Zero Squared #89: Deplorables

Nov 17th, 2016 | By | Category: Articles, Zero Squared

rectenwaldNYU professor Michael Rectenwald is the guest this week. Rectenwald was recently at the center of a small controversy at NYU because, after being called out on Facebook for posting a link to an article mocking the need for alternative pronouns for all the various genders, he decided to create an alt-right persona and critique SJWs on twitter. When he announced the results of this “experiment” in an interview for the Washington Square News a slightly larger controversy erupted. His colleagues signed a collective letter criticizing his illogical rhetoric, finishing with the line “the cause of Professor Rectenwald’s guilt is certainly no, in our view, his identity as a cis, white, straight male. The cause of his guilt is the content and structure of his thinking.”
After this Rectenwald took a leave of absence from his University. With a little investigation it appears that he requested this leave of absence, but insinuated that the leave was not voluntary.

His story went somewhat viral. He was interviewed for various publications and penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post with the headline: “Here’s what happened when I challenged the PC campus culture at NYU.” He wrote, “I was strongly encouraged to take a paid leave of absence [and told] that it had nothing to do with my recent media posture. That’s not exactly how I see it.”
However, soon after this was published some of Rectenwald’s private emails were also published, namely a correspondence between NYU Dean Schwarzbach and Rectenwald. This correspondence made it clear that the leave of absence had been granted at Rectenwald’s request. The final email from Schwarzbach concludes.

"For us to be clear on your needs, we require you to state unequivocally and in a direct, unambiguous response whether you still need the leave you requested. I expect that answer—whichever you give—to be henceforth the same in all settings. If you cannot do that, at this point, I think I have no choice but to make a decision based on your public utterances, and the leave you requested—apparently under false pretenses—is withdrawn, and you are expected to meet your classes as assigned."

I do not know if Rectenwald is now back at NYU and teaching or if his leave was extended, but I do know that all of this went on while the possibility of his promotion was being determined and that he eventually was promoted to the level of full professor.

From the outside, and with the facts that I have so far, it looks to me like Rectenwald pulled this stunt in order to create a context wherein his being passed over for promotion would have negative political consequences for the university. That isn’t a demonstrable fact, and if Rectenwald wants to return to the podcast in order to explain his side of the story more fully I’d be glad to talk to him again.

At the time this was recorded Trump had not been elected and I was very sympathetic to his cause.

I should take a moment to talk about that last fact. The fact that Donald Trump was elected is a game changer. The notion of safe spaces, for instance, has an entirely different connotation now that Stephen Bannon has been selected to be Trump’s chief of staff in the oval office. That said, the need for overcoming racial divides, for creating alliances and struggling together as a people regardless of race is the only way to amass enough political power to effectively fight back.

The degree to which Rectenwald’s claim that identity politics on the left feeds and strengthens identity politics on the alt-right is worthy of consideration outside the context of Rectenwald’s shenanigans. Standing in solidarity with all the different people who Trump is scapegoating, making sure we protect and defend each other from attack, is necessary. Combating racism is an immediate priority even as we return to the task of changing the economic foundation that generates racism and divides us.

If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!

3 Comments to “Zero Squared #89: Deplorables”

  1. Justin P. says:

    I want to begin by saying that I am coming to this as a long-time fan—one whose listened through (nearly) every episode of Zero Squared, as well as Diet Soap before it (and one who deeply misses The Double Feature Review).

    But, nonetheless, I was struck by the sheer absurdity of this most recent episode with Rectenwald.

    Rectenwald is nothing other than a petulant man-child, with a deep victim-complex. One who seems completely incapable of differentiating authoritarian oppression from people simply disagreeing with him. He presented no evidence of censorship, of the restriction of his speech, or even of the so-called “group think” that he rails against, other than that multiple people thought he was wrong at the same time. Worse, as you note in your opening, Rectenwald actively misrepresents his situation.

    This all seems to emerge from Zero Squared’s increasingly paranoid constant attack on the boogeyman of “PC culture” (*gasp*), an attack which, at least in this instance, seems to have justified the publication of a completely pointless interview with an internet troll. One who, it is worth reminding ourselves, openly admits 1.) that he didn’t even receive negative feed-back from his “experiment” 2.) has no experience or training in the area that he is ranting about, and 3.) misrepresents his relationship to NYU.

    Some interviews are better left on the cutting room floor.

  2. Joanna Demers says:

    To begin, I’ve never met or communicated with Prof. Rectenwald, nor with anyone (faculty or students) at NYU. I don’t have any information about this situation other than that presented in the introduction to this podcast, and of course the interview itself. Given this, I feel that it’s unfair to label Prof. Rectenwald as petulant, or to otherwise cast judgment on the situation he describes. As far as I can tell, he did not misrepresent the terms of his leave; he merely said what any faculty member would likely be ordered to say in these circumstances, i.e., that they can’t discuss the situation.

    As for the response to Rechtenwald’s initial Facebook posting, and the subsequent response to his alt-right identity: I disagree with the contention that this is somehow blowing the situation out of proportion. The pressure on faculty to adhere to one particular type of inclusive, non-offensive discourse is enormous. It really is as bad as he says. And while this pressure may seem to be the result of a cabal from entitled students and faculty, the big Other here is ultimately the fear of litigation. It’s useless to demonize SJWs or administrators or faculty, when all of us in the end are forced to adhere to this type of discourse for fear of getting sued. Again, progressive liberals make the mistake of thinking that their work toward inclusion is fighting against the system; it has long ago become a mechanism of hegemony. Reading Zizek’s “Living in the End Times” could be instructive here (another workshop suggestion!).

    Doug, I think this was a good interview, and Prof. Rechtenwald, stay strong!

Leave a Comment