Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, by Robby Soave (All Points Books, 336 pp., $27.99)
Robby Soave’s Panic Attack is an account of how the Left, in its pursuit of power—as with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the Russia hoax—has lost touch with reality. Soave focuses on intersectionality, the cleverly constructed idea of dual oppressions, now a pathway to power for purported victims on college campuses. “Intersectionality,” as Soave explains it, “holds that each individual is the expert when it comes to his or her own oppression.” One should never engage alleged victims, moreover, since it’s considered wrong to question their imagined subjugation.
In some ways, the current age of victimhood has roots in the excesses of Second Wave feminism of the 1970s. The theme of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s bestselling Sybil (published in 1973) was that some American women were so oppressed that they split themselves into multiple personalities, as a defense. Marketed as nonfiction, Sybil became a national sensation, with 6 million copies sold and 40 million Americans watching a two-part television series based on the book. Thirty-eight years later, it was exposed as a hoax.
Soave missed Sybil but picks up the story with Gloria Steinem’s role in promoting the repressed-memory panic of the 1980s and 1990s, when “psychotherapists, social workers, and gullible reporters” believed that Satanic cults were sexually abusing children. Steinem, joining her fellow comrades, proclaimed “believe the children,” a slogan that accompanied innocent people to long jail terms. As late as 1993, Steinem’s Ms. ran the headline: “Believe it! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists.”
Another vital root of today’s “woke” ideologies lies in perhaps the most overlooked development of the last 30 years: the Soviet Union’s collapse, which was met with a stunning intellectual indolence, from Washington to academia. What followed the USSR’s demise was the first left-wing movement in history to oppose the Enlightenment. Ironically, it was French thinkers, from Michel Foucault to Jacques Lacan, who reduced the idea of truth to the status of a social construct. In effect, the realities of Communist failure were obscured by the mystifications of postmodernism. “It was as if,” notes Hilton Kramer, “an intellectual Iron Curtain of highly sophisticated mendacity had been erected in anticipation of the fall of the actual Iron Curtain in order to forestall any prospect of a moral reckoning.” Kramer argued that a serious audit of Communism’s crimes would have shut the door on utopia, but postmodernism succeeded in sidestepping the mass graves. A moral reckoning never occurred. Instead, postmodernists have made numerous attempts to rescue utopia—this time constructed out of the Lego-like building blocks of intersectionality.
Most of Panic Attack focuses on workmanlike discussions of well-known campus inanity. Soave recounts, for example, the antics of Emma Sulkowicz—Columbia University’s famous “mattress girl”—who accused a regular sexual partner, Paul Nungesser, of rape. A panel of Columbia administrators subsequently cleared him. That should have been the end of it, but Sulkowicz persisted, walking around campus with a mattress on her back to dramatize Columbia’s supposed rape culture. The School of Arts ultimately allowed Sulkowicz to pawn off her pathetic display as an example of performance art; it even earned her a Columbia degree.
When it comes to explaining the whys of campus degeneration, Soave rightly points to the dramatic expansion in the number of academic administrators. Colleges and universities now have more bureaucrats—many devoted to diversity programs—than instructors. This helps explain some of the mechanisms for the campus decline but not the contemporary political meaning. Our elite schools have become training grounds for what Zach Goldberg has described in Tablet as a “white savior class”: upper-middle-class “woke” liberals educated in intersectionality, more in favor of reparations than African-Americans as a group, and more supportive of open borders than Mexican-Americans as a group. (The men are even more feminist than women.) Their mission, to put it bluntly, is to keep the middle class in its place: beneath them.
As the great historian of French Bolshevism, François Furet, explained, Communism appealed to aristocrats and intellectuals because it promised to crush the bourgeoisie. Today’s would-be aristocrats carry on in that mold. As Soave shows, they are trained in the soft Stalinism of intersectionality, under collegiate social control—then they graduate, eager to wield political correctness as a cudgel to smite the deplorables.
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