From Culture War to Shooting War
Shortly before the bombing and shooting spree in Norway last month that left 77 people dead, Anders Behring Breivik e-mailed a thousand people the document he called his “compendium” -- a more accurate label than “manifesto,” as some have called it, since large chunks of text were cut and pasted from various sources rather than composed by the murderer himself. In its opening, Breivik says he spent three years preparing the work. It runs to 1,518 pages in PDF. There is no table of contents or index. Its final pages contain a number of photographic self-portraits.
Shortly before the bombing and shooting spree in Norway last month that left 77 people dead, Anders Behring Breivik e-mailed a thousand people the document he called his “compendium” -- a more accurate label than “manifesto,” as some have called it, since large chunks of text were cut and pasted from various sources rather than composed by the murderer himself. In its opening, Breivik says he spent three years preparing the work. It runs to 1,518 pages in PDF. There is no table of contents or index. Its final pages contain a number of photographic self-portraits. In one, Breivik is dressed in a uniform with a patch that reads “Special Issue Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.” He holds a weapon, aiming it somewhat to the reader’s left.
Just having the file open on my computer’s desktop for the past couple of days has proven to be depressing. I was in no hurry to read Breivik’s magnum rantus, and the decision to download it was not a matter of morbid curiosity. If anything, I tried to avoid learning more about the massacre than absolutely necessary. Certain kinds of sensationalism leave you feeling contaminated. In any case, the inescapable details proved all too familiar. Breivik’s anti-feminism and Islamophobic rage, his conviction that “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” are destroying civilization, and must be stopped -- all of this is the usual stuff of contemporary resentment. Even his "traitor hunting permit" is standard-issue misanthropy.
But there turns out to be more to Breivik’s text than the usual hateful boilerplate. The killer was also a perverse sort of public intellectual.
He devotes almost 30 pages of single-spaced text to a peculiar tour of 20th-century thought. It is poorly informed but passionate. Breivik thinks of himself as an enemy of critical theory, which, by his reckoning, has ruined modern culture by undermining the rightful authority of European males. In particular, he appears obsessed with the influence of the Frankfurt School of philosophers and social scientists who fled the Nazis in the 1930s. (Many ended up in the United States; their research foundation, the Institute for Social Research, was affiliated with Columbia University between 1935 and 1950.) From the account in Breivik’s compendium, the school emerges as a tireless, ruthless, single-minded force seeking to destroy the good old days. This is unintentionally funny, given that a number of Frankfurt School thinkers were culturally -- and by the 1960s even politically -- rather conservative.
These opening pages of Breivik’s compendium are polemical and delusional, in equal measure. But the document is significant for at least a couple of reasons. The first is that it is the cornerstone of an effort not just to rationalize an act of violence, but to encourage others to follow his example. (A few hundred pages later, he gives advice on explosives and so forth.)
The other noteworthy thing about Breivik’s section on intellectual history is its provenance. All of his ideas came from the United States. Even that may be understating it. Nearly every syllable of Breivik’s diatribe against critical theory, “cultural Marxists,” and militant feminism was taken from a think tank in the Washington, D.C., area. His rampage was, in effect, the American culture wars continued by other means.
A good summary of Breivik’s opening pages appears in “The Time of the Spectacle,” a book now being written by Douglas Kellner, who is a professor of philosophy at UCLA. He has published a number of volumes on critical theory -- including a study of the Frankfurt School figure Herbert Marcuse, who features so prominently in Breivik’s text as to be one of the main villains. Kellner provided me with some paragraphs from a recent draft of his work in progress, and I would prefer to quote his remarks on the compendium rather than having to spend any more time reading the damned thing.
Breivik uses the term “cultural Marxism,” writes Kellner, to label “everything that he opposes, including all forms of left, liberal, and progressive thought…. In his genealogies of cultural Marxism, he privileges the Frankfurt School whose work he interprets as the origins of the ‘political correctness’ movement (i.e. anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and other forms of tolerance)….” There is no evidence that the author read a single work by a Frankfurt School thinker or anyone else that he denounces. “The presentation is generally trite,” notes Kellner, “and based on secondary sources.”
Nor, may I add, are those secondary sources always reliable. We are informed that the Italian Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci concluded that “a Bolshevik-style uprising could not be brought about by Western workers due to the nature of their Christian souls.” From this we must conclude that the Russian Orthodox Church was either pro-Bolshevik or non-Christian. (Of course, that would assume some knowledge of the existence of the Russian Orthodox Church.)
“At a secret meeting in Germany in 1923,” reads another especially silly passage, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs “proposed the concept of inducing ‘Cultural Pessimism’ in order to increase the state of hopelessness and alienation in the people of the West as a necessary prerequisite for revolution.” Now, the whole point of Lukacs’s work was that alienation and disintegration were the inevitable products of modernity itself. Besides, nobody had to organize a secret meeting to generate cultural pessimism in Germany in 1923. If you wanted to find some, you could go out on the street.
Examples could be multiplied ad nauseum. The text almost collapses under the weight of its own misinformation. But Kellner’s point is a bit different. He notes that Breivik’s remarks on critical theory open “with the claim that ‘one of conservativism’s most important insights is that all ideologies are wrong.’ ” As an attempt to trump the Frankfurt School, this misses the point by a mile. Their work was never an effort to create an ideology; it tried to analyze the logic of social systems, and most of all to understand the origins of fascism, but never offered a programmatic alternative. (Nor did they find much good to say about the Soviet Union. A German Communist once said he wished the Frankfurters would join the party just so they could be purged.)
Kellner notes that Breivik’s compendium “clearly [embodies] an ‘ideology’ in which he imagines Europe was [until recently] free of Muslims and all forms of cultural Marxism.” But if all ideologies are wrong, then Breivik has negated his own enterprise. The whole thing “self-deconstructs,” in Kellner’s appraisal.
Unfortunately, self-contradiction never kept a homicidal maniac from completing his mission. And as it happens, the pages in question were not actually written by Anders Breivik. The ersatz erudition all comes secondhand, from a collection of articles called Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology, edited by William S. Lind, which is readily available online. It was published in 2004 by the Free Congress Foundation, a think tank founded by the prominent conservative fund raiser Paul Weyrich in 1977. (Its offices are currently in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va.)
The foundation once sponsored a TV network called National Empowerment Television, which is now defunct. In 1999, it aired a program called “Political Correctness: The Frankfurt School.” One of the talking heads appearing on it was Martin Jay, a professor of history at UC Berkeley. A substantial chunk of Breivik’s text consists of a tendentious chapter-by-chapter account of Jay’s study The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923-1950 (Little, Brown, 1973). This summary is taken, more or less verbatim, from a chapter of the FCF's book from 2004.
In an essay appearing in the winter 2011 issue of the cultural journal Salmagundi, Jay wrote about finding himself involuntarily associated with “an odd cast of pseudo-experts regurgitating exactly the same line” about the Frankfurters. “When I was approached for the interview,” he writes, “I was not informed of the political agenda of the broadcasters, who seemed very professional and courteous. Having done a number of similar shows in the past on one or another aspect of the history of the Frankfurt School, I naïvely assumed the end result would reflect my opinions with some fidelity, at least within the constraints of the edited final product. But what happened instead was that all my critical remarks about the hypocrisy of the right-wing campaign against political correctness were lost and what remained were simple factual statements confirming the Marxist origins of the School, which had never been a secret to anyone.”
The claims that the Frankfurt School intended to destroy civilization and impose a new tyranny upon the word were expanded upon in Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology. But the book cast its net a little wider than the Frankfurt school -- devoting a few pages to deconstruction, for example. Breivik took a selection of material from the collection, making it more appropriate for the audience he hoped to reach. When necessary, he tweaked the text a little. Mentions of the United States or “this country” were made into references to Europe.
Not everything could be repurposed, however. The best parts of chapter five would not have spoken to the Norwegian condition, but I recommend it for its interesting revelation of the American political passions infusing the book. The chapter is called “Radical Feminism and Political Correctness,” but it goes to some places you might not expect from the title.
As much trouble as the Frankfurt School and the cultural Marxists have caused, it seems, “the feminization of American politics” has even deeper roots than that. It began with “the idealistic Transcendentalists” like Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau.The problem was not simply that they were feminists. They were also “abolitionists, bent on destroying slavery and Southern culture as well.” Their ideas "propelled our nation toward Civil War.” Things have never quite gotten back on track. And now, 150 years later, the major political parties hold “’feminized’ conventions featuring soft, emotional, Oprah Winfrey-type orations and sentimental film clips of the presidential candidates.”
Clearly Ralph Waldo Emerson is just as responsible for this totalitarian nightmare as Friedrich Engels -- possibly even more so. In any case, we have the Transcendentalists to blame for ruining a perfectly good plantation system.
Just before deleting Brievik’s document and related drivel from my laptop, I called Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. He has published a good deal about the Frankfurt School, including a recent volume on it for the Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions.” Not surprisingly, he was aware of the Frankfurt derangement syndrome. “It’s the usual mixture of relatively legitimate claims with complete nonsense,” he said.
It’s the nonsense that’s toxic, of course. But the imaginary gallery of bogeymen is strangely revealing, even so. The real-life Frankfurt School thinkers “were concerned with liberty and autonomy,” Bronner said, “and opposed to mass society. Their entire outlook was shaped by the Holocaust, which also shaped their fear of political action, their very deep distrust of mass movements. Their outlook was individualist, nonconformist, bohemian. This idea that they wanted to dominate the culture is absurd.”
Absurd, but not inexplicable, perhaps. Brievik et al. can scarcely hide the wish to dominate their own societies. They yearn for a mass movement to wipe out any obstacles to that happening.
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a column about a book from the late 1940s called Prophets of Deceit. Its main author was Leo Lowenthal, a German émigré sociologist and member of the Frankfurt School. Lowenthal and his colleague analyzed the speeches and writings of a certain kind of demagogue that became prevalent during the 1930s. They warned of subversive foreigners and sinister elites bent on destroying everything their audience held dear. Lowenthal wrote that these figures concocted narrative that were “always facile, simple, and final, like daydreams.” They gave their followers “permission to indulge in anticipatory fantasies in which they violently discharge [their] emotions against alleged enemies.”
Sometimes the fantasy is enough -- but not always.“The Frankfurt School wanted a more cosmopolitan, civilized, open society,” said Bronner. “I think that’s part of why the School has become part of these bizarre stories.” That sounds right. They conceived a world beyond resentment. It seems like that would be a good thing. But not for everyone; for some people, resentment is all they have left.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading