myself is guilty of something. I don’t know what. But I’m fucking sure I’m guilty of it. And I am very low on the ethical totem pole, you know? … The most beleaguered are the best, and the worst is the best. So there’s a one-downmanship that goes on.”
As Rectenwald found a more receptive audience among conservatives, the persona began to seem less a character than a primary public identity
Soon after the WSN piece, 12 colleagues wrote an open letter criticizing Rectenwald’s statements. They recognized his right to say what he liked, but urged him to express his criticisms in a more civil, or at least rational, way, citing his stigmatization of mental illness, as well as a tweet about students jumping from windows in the event of a Trump victory. They also critiqued his “ad hominem” and “straw-man” fallacies, pointing out that, for instance, NYU’s Liberal Studies program had no policy mandating trigger warnings, nor was one proposed.
Rectenwald denounced the letter as “Orwellian” to the Washington Post; in the same piece, he claimed that on the day it was published, he was asked by his dean to take a paid leave. The New York Post reported that he was “out” at NYU, seeming to confirm his original thesis — the one that launched his “deplorable” persona — that leftist institutions were intolerant of dissent: “They are actually pushing me out the door for having a different perspective.”
On the November 11 episode of the Fox Business program Varney & Co, as images of protests against the election of Trump looped on the split screen, Rectenwald told Varney that trigger warnings and safe spaces were “tools of oppression in their own right,” and declined, conspicuously, to talk about his leave from NYU. “I have to be very careful. According to NYU there is absolutely no connection between my leave of absence and my stated opinions.” NYU confirmed as much: Despite the suspicion of ideological persecution, Rectenwald’s leave of absence had been requested, for alleged mental health reasons; in fact, he had been rehired for the next semester and given a raise.
As Rectenwald found a more receptive audience among conservatives than he had among the left — gaining attention from media ranging from Fox News and the NY Post to the neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer, and a radio show of Holocaust denier Kevin Barrett — the “Deplorable Prof” persona began to seem less like a character, and more like a primary public identity. Much of the evidence Rectenwald tweets of oppressive PC hysteria is sourced from Campus Reform, a right-wing site that decries all forms of liberal or left campus activism, and works with Turning Point USA to create a “Professor Watchlist” of academics who promote a “radical agenda.” Ironically, in late December, Rectenwald called for the resignation of one of the professors on the watch list for a tweet satirically adopting alt-right terminology.
If his crusade was a “thought experiment” about the PC Panopticon, the way his “Twitter family” made him feel seemed to eventually become more important than what it stood for
Although he once claimed to hate Trump, Rectenwald has expressed more concern for the “creeping totalitarianism” of “SJW ideology” than the blatant authoritarianism of the Trump administration. If his crusade was, at some point, a “thought experiment” about the PC Panopticon, it may seem as though he has disproven his own thesis by retaining his position at a higher salary. NYU has no policy mandating trigger warnings; their “Safe Zone” trainings are meant to educate staff and students about LGBTQ allyship, not shut down speech. As of 2016, dozens of courses teach Nietzsche. “[We] are not interested in trigger warnings,” Rectenwald’s critics wrote in their open letter. “We are interested in addressing historic, continuing inequities and in helping ensure that Liberal Studies is a community in which no one is marginalized by reason of their identity, whether tacitly assumed by others or actively claimed.”
Rectenwald recently called his followers, which include self-described White Nationalists, his “Twitter family,” while at NYU he felt like he was “being exiled.” Like many other defectors, he belongs to a movement that seeks to be for white men, in an ironic turn of which they are fully conscious, a safe space. For these defectors, perhaps hurt feelings and defensiveness could be said to have hijacked values and political convictions; the way this community made them feel about themselves became more important than what it stood for. Once they became embedded, stated convictions ceased to matter.
Nietzsche’s iconoclasm was central to the @DeplorableNYUProf account. Perhaps, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Rectenwald needed to create a character, speaking in vicious aphorisms, to transcend academic criticism and the echo-chamber of his milieu, taking struggle against both the identitarian rabble of campus politics and its cynical cooptation by Clintonian Democrats. For all his bluster, it’s worth remembering that Nietzsche referred to his bad faith followers in Genealogy of Morals sarcastically as “free thinkers,” who “hate the Church but love its poison.”
Many of the arguments of pre-Deplorable Rectenwald, however, are proving themselves timelier than ever. With a labor movement and democratic party in death throes after surrendering to neoliberalism, a neoliberal tendency toward “individualization” has successfully fractured a left that now desperately needs to find its footing. The sexism and racism inherent in both social institutions and activist scenes create festering divisions of resentment, a situation he once analyzed with some nuance.
In an essay a from 2013, Rectenwald cited Eve Mitchell’s essay “I Am a Woman and a Human” as having a particularly good dialectical understanding of identity under capitalism. She writes: “If we understand ‘identity’ [as material] we will struggle for a society that does not limit us as ‘bus drivers,’ ‘women,’ or ‘queers,’ but a society that allows everyone to freely use their multi-sided life activity in whatever ways they want.”
Mitchell argues that organizing as women and queers, for instance, is not the end goal of revolutionary politics, but a crucial point of departure for immediate self-defense and empowerment, while acknowledging at times this logic can limit a movement’s scope, or turn reactionary. This has become chillingly clear as the alt-right and their friends in the White House attempt to push white identity politics to scapegoat minority groups, arguing material improvement can only come from separation and ethnic cleansing.
“I enjoy tweeting from the account for the same reason that I created it in the first place,” Rectenwald told me. “It allows me to express ideas that I feel constrained saying otherwise.” Those constraints include not just academic and journalistic ethics, but basic solidarity in the effort to build a unified social force to overthrow dominance based on race, gender, and class. That he could find any sort of satisfaction in the complete abandonment of this work for a meager compensation of favstars and Fox appearances speaks to the profound pettiness of this “deplorable” swamp, a toxic mutation of our own stagnation.