Ask someone who works in the theoretical humanities to define postmodernism for you, and “an anti-Semitic dogwhistle” is not likely the answer that you would expect. And yet, this is increasingly the context in which the term is used today.
This is not to imply that those who use the term in conversation or politely inquire about its meaning necessarily harbor hateful intent. A dogwhistle can be either explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. A dogwhistle is a form of coded political speech, a clandestine communication able to be recognized by a select group for its subliminal content. An individual does not need to be conscious of using a dogwhistle in order for a dogwhistle to be a dogwhistle; because the intent behind the words I speak is never made fully explicit to you, the listener, such terms float relatively freely of intention and causation alike. If a dogwhistle signals to the listener an implicit affirmation or coded command, this can have the effect of completing the causal circuit of communication relatively independent of intentionality. The political signifier often enjoys a life of its own.
And so, the proposition that “postmodern” has become an anti-Semitic dogwhistle minimally implies that the term serves a function in political discourse, relatively independent of our intentions, that is consistent with present and historical forms of oppression and political violence committed against the Jewish people. “Postmodern” has become a dogwhistle in radical right-wing circles, where it is often appended with “cultural Marxist,” “neo-Marxist,” or “globalist.” As has often been the case in history, leftists have not been immune to reproducing this exclusionary discourse. Marxist-Leninists and neo-Trotskyites in their anti-intellectualist polemics decry “academic Marxism” as woefully “postmodern”; that is to say, bourgeois, obscurantist, and irrelevant.
At a certain point, the forced repetition of a term produces the effect of depriving it of meaning. This is a phenomenon known as semantic satiation. In what follows, I argue that it is impossible to understand the term “postmodern,” in the sense given to it by its right-wing and left-wing populist critics sketched above, as anything but a red herring for an ambiguously anti-elitist and anti-intellectual political stance, targeted at universities. I then draw the connection between anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism, specifically pointing to the 1933-35 purge of Jewish students and professors by the Nazis from German universities, in a policy known as the “cleansing” (Saeuberung). Analysis of the discourse on radical right-wing platforms such as Gab, used by Robert Bowers to spew hatred against Jews in the final moments leading up to his ignominious murder of eleven worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, reveals that this connection is alive and well today. Lastly, I consider what a non-populist alternative to the left-wing critique of the discourse of “postmodernism” might amount to, and how the formulation of such a critique might help us to uproot all forms of exclusionary politics from our movements.
“Postmodern neo-Marxist” became a term of common currency in the anti-intellectualist jeremiads of former University of Toronto professor and high priest of the manosphere, Jordan Peterson. Peterson first gained notoriety in his acrid YouTube denunciations of Canada’s Bill C-16, an amendment that introduced protections for “gender expression or identity” to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code when it was passed in June 2017. Many have pointed out how Peterson simply failed to understand the scope of the Criminal Code and the new provisions—among them, members of the law faculty at the very institution where he formerly taught. Yet Peterson has thus far remained wilfully obtuse in the face of their consultations.
It is not my intention to unpack Peterson’s reactionary attacks on the equal rights of trans and non-gender conforming people here. It is, however, important to situate this controversy at the heart of Jordan Peterson’s ongoing war against the academy, and what he perceives as rampant leftism running riot in the hallways of humanities and social sciences departments. When Jordan Peterson raises the specters of “postmodernism” or “neo-Marxism,” it is not in order to engage in an intellectually honest critique with rival ideologies; it is, rather, to position these terms as empty signifiers or catch-alls meant to ensnare his political enemies in the academy in the web of Jordan Peterson’s conspiratorial fabrications.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with social theory or the history of ideas would be well disposed to respond to Peterson’s critiques as Inigo Montoya does in The Princess Bride—pointing out, with a look of bepuzzlement, that the words “postmodern neo-Marxist” do not seem to mean what he thinks they mean. Peterson presents severely distorted accounts of key purportedly “postmodern” theorists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, incorrectly depicting them as simple relativists, while holding they and their ilk accountable for the spread of “cult-like behaviour” and a petty totalitarianism of “safe spaces.” Here as elsewhere, Peterson fails to engage his targets in a direct and intellectually honest way, basing his critiques on a secondary source (Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks—which has itself been discredited) while nowhere citing Foucault or Derrida directly. In a popular YouTube video, entitled Political Correctness and Postmodernism, Peterson constructs shoddy strawmen of Foucault and Derrida before advancing his own aberrant social Darwinism thinly veiled as an evolutionary psychology heavily influenced by Jung.
What is clear is that Peterson’s concern is not to engage the alleged ideologues of “postmodernism” as such, but rather, to challenge the proliferation of PC-culture and identity politics across university campuses. Doubtless there is plenty to be critical of here. My intention, however, is not to mount such a critique, but to analyze the nuts and bolts of the anti-intellectualist discourse and anti-Semitic dogwhistles that Peterson employs. Peterson’s “postmodern neo-Marxism” is a degenerate form (“degenerate” because it literally signifies nothing) of the “cultural Marxist” conspiracy theories peddled by paleocons in the early days of the culture wars of the late 1990s.
Like Peterson, the paleocons used “cultural Marxism” to attack the academic left, employing neo-McCarthyite “Red Scare” tactics to legitimize their attacks over fears that the spread of political correctness, multiculturalism, and progressive politics would inevitably upturn all that is holy in western capitalist society. Former presidential candidate and paleolibertarian Ron Paul came under fire this July for a racist and anti-Semitic cartoon sent out on his Twitter account, swiftly deleted following the backlash. The cartoon showed a group of men depicting racial and ethnic stereotypes—one Asian with slanted eyes, another Jewish with a hooked nose, a third African with exaggerated lips—beating up Uncle Sam while shouting in unison, “Cultural Marxism!” The habitual intellectual foils of the paleocons were not “postmodernists” like Foucault and Derrida, but rather thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, associated with the Frankfurt School. Besides their commonly held theoretical assumptions, what these thinkers shared was their status as exiled Jewish intellectuals and political émigrés who fled Germany during the war. (The exception would be Walter Benjamin. Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, after being stopped by police crossing the Franco-Spanish border en route to the United States.)
In the wake of Robert Bowers’ attack on the Squirrel Hill Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Peterson posted a telling Tweet, dated October 29th, in an apparently half-baked moment of self-awareness. “Half-baked” because, in crafting this Tweet, Peterson demonstrates an awareness that at least some of his followers harbor anti-Semitic hatred and/or neo-Nazi ideology, all while he seemingly regards this as simply an unhappy accident. The Tweet reads, “All you using (((three brackets))) online to oh-so-cleverly disguise your pathetically fashionable antisemitism might reflect today on what responsibility you bear for this.” This, plus an earlier Tweet in which Peterson states that Trump Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh should step down if confirmed, have divided Peterson’s base. Where once the Cold War era anti-communist crusader had been an uncontested darling of the Dark Web, today Peterson is being subjected to the same anti-Semitic vitriol that he helped galvanize. One comment on the Tweet quoted above reads, “I guess fame really did get to your head and now you’re one of (((them))).” Another reads, “(((Judas Peterstein))),” with a slew of isomorphic comments substituting Peterson’s real name for the rather dimwitted pun. Regardless of whether Peterson was fully conscious of doing so, his dogwhistle politics and anti-intellectualism have helped stoke anti-Semitic hatred, playing directly into the pockets of right-wing populism, white supremacy and neo-reaction.
Perhaps we can cut Jordan Peterson some slack (if only for a moment). Anti-Semitism, after all, is as old as the nation-state. The roots of American anti-Semitism lie deeper than any sole individual can claim credit for sowing. We sometimes remember anti-Semitism as if it were particularly endemic to German society in the 1930s and 1940s, immediately recognized from the outside as an unqualified evil which the forces of universal good would be called upon to end. Nothing could be further from historical reality. We can easily find ways in which the United States, Britain and France were equally, if not more anti-Semitic than the Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Many Jewish refugees faced equally insurmountable challenges finding sanctuary as they did fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism in the United States, combined with a general opposition to immigration and the lasting economic effects of the Great Depression, proved a real obstacle to the resettlement of massive numbers of forcibly displaced migrants and refugees during and after the war. The US accepted only a fraction of its quota, compared with the vast majority of the resettlement burden shouldered by neutral European neighbours. The German American Bund—a pro-Nazi organization consisting of some 25,000 members at its height—held massive rallies, dressed in Nazi regalia and parading flags with swastikas around New York City through the late 1930s. The Bund also peddled the conspiracy theory of “Jewish Bolshevism,” which was the “cultural Marxism” or “postmodern neo-Marxism” of its day. As indicated by national public opinion polls conducted between the mid-1930s and late 1940s, over half of the American population saw Jews “as greedy and dishonest,” with as much as 35-40% of the population “prepared to accept an anti-Jewish campaign.” Jews were blamed by right-wing demagogues for causing the Great Depression, with President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” disdainfully referred to as the “Jew Deal.” Henry Ford, a non-interventionist anti-Semite and ousted member of the America First Committee, reportedly believed that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an anti-Semitic propaganda piece fabricated in Russia in 1903)was a legitimate document, and funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies throughout the United States.
American anti-Semitism in the postwar era took on a more decidedly anti-intellectualist and anti-communist tone. The McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts were also to comprise the first fully coordinated assault on academic freedoms in the United States, through the politicization of left-wing “subversion” in American universities as an anti-American activity. Of the 124 people questioned before McCarthy’s infamous Senate Committee hearings, 79 were Jewish. Though broadly insubstantial in terms of its baseless accusations, McCarthy’s zealous anti-communist windbagging surely made an impressive propaganda display. Some of those questioned were forced to step down from their positions, in spite of the baselessness of the charges brought against them, simply due to the hostility of peers and professional colleagues in the wake of the hearings. Moreover, the spectacle around the hearings and the Red Scare tactics of the American state during the Cold War contributed to an atmosphere of fear in prominent institutions like Harvard, where academics—especially Jewish intellectuals—routinely refrained from speaking out, despairing of possible reprisals. In this respect, Peterson lifts directly from the McCarthyite playbook: the more baseless the accusations, the better; the more spectacular the nonsense, the more effective the discourse.
McCarthy, in turn, appears to have drawn inspiration from the Nazi playbook, following the model of Saeuberung: the racial policy of “cleansing” Jews from prominent positions in society, particularly Jewish students and professors from German universities. The purge of Jews from universities began in earnest between 1933 and 1935, when over 14% of the previous year’s faculty across all German universities (comprising some 1,145 Jewish professors) dismissed or given early retirement. By 1939, the number of dismissals tripled, leaving massive numbers of academic posts to be filled by those faithful to the Nazi party. It was during the leadup to this period that Austrian Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl was forced to give up his rectorate at Freiburg, having been suspended from the university on April 6th, 1933, and further barred from all university activities in the following week. By the end of the month, this prestigious rectorate was held by a former student of Husserl’s, one who signed a declaration and joined the Nazi party in exchange for the position. This young former student was none other than Martin Heidegger. The real irony in this scenario is that, if there is a quintessential “postmodern” philosopher (bracketing for the time being our usage of this term) then Heidegger is that philosopher. However, this would be to take seriously the idea of “postmodernism” as a heterogeneous set of responses to the legacies of Enlightenment and the perceived decline of modernity, rather than as a short circuit in an elaborate right-wing anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic conspiracy.
Alas, populism is a politics of the obtuse, rather than the nuanced. As if by pure force of repetition, the term “postmodern” has ceased to have any stable referent (if indeed it ever did—perhaps the only theorist to have used the term as a positive description in relation to their own philosophical project was one Jean-François Lyotard, who seldom appears in the diatribes of the new wave of populist critics). A quick keyword search for the term “postmodern” on Gab—the wretched hive of neo-fascistic scum and villainy dejected from the Twitterverse and frequented by Robert Bowers in the months leading up to the worst anti-Semitic terrorist attack in American history—yields a staggering number of results, ranging from the incendiary to the unintelligible. Responding to a topic on “Postmodernism Neo-Marxism,” one user posts, “Speak freely about ‘Postmodernism Neo-Marxism’ copy paste Protocols of Learned Elders of Zion.” The remaining comments read as your standard morass of narily qualified hate speech directed mostly at Jews, women, trans people, people of colour, etc. Jordan Peterson’s morose profile adorns the screenshot previews of a number of YouTube videos shared by users on the topic. In the aftermath of the Bowers attack, we would be foolish not to take seriously the connection between anti-Semitic hatred and the anti-intellectualist dogwhistling of the discourse surrounding “postmodernism.”
If the radical right-wing was actually concerned with the spread of “postmodernism,” they wouldn’t have much to do in terms of mounting an effective response. This is firstly because, as I have alluded, “postmodernism” has not ever and does not currently refer to a coherent set of political beliefs or theoretical assumptions, thinkers or ideologies. Better for the reactionary discourse that it does not, since the term can then function as a catch-all that ambiguously targets Jews, non-gender conforming and trans folk, political correctness, identity politics; in sum, all things associated with the “neo-Marxist” contamination allegedly clustered in humanities and social sciences departments. Secondly, they won’t have much to do because these very departments already face an existential threat along economic lines, as the neoliberalization of the modern university has slowly chipped away at disciplines such as history, philosophy, English and gender studies, with the aim of transforming institutions of higher learning into glorified STEM-focused professional colleges that relate to their students as human capital rather than as human beings. Neoliberal policies of austerity have already done more to undercut (and to radicalize) the academic left than the radical right-wing likely could, at least in North America. Still, one gets the impression that the “postmodern neo-Marxist” spook is working insidiously to lay the mystical ground for more violent crackdowns, like those recently carried out by Jair Bolsonaro’s regime in Brazil, where literatures about the history of fascism and anti-fascist propaganda materials were stolen and destroyed. According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, the rise of fascist politics feeds off of such wildly implausible mystifications as these.
We could extend Arendt’s analysis and speak of the banality of populist critique, evoking her much cited concept of the “banality of evil” (originally coined in reference to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem). Populist critique is banal because it functions by uncritically circulating dogmatic tropes as covert dogwhistles, instead of explicitly articulating the insider/outsider distinctions that it perhaps unwittingly reproduces. Both left-wing and right-wing populist stances could be described as “banal” in this respect. There are those on the left who have attempted to make the connection between “postmodernism” and identity politics a pillar of their analysis of the spread of alien ideas in left-wing movements, especially in universities. Unfortunately, they have fallen for a right-wing canard, an anti-intellectual abstraction that has mutated into an anti-Semitic dogwhistle. The connection between “postmodernism” and identity politics is a non-connection, popularized by petulant ideologues like Jordan Peterson. Allegedly key “postmodern” thinkers like Foucault and Derrida would doubtlessly have decried the identity politics movement, on the basis of their shared anti-essentialism with respect to categories of identity (whereas IDpol typically positions itself as essentialist with respect to these categories). Any critique connecting “postmodernism” with IDpol would thus have to explain how it is that IDpol is supposed to have derived from “postmodernism” in spite of such rather crucial contradictions, which banal critique does not do.
We need to understand that anti-intellectualism is, classically, a class response. It is a response to elitism and the politics of technocratic liberalism or neoliberalism. Anti-intellectualism finds its natural complement in populist movements, but here it is too often channeled in a reactionary direction. Populist movements feed off of the politicization and proliferation of insider/outsider distinctions. Perhaps, in this regard, the rise of right-wing populism in America has been parasitic on a certain degree of already existing anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, as old as the country’s colonial beginnings. It is impingent on the left to formulate both an incisive (rather than banal) critique of the discourses employed by populist movements, as well as a radical alternative non-populist political program able to steer the working class away from the road of reaction.
In some ways, the right-wing populist fearmongers are right. The existential threat facing humanities and social sciences departments amid the neoliberalization of the modern university has produced the effect of building radical anti-capitalist ferment among individuals in those departments. It would be fair to say that such ferment is spreading faster among professional students, graduates and the permanent academic precariat, rather than the already established and tenured professoriat. This has nothing to do with “postmodern neo-Marxism,” and everything to do with the daily economic realities facing academics in the neoliberal university. Arguing a left-wing anti-intellectual populist tack will do little to win over these people; only a nuanced class analysis will do, coupled with the nuances of cultural criticism turned toward the culture wars as a site of class struggle. It is only by turning towards a critical analysis of the populist discourse in such a way that we are able to see how terms like “postmodernism,” riding on the coattails of a generalized anti-intellectualism, have mutated into anti-Semitic dogwhistles.