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Christopher Rufo, left, and Yascha Mounk. (Illustration by The Free Press; photos via Getty)

Weekend Listening: The Right Way to Fight Illiberalism

Christopher Rufo and Yascha Mounk debate.

In the past few months, many people were shocked to see the moral rot that has taken hold inside American universities. 

For example, they were surprised to learn that:

  • A tenured Columbia professor praised Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel as “awesome.”

  • At UC–Irvine, a professor said “the Zionists have been exposed for the criminals and bloodthirsty animals that they are. This is a gift from Allah to the world.” 

  • At Virginia Tech, a professor said Hezbollah terrorism is just “a form of anti-imperialism that unfortunately the Western left shies away from too much.”

  • And as Francesca Block of The Free Press reported this week, an NYU adjunct professor told students at The New School “we know it’s not true” that Hamas committed rape and beheaded babies on October 7. He even jokes about being antisemitic. 

I could go on and on. We’ve covered many of these stories at The Free Press

As antisemitism has spread at our universities, many started asking how this could happen when campuses are famously sensitive to microaggressions. How could schools that provide students emotional support animals and cry closets allow this kind of thing? 

Perhaps DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—wasn’t actually about those words, but about something else. It’s about replacing the principles of good-faith debate and truth-seeking scholarship with an illiberal orthodoxy that puts a premium on identity over ideas.

Well now, it seems, people have finally had enough. States are second-guessing DEI’s place on college campuses and beyond. On January 1, a Texas law shutting down DEI offices at all state colleges went into effect.

In Utah, Governor Spencer Cox—just three years after championing DEI—now rails against colleges that mandate faculty and staff sign diversity statements as a condition of employment. The University of Utah has since eliminated all diversity statements and questions in its hiring process.

In fact, lawmakers in more than a dozen red states have either passed or proposed higher education reform packages that curtail DEI initiatives. 

Among them, of course, is Florida, which passed the Stop Woke Act nearly two years ago. Although a court placed part of that law on hold, the State Board of Education this month approved rules that limit public funding of DEI on college campuses.

Our guests on this episode of Honestly, Christopher Rufo and Yascha Mounk, say the DEI ideological overhaul has consumed our schools for quite some time. The question now is: What should we do about it?

Those are not questions with simple answers, and certainly not ones on which Christopher and Yascha agree. 

Christopher is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a board member at New College of Florida, and maybe the country’s most influential conservative activist and biggest cheerleader of Florida’s Stop Woke Act. He thinks that using the power of the law to stop DEI is essential. 

Yascha, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an international affairs professor at Johns Hopkins University, is on the other side of the political spectrum.

While he thinks that DEI—and woke ideology more broadly—is concerning, he doesn’t think the answer to its illiberalism should come in the form of bans and legislation.

Christopher and Yascha both recently published books that investigate the changing cultural trends of the American left. Christopher’s book is America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. And Yascha is the author of The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time.

What I appreciate about this debate on Honestly is that while each has a different perspective, they don’t dismiss each other’s arguments (well, mostly anyway).

I talked to them about how we arrived at this new doctrine on power, identity, and justice, and what the right way forward should be. Below are some highlights from our debate, but you can listen to the full version of the conversation here:

On how to describe DEI’s capture of higher education:

Bari Weiss: Some people call it wokeness, which sort of automatically brands you as being on the right. Other people call it critical theory or identity politics or postmodern neo-Marxism. There’s a lot of disagreement about how we actually describe this thing that all of us are witnessing. So I want to start there. What is it that we’re actually talking about?

Christopher Rufo: I think it’s an ideological syndrome. So it’s a cluster of traits, ideas, concepts, narratives, and bureaucratic arrangements that have really revolutionized American society over the past 50 years. I trace the immediate origins back to the year 1968, and the argument that I make in my book, America’s Cultural Revolution, is that all of the ideas from the radical left of that era—the late 1960s, early 1970s—have infiltrated universities and then started to move laterally through bureaucracies in the state sector, in K–12 education, in HR departments, and even the Fortune 100 companies. And what you see over the course of this process is some very kind of multisyllabic, complex ideological concepts from the originators of these ideas in that period. And now they’ve filtered out through bureaucratic language, through euphemisms, to become what we now know as DEI. That’s the ultimate bureaucratic expression of these ideologies.

You can call it—any of those labels that you just suggested, I think, are correct in general, at least facets of this ideology. But at this point, it’s not just an idea. It’s actually an administrative, cultural, and bureaucratic power that has manifested itself and entrenched itself as a new, let’s say, hegemonic cultural force in American life. 

Yascha Mounk: I think the best way to boil down the ideas of this ideology is in three propositions. Number one, that identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation are the key prism for understanding society. But to understand how we talk to each other today, or to understand who won the last election, or to understand how political revolutions happen, you have to look at things like race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Number two, that universalist values and neutral rules, like those enshrined in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, are just meant to pull the wool over people’s eyes, that they actually were always designed to perpetuate forms of racist and sexist discrimination, that as Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory, claimed, America in the year 2000 remained as racist as it had been in 1950 and 1850. 

And third, which follows rather needlessly if you grant the first two premises, that therefore, in order to make any kind of progress in our society, we have to rip up those universal rules and aspirations and make how we all treat each other, and how the state treats all of us, explicitly depend on the kind of identity group into which we are born. I think if you understand that that is the core of the ideology, what you call it is less important. 

On whether it’s accurate to say cultural Marxism is taking place:

YM: I think where we probably have genuine disagreements is in the extent to which it’s helpful to think of this ideology as being Marxist. So, Chris, correct me if I’m wrong: I think you would refer to it sometimes as a form of cultural Marxism. So the idea, broadly speaking, is that you take, sort of, the Marxist political ideology—you take out the class and you sort of put in identity categories like race and gender and sexual orientation. And broadly speaking, you get the ideas we’re talking about. I think that’s wrong for a number of reasons.

First, because I just don’t think that there’s very much left of Marxism when you take out the economic categories. It’s a little bit like saying “when you take the bat out of baseball.” You’ve just gotten rid of too much for it to be meaningful. Secondly, because of the history of the thinkers who really do, I think, make up this tradition. Michel Foucault joins the French Communist Party, which very much is listening to Moscow in 1950, but he leaves it in 1953 in disgust. Derrick Bell says he barely read any Marx in college, and after that he never had time. The people he really read were people like [W.E.B] Du Bois and others. And when you go back to the core thinkers of the Marxist tradition, to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the Frankfurt School and others, they simply don’t help you understand contemporary progressive politics.

Then, of course, the thing we haven’t really mentioned, the idea of intersectionality, which comes to be interpreted as the claim that if you stand at [a] different intersection of identities than me, then I really can’t understand you, and I just have to defer my political judgment to you. That comes out of Kimberlé Crenshaw. And that, I think, is an area where we have a genuine intellectual disagreement. 

CR: I personally don’t use the term cultural Marxist that Yascha has done. I don’t do so in the book, although I think that the basic concept, if we leave the moniker aside, is that Marxism—the basic categorical distinctions—moved away from a purely orthodox materialist science or material determinism toward entities of culture, family, law, in a kind of Gramscian direction. [Herbert] Marcuse was a Marxist, and he was the most influential philosophical figure of the New Left, which is the prototype of the radical left we see today.

His doctoral student, Angela Davis, was a member of the Communist Party, is a devoted Marxist, and really took the Marxist tradition and applied it to racial categories. Then within academia, most notably her long career at UC–Santa Barbara, and then her mentees, the third generation, were the founders of Black Lives Matter. They said themselves, “we are trained Marxists.” If you read a law review article written by one of the BLM founders, if you listen to their interviews and speeches, and then if you listen to their interviews with Angela Davis, they make very clear: “we are mobilizing along racial lines. We think that that’s the best rhetorical approach to score political victories. But the ultimate goal is the abolition of capitalism.” And you see this absolutely everywhere: in training programs and academic work, and even critical race theory.

On what’s at stake in the Marxism argument. And if DEI is Marxist, why do Fortune 500 companies employ it?

BW: But tell me what’s at stake, actually, in this argument, because I could go with both sides of the argument. But for the average person who’s looking at this ideology and just saying “This is bad. I look at the way that it segregates Americans. I look at the anti-Americanism all over it. I look at the anti-capitalism that’s definitely explicit in large parts of it, and I just think it’s bad.” And then they hear the two of you having a disagreement about whether it’s Marxist or not. They might wonder, why does it really matter in the end, if we can all agree that it’s a bad thing and that it’s bad for America?

CR: What I think is really at stake—I think in Yascha’s interpretation, it appears to be this cerebral, abstract intellectual problem within academia. And if we can only have the right ideas and engage in debate, then the great ideas will win, and then the bad ideas will decay, and then everything will be fine. But if you take seriously the written words over the course of a half-century of these political objectives, of these thinkers and their activists, who have certainly seized territory in many, many institutions, you’re going to say it’s not just an intellectual debate.

In fact, they want to, as critical race theorists have written, eliminate First Amendment protections for any speech they deem harmful, for any speech they deem racist. They want to eliminate the right to individual equality, as codified in the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and have a system of racial categorization and a racial spoils system in which power, privilege, wealth, and property are redistributed along the lines of racial identity. And they want to abolish the system of free enterprise, free markets, entrepreneurial capitalism that has created a massive blessing, not just for the United States but all over the world, and have it all run by a quote, unquote, “anti-racist bureaucracy.” And I think what is really at stake is: if you value the right to free speech, if you value the right to private property, if you value the right to be treated equally as an individual, if you value the United States Constitution—that’s what’s at stake.

YM: One of the things that you cannot understand if you think of these ideas as Marxist, is why it is that Fortune 500 companies have proven so willing to adopt them? Why is it that corporate DEI trainings have so easily been able to incorporate these ideas? They certainly never incorporated the ideas of Karl Marx. Diversity training certainly never said, “the true nature of American society is capitalists exploiting workers, and you should form a union and go on strike.” That certainly would not be conformable with what a Fortune 500 company would allow its diversity trainers to say. So why is it that they are willing to have people come in and talk this kind of language? 

CR: Why would Fortune 100 companies do this? The answer to that is actually very important. It’s because they felt pressure from the cultural left on these kind of so-called racial equity issues. And they had already satisfied everything that they needed from the economic right: tax cuts, deregulation, free trade abroad. And so what they did is made a gamble and really a co-optation strategy. And more accurately, they were paying the tax—or really kind of like labor unions and factories in the mid-century period would pay the Mafia protection money. They adopt DEI policies for a number of reasons.

One, to limit legal liability because of frivolous racial discrimination claims. Two, to buy off activist groups to leave them alone and not harass them and jeopardize their reputation. And then three, because there is internal pressure to, let’s say, “do something.” And these are the offerings that are on the table. It doesn’t mean they are Marxists. Obviously not.

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