by Richard Butrick (November 2013)
The post WW1-2 attack on the authoritarian institutions of Western Civilization launched by The Frankfurt School created the opening and the intellectual foundation for Political Correctness – or so the story goes.
Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and The Frankfurt School
Their targets? The evil institutions that brought us World War I-II. Their weapon? Critical Theory. Their base of operations? Academe. The lasting effect was to provide a vacuum or an opening for the legitimization of a new metric of good and evil – a “transvaluation of values” – which is now enshrined in the PC-think which dominates our culture today.
Critical theory was the brain child of Max Horkheimer, the founder of the Frankfurt School. The three leaders of the Frankfurt School (FS) of main interest here are Horkheimer, Ardorno and Marcuse. All three started out as Marxists of one stripe or another and all three became influenced by the newly hatched “sciences” of Psychology and Sociology. Their writing is a wondrous overblown admixture of techno-babble from Marx, Freud and Weber strung together with post-Hegelian philosophical patois. Shall we say dense? Shall we say a sophomoric affinity for the polysyllabic? Shall we say a sophomoric affinity for hyperbolic juxtaposition (“Indelible in resistance to the fungible world“, “in semblance nonsemblance is promised“)?
Here is a key passage from Horkheimer:
Although most people never overcome the habit of berating the world for their difficulties, those who are too weak to make a stand against reality have no choice but to obliterate themselves by identifying with it. They are never rationally reconciled to civilization. Instead, they bow to it, secretly accepting the identity of reason and domination, of civilization and the ideal, however much they may shrug their shoulders. Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity. These people willingly embrace or force themselves to accept the rule of the stronger as the eternal norm. Their whole life is a continuous effort to suppress and abase nature, inwardly or outwardly, and to identify themselves with its more powerful surrogates—the race, fatherland, leader, cliques, and tradition. For them, all these words mean the same thing—the irresistible reality that must be honored and obeyed. However, their own natural impulses, those antagonistic to the various demands of civilization, lead a devious undercover life within them.
Let me see now if I get this. Those of us who are too weak to stand up against reality? What do we do? We honor and obey the irresistible reality of more powerful surrogates? I just thought we were ducking reality but evidently we are identifying with “the” irresistible reality? Not only that, we secretly accept the identity of reason with domination! No wonder we obliterate ourselves by identifying with “it” and lead a devious undercover life.
Now check out this valiant attempt to explain critical theory. It is from Wikipedia but I could just as well taken the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here it is:
Responding to the intensification of alienation and irrationality in an advanced capitalist society, critical theory is a comprehensive, ideology-critical, historically self-reflective body of theory aiming simultaneously to explain domination and point to the possibilities of bringing about a rational, humane, and free society. Frankfurt School critical theorists developed numerous theories of the economic, political, cultural, and psychological domination structures of advanced industrial civilization.
There is that word again “domination.” The simplified theme behind what Roger Kimball has called “the prolix arras of “critical theory” in all its unlovely allotropes” is that the current Capitalistic society and all its supporting institutions are “domination structures” which “abase” our nature – shades of Rousseau.
It is totally understandable that a political analyst surveying the horrors of WW1 and sensing the onslaught of WW2 and the emergence of Hitler would question how such was possible in a ”civilized” world. What institutions governed society that allowed or even fomented such horrors?
While Critical Theory Made Simple has yet to hit the book stalls (I know, I know, there are no more book stalls), the Holy Trinity of the Frankfurt school, Horkheimer and Adorno and Marcuse, would rather sing their National Anthems than plainly state the central theme behind their voluminous writings. One “made simple” approach is that the leitmotif of their writings is that Nationalism is the institution responsible for the horrors of the modern world. Of course Nationalism does not exist in a vacuum. It has its supporting cast from Domination Central led by such authoritarian ogres as family, church and state with the lesser ogres of genderism and libidophobia. Somehow all these evils are brought into existence by the false god of Instrumental Reason. Horkheimer was the first to identify the wizard behind the domination structures that brought us Dresden and Dachau – Instrumental Reason.
Instrumental reason has two opposing elements: the abstract ego emptied of all substance except its attempt to transform everything in heaven and on earth into means for its preservation, and on the other hand an empty nature degraded to mere material, mere stuff to be dominated, without any other purpose than that of this very domination.
Before you try to empty your ego of all substance to fathom what instrumental reason is all about, perhaps we can turn to his cohort Adorno for enlightenment:
Thought that does not capitulate before wretched existence comes to nought before its criteria, truth becomes untruth, philosophy becomes folly. And yet philosophy cannot give up, lest idiocy triumph in actualized unreason [Widervernunft] … Folly is truth in the shape that human beings must accept whenever, amid the untrue, they do not give up truth. Even at the highest peaks art is semblance; but art receives the semblance … from nonsemblance [vom Scheinlosen] … . No light falls on people and things in which transcendence would not appear [widerschiene]. Indelible in resistance to the fungible world of exchange is the resistance of the eye that does not want the world's colors to vanish. In semblance nonsemblance is promised (ND 404–5). ND Negative Dialectics (1966), trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973
Well. Maybe not. But wait - we are told by scholars interpreting such passages for the layman that instrumental reason is using reason to obtain an end without evaluating the end itself. It is not too hard to see that that is dangerous. But such a platitudinous observation would hardly gain traction in academe.
Had the troika of the Frankfurt School merely trotted out their agenda it would never have flourished in academe and would have been a hard sell in the political arena. Indeed, while Critical Theory, dressed du monde academique, did gain prominence in academe, it was not until Marcuse became the guru of the Hippie generation by providing intellectual cover for a life of jobless licentiousness that the full reversal of the good-evil spectrum as regards personal identification came into full bloom. God, country, family and even work, self-discipline and personal hygiene were seen as shams. It was, after all, Marcuse who came up with the slogan that has to be the envy of Madison Avenue, “make love not war.”
Marcuse may be the most important member of the Frankfurt School in terms of the origins of Political Correctness, because he was the critical link to the counterculture of the 1960s. His objective was clear: “One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including morality of existing society.” [link]
And the rest is history (forgive me that little bit of boilerplate).
It is generally accepted that the politicization of American academia formally began in 1964 when student radicals involved in the University of California’s Free Speech Movement occupied the UC Berkeley administration building (800 were arrested) in the first “takeover” of a campus building on U.S. soil. But after a tumultuous decade in which they failed in their bid to ignite a socialist revolution, many of these radicals returned to school, earned graduate degrees, secured professorial positions, and set about giving the university an identity that was stridently political and at odds with much of American society. These “tenured radicals,” as writer Roger Kimball calls them, have made the contemporary university an institutional outpost of leftist thought by reshaping entire disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, and by using control of the hiring process to assemble faculties whose views are uniformly Left.
Well, ok. But I don’t think that today’s enforcers of PC, whether heads of academic departments or certainly heads of government agencies – from Neopolitano to Sibelius to Holder – have a clue about the Frankfurt School. And the gurus of the entertainment industry? Am I to believe that such PC stalwarts as Damon or Clooney or Penn or even Michael Moore know Horkheiemr from Oscar Meyer? The students who are marinated in a stew of PC? They wouldn’t know Horkheimer from Scooby-Doo. And the stalwarts of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement? Horkheimer’s is a deli off Maiden Lane.
The PC contagion needs another explanation other than its supposed illustrious intellectual lineage. There is something more afoot here.
PC has a fatal attraction of its own. A powerful lure that captivates the media and entertainment elite and thereby the minds of their minions. It is the lure of adopting a higher ethic that that of the past. It is the lure of being morally superior and on the forefront of a new ethic that would have saved mankind from wars, exploitation and slavery – all the evils of the past. PC is the new wisdom superior to the supposed wisdom of the “Age of Reason.” It also enables a condescending holier than thou attitude toward those cretinous enough not to adopt the wisdom of the new ethic. The tenets of PC can be packaged and sold without the intellectual mumbo-jumbo of the Frankfurt School. In fact, is it not the reverse that is the case? In fact, is it not PC’s success that has restored FS and saved it from the junk heap of pretentious academic pontifications? The writings of the Frankfurt school can no longer provide cover for PC-think. However, profound their writings may have seemed at one point, they cannot but now seem juvenile and pretentious. PC must stand on its own. And that is the point. There are no compelling arguments for the catechisms of PC. Not only are the high priests of PC clueless about the supposed intellectual lineage of PC, that lineage no longer has the intellectual clout that it once had.
The basic catechisms of PC
The FS components:
Nationalism – evil. Traditional Family – overblown. Gender differentiation – oppression. Religion (exempt Islam) – harmful. Sexual constraint – harmful, resulting in all sorts of Freudian maladies.
The PC meme
Different cultures are compatible. People who contradict this claim are blinded by prejudice against other cultures. People who contradict this claim are trouble-making bigots, which makes them enemies of the community, if not humanity, and deserving persecution. The Western world’s profound moral culpability, arising from its history of colonialism and economic exploitation, deprives it of any right to judge non-Western countries or individuals. The non-West has suffered so much from exploitation that whatever offenses it commits are legitimate attempts to recapture dignity, obtain justice, and exact revenge.
Ok. Prove it. What are the arguments? What is it exactly that multiculturalism is supposed to achieve? Why must we “turn the other cheek” to acts of revenge? The case needs to be reopened. It has been institutionalized on a foundation that no longer has credibility.
The fatal flaws of the PC meme
One fatal flaw behind these catechisms is the supposition that society could exist without authoritarian structures. Indeed, the pooh-bahs of Critical Theory explicitly eschewed any such attempt. Their job was to destroy. The result, somehow, was to be a harmony of self-fulfillment for all. It was not for them to pretend they could see the result. Removing the shackles of the authoritarian structures that governed Western civilization would be sufficient.
But any structure or organization must have an authoritarian element. The naiveté of FS-think was the unexamined belief that eliminating what was dubiously seen as the evil structures that brought about Dresden and Dachau and the evils of war in general would not result in the imposition of another orthodoxy increasingly implemented by force. Think mandatory “sensitivity training“ for miscreants who transgress PC rules. Think freshman indoctrination courses. Think thought control by purging the English language of verboten terms and phrases. The Global Language Monitor in its sixth annual survey of the English Language. lists, ‘Oriental‘, ‘Founding Fathers‘, ‘’black sheep‘, and ‘senior citizen‘ among the top ten new victims of PC thought control. Even ‘peanut butter sandwich’ might be offensive to people of other cultures. Not so funny, of course, is the purging of ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamic terrorist’ from inter and intra-governmental discourse.
“Once again, we are seeing that the attempt to remove all bias from language is itself creating biases of their own,” said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of The Global Language Monitor. “At this point it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in any form of public dialogue without offending someone’s sensitivities, whether right, left or center.” [reference]
The second fatal flaw is that by destroying, or attempting to destroy, the traditional loyalties and identification structures that have evolved in the Darwinian crucible of survival throughout history, without consideration of what might evolve in its place, namely the institutionalization of tolerance and multiculturalism as uber-values, PC-think has made its subjects powerless against the onslaught of an “external” culture which is the antithesis of PC – Islam.
Their attack on the nuclear family, the moral authority of the Judeo Christian ethic, monogamy, freedom of speech, the validity of the American Constitution, English common law, the free market and representative democracy has left the PC world with no loyalties to garner – no pledges of allegiance to call upon other than tolerance and multiculturalism (and all its “unlovely allotropes”). It is thereby compelled to embrace its own demise. Our PC leaders cannot take on the cultural onslaught of Islam without violating their own principles. With great tolerance and multicultural largess the myrmidons of PC must succumb to the encroachments of Political Islam. Any resistance is racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic.
At what point will the congregation defect? At what point will the Darwinian survival instinct take hold? Will the loyalties to family, church and nation forged in the crucible of the Darwinian struggle for survival re-emerge?
My bet is on Darwin.
Dr. Richard Butrick is an American writer who has published in Mind, Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, International Journal of Computer Mathematics among others.
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