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Topic: Critical Social Theory

White House Staffer Fired Over Memo on Cultural Marxism (or, Critical Social Theory)
8/15/2017 4:09:23 PM

At the philosophy section on this website I talk about the importance of "critical social theory" associated with a group called the Frankfurt School. This was a group of philosophers, mostly German secular Jews, who used the thinking of both Freud and Marx to understand how it was that German people seemed to respond to the rhetoric of Hitler. The theologian Paul Tillich interacted with members of this group. Most of the group immigrated to the United States during the war and later returned to Germany.

Significantly, it propounded a cultural theory that modern economic corporations would be able to dominate the hearts and minds of Americans through television ads and programs. That is, corporations are today not selling only economic goods, but cultural goods. Young people buy Nike shoes to "be like Mike", for example. It is a little hard to argue that the critical theorists were wrong about this.

But a White House staffer hired by Trump has been fired over a memo he wrote about what he called "cultural Marxism". Jeet Heer at The New Republic has written about this: "The memo, written in May by NSC official Rich Higgins, who was later fired, blames 'cultural Marxism' as the root ideology animating political opposition to Trump." Trump was apparently angry over this firing.

If this is true, it goes a long way in explaining why Donald Trump found it hard to speak against the white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. Though the philosophy aspect of this went far over Trump's head, he likes the idea of associating the media with Marxism. Of course, he misses the point that social critical theory is right on target in being able to help explain why the media has become so important in a capitalist society. But it is completely ridiculous to blame "cultural Marxism" for the negative results of the media's influence. That is exactly what the critical theorists themselves were trying to propose.

But Trump needs something or someone to blame for how badly he is treated by the media. Jeet Heer goes on to discuss the issue in this way:
At first glance, it’s hard to see how the memo, written in barely coherent academic jargon that sounds like a parody of a professor, could have any appeal to Trump. “While the attacks on President Trump arise out of political warfare considerations based on non-kinetic lines of effort ... they operate in a battle-space prepared, informed and conditioned by cultural Marxist drivers,” Higgins wrote. “As used in this discussion, cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory.”

It takes some effort to translate this gibberish into English, but here is the gist of Higgins’s argument: Trump embodies traditional American values, which are under siege by political forces that accuse him of racism, sexism, and homophobia; but these critiques are not valid because they are “memes” created by cultural Marxists for the express purpose of destroying Western civilization.

Holding up “cultural Marxists” as the mastermind of all evil in the world is not original to Higgins, but an old trope on the conspiratorial far right. The actual historical “cultural Marxists” were the Frankfurt School of social thinkers who formed in the 1920s, notably T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (some parallel thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs are also sometimes grouped with them). The Frankfurt School emerged during the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, both movements they opposed. What defined the Frankfurt School was their argument that a purely economic account of history was inadequate for accounting for the new dictatorships. Instead, there was a need for cultural analysis of authoritarianism, racism, and patriarchy.

During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, then teaching in San Diego, rose to prominence as a mentor to the New Left. Angela Davis, who also studied with Adorno, was Marcuse’s protege, and some New Left activists cited Marcuse’s abstruse works. Right-wing groups, notably the John Birch Society, made Marcuse a scapegoat for the upheavals of the 1960s. Marcuse himself received death threats from a right-wing militia. In a 1971 interview with Playboy, actor John Wayne blamed Marcuse for student protests, saying, “Marcuse has become a hero only for an articulate clique. The men that give me faith in my country are fellas like Spiro Agnew, not the Marcuses.”

The conspiracy theory was later revived in the 1980s by the paleo-conservative thinker William S. Lind, who claimed that the Frankfurt School was the foundation for political correctness. Via Lind, it has become a popular argument on the far right, often cited by figures like columnist Pat Buchanan and the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. In a 2012 interview, Buchanan said, “Cultural Marxism has certainly been more successful than the economic Marxism of the 19th century and the Leninism associated with it.” The theory that the Frankfurt School is the root of political correctness is historically absurd. Anti-racism, feminism, and the gay rights movement all have roots that well precede the Frankfurt School and owe far more to the activism of women, people of color, and LGBT individuals than to any German theorist. While Marcuse was friendly with the New Left, his main work dealt with themes of the impact of technology that are far removed from political activism. Although nominally they were on the political left, Adorno and the other members of the Frankfurt School had little truck with activism (and indeed were often accused by their students of being hermetically removed from practical politics). In an infamous 1969 incident, feminist students mocked what they saw as Adorno’s prudishness by baring their breasts to him. Adorno was a deeply Eurocentric thinker who hated jazz. Horkheimer defended the Vietnam War and admired the Catholic Church’s stance against birth control. These are not thinkers than can plausibly be seen as the creators of modern political correctness or debates about identity politics.

But the “cultural Marxism” myth persists because it’s convenient for the right, allowing them to pretend that bigotry is not a real problem but rather an ideology created by sinister thinkers, who, as it happens, were Jewish. As Jason Wilson noted in The Guardian, “The theory of cultural Marxism is also blatantly antisemitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war.”

The fact that Trump reportedly loved this memo is deeply disturbing. It’s one thing to say that the extent of racism, sexism, and homophobia can be debated. It’s much more extreme to argue that racism, sexism, and homophobia don’t exist at all, but are illusions created by crafty thinkers to fool the masses.









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Peter Berger Dies. Our Knowledge is Not Our Own
6/28/2017 6:06:36 PM

Brian Steensland of Indiana University – Purdue University at Indianapolis has sent news of the death of a major figure in the field of sociology of religion, a person many of whose books I have read and who had a major influence in my early thinking:
Dear colleagues: I write with sadness to pass on the news that Peter Berger, a towering intellect in our field for over 50 years, died late Tuesday evening. Although his death was somewhat unexpected, he had suffered a number of complications from a recent illness. Berger was Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology at Boston University and the author of many influential books, including The Sacred Canopy, A Rumor of Angels, The Desecularization of the World, and The Many Altars of Modernity. His son Thomas Berger is Professor of International Relations at Boston University's Pardee School, and his wife Brigitte Berger, who died in 2015, was Professor Emerita of Sociology at Boston University.

It is anticipated that a memorial service will be held in the fall. The sociology of religion community will want to honor his contributions to our field. There will no doubt be more details emerging in the weeks ahead.


The most important book of his for me was The Noise of Solemn Assemblies which led me to think about the church sociologically. Sociology is a way of thinking that is threatening to the most common assumptions of people in a democratic society where people believe their ideas are in their own minds and they have a right to their own opinion. Berger's focus, the sociology of knowledge, is based on the idea that people's thoughts are not their own but are received from the groups to which a person belongs. If you are a peasant on the farm you will think as peasants think. If you are a businessman you will think as businessmen think. It's pretty hard to argue with, as a rule. But we all live with the fiction that our own thoughts are our own thoughts and we resent it if anyone suggests that our thoughts are anything but based on our own choices.

When I was reading Berger in college I was also reading Soren Kierkegaard whose large body of work is dedicated to the "solitary individual" who must stand alone before God and make up his or her mind about eternity. Kierkegaard was fiercely opposed to "the herd", the mass of public opinion that supposedly everyone should accept and believe. People today believe in this kind of individualism so strongly today that they are not even aware of the degree to which their thinking is, indeed, determined by the groups with which they affiliate. If you don't agree with the group you can't be a part of the group; that's the political and social imperative. And politically, people are today arranged in highly hostile, opposing groups, each with a claim to their own ideas. It's a complicate world.

I found a helpful interview transcription here from 2013. I don't agree with Berger at the end of this interview when he says that the doctrines of religious groups don't really matter to people.

I parted company with Berger when he started to write from what people considered a very conservative perspective, such as his association with Richard John Neuhaus. I came to favor a different social theory, that called "critical social theory" of the Frankfurt School, which offered its own profound critique of the Enlightenment and modernity.

But Berger helps us understand that it's not just what or how we think that makes the difference, it is what groups we choose to participate with. Those groups will influence how we think whether we think so or not.




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Talking It Through
4/15/2017 3:50:39 PM

My children probably have memories of when they had to go have a "talk with papa". This idea, that it can be helpful to talk things through, was not just an accident.

It had to do with my reading of a social philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, perhaps the most important thinker in Germany in the post-war period. He focused not just on the individual (psychology) and not just on the community (sociology, political science), but on the interaction between the two. And the means of that interaction, when you think about it, is language, the way people talk with one another.

It was when I worked at Bemidji State University that I began to think that the most helpful focus for thought was the interaction between the individual and the environment. But it was not until I was working for a metropolitan planning agency in St. Paul, Minnesota, that I ran into Habermas. He was part of a school of thought called "critical theory" which had provided the philosophical basis for some of the movements of the 1960s.

If you don't talk things through what's the option? Only power and force. The United States is an extremely violent country. Though we are a democracy, which seemingly relies on talking things through, we actually operate on the basis of police power domestically and military force overseas. I think this is partially explained by the history of slavery in the South, which was extremely violent. The need to use force to keep blacks and people of color in line is deeply embedded in the white psyche of the country (based in fear). We now have an administration that believes not in talking, not in education, not in discussion in the political process, but in force and dominance.

Still, the ideas of Habermas can be helpful. A big new biography has been published. Here is a review.




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Understanding the Context for Preaching
7/16/2016 3:20:57 PM

Over the years at seminaries around the country there has been growing awareness of the importance of "context" for ministry and preaching. It is not just doctrine, theology, or text, that is important, but these cannot be understood without some view or perspective of the current world in which we live and see and speak. And we can't just take that for granted, as if current social/political/economic views are so clear or obvious. Right now, for example, we see on television cable news twenty-four hour descriptions of the violence of terrorism, killing of black people by police, and in Dallas the killing of white police by a young black former soldier. How to interpret the depth of racial and class division in our society is not so easy. And yet not to speak of it at all is pretending the church has not interest in the world at all, which is completely against what we see Jesus doing in the bible all the time, walking the streets of his time.

Just what perspective to take on our current historical context is not an easy question. But for years I have been reading something known as "critical theory" which emerged from among some mainly Jewish thinkers in the Weimar Period in Germany. They had to leave when Hitler took power, came to New York, and then returned to Germany after the war. One figure was Walter Benjamin who died trying to escape the Nazis. He is known now as one who had amazing powers of observation of his times including both the rise of fascism and the influence of capitalism and consumerism.

I have placed on the website a helpful article which compares the Weimar Period with our own times. I mention there that the views of Jews in Germany at that time are "views from below", that is, the intellectual understandings coming from those were the victims of a terrible genocide. We are more likely to get real truth from victims than oppressors. The bible itself is the record of history of a little known people in the Middle East, the Israelites, not the history of one of the great empires of the time. Jesus was not a soldier or a government official or a politician, he was a teacher and viewed the world from below, along with a few fishermen and other workers.

So to understand the "context for preaching" today it is wise to consider the views of those who are seeing the world from below, not those who are in powerful positions, and especially not those who only report the views of the powerful. I hope you find the Benjamin article helpful as we seek to understand our own times.






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A Dark Day for the UK
6/24/2016 1:33:14 PM

Stuart Eldon produces a website on "Progressive Geographies" which combines geography with critical social theory especially including studies from Michel Foucault, the French philosopher I have been reading for some years now. Eldon is a person I have come to respect for his lucid commentary on many items. His comments on the recent decision of Britain to leave the European Union is worthy of much reflection:

Yet again I find myself in a minority in a national vote. It was hard to take in the past – 1992, 2010, 2015 – but with those there was always the hope for the future. Now it is hard to see where. This is a backward step that cannot be reversed. This vote was always about more than EU membership. It was a vote about what kind of UK the people wanted. An open, inclusive, tolerant nation that saw itself as part of a wider world; or a closed one which saw divisions and barriers which it wanted hardened. 17.5 million people have voted for the latter. Some of those people may claim that they saw the vote as means of achieving the former, and I look forward to hearing from the left-exit voters and leaders how they will go about that. It seems clear, as it always appeared, that this has simply handed further power to the right.

For the past year I’ve had a divided life between home in Coventry – near University of Warwick – and a rented flat in London, in the borough of Lambeth, which is close to where my wife works. Coventry voted to leave; Lambeth had one of the strongest remain votes. When the votes came in for Newcastle and Sunderland it was clear which way things were going. As someone who used to live in the northeast when I taught at Durham University it is devastating to see that the huge problems of that region are blamed on the EU and migration rather than domestic politics. Other places I’ve previously lived such as York and Bath voted to remain. The town I was born in, Ipswich, and the town where I grew up, Colchester, voted to leave. It is a divided country, by class, geography, age and other factors which may take some time to disentangle. 16 million people voted to remain. That at least gives some hope. But this was a one-off vote, the process begun cannot be reversed. Worse is to come. While the parties may have short term joy, the UK Independence Party and the bulk of the Conservative and Unionist party may have destroyed both the UK and the Union.

As an English European, an identity I saw as mutually reinforcing, rather than as an either/or, I feel that a part of that is being taken away. The EU was far from perfect, and there were serious problems with its democracy, its economic policies, its migration attitude and more. But it was a shared project to say that Europe in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond could be better, not just compared to the first half of the twentieth century but the centuries that came before. As a historian, a political theorist, a political geographer, those issues are very much in my mind. I have worked on two main topics in my research and teaching career – European thought and the question of territory. I will doubtless find ways to engage with the future politics and geography of the European continent, a continent of which the UK is and will remain a part, even though its future lies outside of the EU.

I worry for my non-British European PhD students, my European colleagues and friends who have made a life in the UK. I worry for my nieces and nephews, and the country they will grow up in. I worry for the future life of migrants, and the welcome they will, or will not, receive. I am married to a migrant, a US citizen who came here when we got married, took jobs in the UK, took citizenship and now works for the UK government on international development. What will be the future of that part of the UK’s role in the world? I worry for the future of the European project, which both includes and exceeds the EU. This is a dark day. Perhaps something good will come of this, but at the moment it is hard to see quite how.

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Jurgen Habermas: A New Possibility for Europe
7/21/2015 3:21:23 PM

During the late 1970s I was responsible for conceptual development in a policy planning process at the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minnesota. I read a lot of books on social theory and planning. One was by Jurgen Habermas on communication and that led me to critical theory and the Frankfurt School.

This became especially interesting to me because as a pastor I had studied Lutheran social ethics and was puzzled by why Lutherans, both theologians and lay people, had not been able to more strongly and widely reject the fascist political program of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Frankfurt School was a group of primarily Jewish intellectuals who did criticize Hitler, left Germany for a time in New York City at Columbia University, and after the war returned to Germany. The theologian Paul Tillich had interacted with the group in Frankfurt. Here was a group of thinkers who were able to be critical of "modernity" and "progress" especially as it was taking an extreme form in Germany.

The fact that these intellectuals were Jewish, for the most part, was no small thing. As time went on I realized I was attracted to this thinking partly because it was being done by the very people who were the target of Hitler's genocide. Those on the underside of power are able to see the truth about power better than those who benefit from power.

Habermas went on to become the foremost social thinker alive today. His focus on discourse theory is especially interesting to a Lutheran pastor since preaching the word is considered the very source of salvation in Lutheran theology.

Now Habermas has written a book having to do with the current great problems in Europe called The Lure of Technocracy in which he promotes greater democratic solidarity in Europe over against its growing technocratic bureaucracy. I have placed a review of this book on the website here.




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Whose Speech is Actually Free?
1/14/2015 6:12:48 PM

Rodney D. Coates is the interim director of Black World Studies and a professor of sociology, social justice and gerontology at Miami University at Oxford, Ohio. He moderates an email list on critical sociology and today published on that list what I thought was an outstanding comment. So I have added it here:

The Internet and media across this country and world are all ablaze with the story – 12 shot dead because they dared to publish cartoons. Cartoons should make us laugh, not get us killed. But cartoons, unlike the old adage, are more than words and they can indeed cause harm and be very hurtful.

The cartoons that appeared in "Charlie Hebdo" universally were in poor taste, often racist and always pointed. When the rich and affluent are targeted, they can shrug and say it comes with the turf. But when those being targeted are racial or religious minorities – already pushed down, marginalized and ridiculed – it appears to be more than just fun, more than just comedy but is a tragedy. I have listened to this conversation and find myself torn.

Throughout this whole conversation, I have been troubled by how different issues, ideas and representations are expressed and understood. At the core of some of the madness surrounding these issues is how they are interpreted within and outside of various cultures. I believe that we, in the imperial West, have a decidedly different historical and cultural interpretation and value given to what is now being phrased as freedom of speech, than many other cultures and historical periods.

Particularly within the U.S. cultural stream, we have grown accustomed to what some may call an extreme faith in the "freedom of speech" – so extreme that the KKK is allowed to put up a cross during Christmas, to march in Jewish communities, even to adopt a highway. Under the guise of freedom of speech, all manner of very offensive, hurtful expressions have been permitted.

We have also gone through a period under McCarthyism, an era in which speech was decidedly curtailed, even criminalized. We have gone through a period in which Christian bigots have bludgeoned us with their notions of right and wrong. We have seen where the FBI and CIA have through counterintelligence programs used incendiary speech, rhetoric and outright lies to condemn, distort and even destroy reputations. We have undergone repression of speech in our attempt to silence those whose values are quite different from our own – repressing speech that's so-called pornographic, communist, civil rights, radical, peace, etc.

Even as we speak, there are efforts in many states to restrict or eliminate the teaching of ethnic and gender studies – to eliminate, for instance, any conversation regarding gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals.

I have experienced the covert racist/sexist/classist environments where academia is ever so "correct" in its framing of its conversation all the while it continues to circumvent any real change. Such forms of racism, sexism and classism become once again the norm, while we are careful not to say the N-word or others deemed unacceptable.

Works from James Baldwin to Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison to Maya Angelou, Alvin Schwartz to Judy Blume, Zora Neal Hurston to Toni Morrison become exiled to special collections that students are prohibited to read. All the while, we are having teas and ice cream socials, bemoaning the good ole days when minorities knew their places and real men were free to do whatever they chose.

It is this history, and the contemporary reality in the United States, that will make many of us who still remember being at the bottom of the barrel forever cringe when someone challenges the freedom of speech. We come out of a place where our speech was not so free. And so, as we mourn the death of those in France, we must never forget that freedom is never free. Neither can we forget that with freedom comes both humility and responsibility.



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Why Habermas?
3/11/2009 11:45:24 AM

I am putting some items about Jurgen Habermas and religion on the site right now. I first started reading Habermas when a friend who was a communication theorist suggested him to me when we were both involved in social policy planning at the Metro Council of the Twin Cities in the 1970s. I discovered Habermas was continuing in the tradition of Social Critical Theory of the Frankfurt Institute. I had become acquainted with critical theory through the book Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay which is a history of the Frankfurt Institute. Critical theory was said to have provided the intellectual background for the New Left movement of the 1960s, so I thought I would dig into it, and have been reading it ever since.

Habermas has moved away from some of the positions of the older critical theory and has become the leading social theorist in Germany. It was particularly his focus on "the linguistic turn" in philosophy that caught my attention, the active role of words creating inter-subjective understanding leading to the possibility of mutual action in the "public sphere," a term associated with Habermas. This emphasis on words, of course, is part of the Lutheran theological tradition.

Though older now, Habermas continues to play a key role in philosophical debate. He recently has been saying that religious faith has a legitimate role in public debate. His works are part of the content we want to explore at this website.
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