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A Student Voice: Critical Theories: An Antithesis of the American Idea

November 4, 2022
Alex Marashai is a graduate student at Northwood’s DeVos Graduate School of Management. This piece is an excerpt from a piece he authored as part of In Defense of Freedom, an essay series by Northwood University students.

To introduce a concept such as Critical Theory, a claim that will inevitably be regarded as extreme will have to be made: The Cold War that characterized the second half of the twentieth century never truly ended. It was and still is a conflict of multiple layers — political through Individualism against Collectivism, economic through Capitalism against Communism, cultural through the propagation of the above systems alongside world-altering achievements, and militaristic through proxy wars to duplicate both parties’ societal structures, among others.

Of course, the proverbial elephant in the room here is the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists. The largest and most powerful purveyor of far-Left society broke apart before our very eyes.

The USSR was only the captain of the metaphorical ship, however. The “crew” — the governments of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Laos, Marxist actors and supporters in nearly every nation, and Marxism itself — still propagate themselves to this day with varying degrees of success. Today, nearly 30 years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, three of the above entities pose the greatest threat to Western society and its systems rooted in classical liberalism: China, the followers of Marxism that litter the West, and Marxism itself. Indeed, in regards to the Cold War and its aforementioned elements, China has taken up the mantle as America’s rival and opposite; the Chinese government has been continuing the campaign for strength abroad, namely in Africa, and total domination within Asia.

Such is the state of the world in the 2020s; the modified continuation of the Cold War as a two-front conflict, already decades-old, with one flank occupied by a power on the opposite side of the globe. However, as Abraham Lincoln once declared in 1838: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

We may find for ourselves opportunistic, burgeoning adversaries in China and its communist, authoritarian government, but the greatest threat to the West’s (and particularly America’s) freedoms and liberties has and always will be its own citizenry. Indeed, on this second front of the neo-Cold War, it is the injection of Marxism into our institutions that is partially responsible for the political and social strife jostling the country. It is Critical Theory, made widespread within academia by the 1990s and set loose over the past decade, that is propagating the means towards their eventual desired end — the overthrowing and replacement of the entire American Idea.

Origins and History of Critical Theory

Despite the apparent recency of Critical Theory within the public sphere, its foundations can be traced all the way back to the 1960s with the initial arrival of Marxism as a serious discipline on American soil. Up until this point, Marxism had operated under its original concept of the working-class revolting against the capitalist class, until the eventual abolition of the class-based system would be brought about. However, it was evident as far back as World War I that this idea would never be feasible; from Lenin to Zedong to Castro, most if not all Communist uprisings were not the result of labor movements, but of groups of professional revolutionaries. For a Communist system to be installed, it requires intellectualism and leadership from well- read revolutionaries, and for it to persist, there must be an elite class — the central government, as history has shown — to ensure that the resulting Marxist or semi-Marxist society follows Communist or Socialist doctrine. The reasoning for this is important, and will be touched upon later.

Nevertheless, the Marxist Left (particularly in the United States) understood that their initial idea of bourgeoisie-proletariat conflict was never feasible. Thus, they pivoted; as Christopher Rufo of the Battlefront Research Center reveals, they “simply adapted their revolutionary theory to the social and racial unrest of the 1960s.” Instead of class-based conflict, the locus of their efforts settled upon the racial dynamics within the United States — thus becoming the basis of Critical Race Theory. Their ideology remained confined to the fringe corners of academia and scholarship until the 1990s, some Millennials — born within hard-Left Baby Boomer and Generation X households — pulled it from the classroom and into public institutions.

It is only within the past decade that Critical Theory has taken a major position within Leftist disciplines, however; it has transformed from an ideology few understood in 2011 to the go-to method of thought being employed within all levels of government, most public schools, and even the different branches of our military. Indeed, it is an infiltration running perpendicular to the ideals and societal systems the United States had been founded upon — an infiltration trying to pull at their very seams in this two-front Cold War.

However, at its most absolute core, this is nothing more than a problem — a highly complex and divisive problem, but a problem nonetheless. The first step to solving any problem is identification (not only of what could be causing the issue, but also of what makes it an issue in the first place). Thus, the only sensible step from here is to expose the many flaws and falsehoods that pepper Critical Theory. Perhaps then its proponents will be forced to come down from their soapboxes and resolve the inquiries and concerns surrounding their discipline in an honest manner.

Critical Theory – An Overview, and Its Most Important Sects

Critical Theory, in a certain sense, is relatively self-explanatory — it is a theory of thought focused on the criticism of modern society through revealing all the problems within it that a practitioner can and addressing them. On paper, this ideological framework does appear somewhat extreme, but not necessarily malicious. If anything, it is quite healthy for a society to identify problems within itself so that they may be reasonably resolved. However, to end the conversation at this basic definition would ignore the entire umbrella of thought that has developed within its shade. Indeed, it is tied to subjects such as intersectionality, Critical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, Postmodernism, and — most important of all — Critical Race Theory, all of which having been picked up and taken in by mainstream Leftist leaders across the country.

In the context of the United States, which differs from that of other post-industrial nations of the West, it is a given that different sects of Critical Theory carry different weights and hold differing degrees of prominence in the mainstream. While we all may have heard of any blend of the above branches listed and while each has their respective platforms in academia and in public discourse, none have been able to find purchases as stable and as deeply-rooted in American society as Postmodernism, Postcolonial Theory, and ultimately Critical Race Theory.

Postmodernism can be thought of as the “glue” or “mortar” that runs through all bricks of the Critical Theory estate. While somewhat difficult to define, the idea of Postmodernism propagates four major themes: the blurring of boundaries, whether they be between objective and subjective, truth and belief, science and the arts, man and its environment, or understandings of gender and sexuality; the power within language to control society by always being relational and deferring rather than objective; cultural relativism (the idea that cultural norms, traditions and beliefs are social constructs); and the removal of the individual and the universal, as postmodernists view autonomous individuality as mythical while considering universalities as anything between naiveties at best and attempts at forcing dominant ideas upon everyone at worst. Furthermore, its applications to knowledge and to the political sphere follow two basic principles — postmodernists tend to harbor radical skepticism about the obtainability of objective knowledge and truth, and they also argue that society is based upon systems of power and hierarchies which dictate what is known and how. In essence, Postmodernism is powered by the idea that the truth and knowledge that has been widely understood and believed by us citizens are constructed through dominant discourses and “language games” within our societies. While it is commonly believed to have died out before the 21st century, it is not reality; Postmodernism has simply grown up and adopted a goal-oriented mindset that has developed the branches of Critical Theory that have been outlined.

Even though Postmodernism is the “mortar” to all other Critical Theories, it is only the direct progenitor of one Critical sect: Postcolonial Theory. Simply put, this Theory (and Postcolonialism by extension) takes all the elements and principles laid out in Postmodernism and casts them under an exclusively colonialist light. It is concerned with decolonization, particularly as it concerns the European expansionism that took place between the time of Christopher Columbus and the mid- twentieth century.

In the context of the United States, Postcolonial Theory concerns itself with the effects that Postmodernist principles of power and knowledge have upon the American Indians and other pre-colonialism inhabitants of North America. Hence, by the 2010s and into the 2020s, Postcolonialist activists are of the position that America’s history and the knowledge and language its citizens possess are made and constructed explicitly by the colonizing class — the “oppressors” — rather than the spontaneous execution of notable acts by any population or manner of individuals. To solve this perceived issue, Postcolonialism argues, everything about a society that finds any basis or derivation from colonialism must be exterminated before ultimately being revived and rewritten to focus from the point of view of the oppressed. It just so happens that in America’s case, everything from its current geography to its long-standing institutions, traditions, and political frameworks are the direct results of the many European settlers that arrived in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries (indeed, Postcolonialism is the fuel behind such ideas as time-keeping, math, scheduling, and linguistic literacy being products of imperialist, appropriationist, and colonialist sins).

Postcolonialists seek to revise past colonialism upon their Critical ideology, not to study the realities of European expansion over its multi-century period. However, though present in academic and intellectual discourse, Postcolonialism Theory does not hold much practical weight upon today’s populace; while America’s colonial roots do hold some historical pertinence upon us now, time has dissolved its more egregious moments to the point of being near-nondescript to us in form and in scope.

The same lack of impact cannot be said for Critical Race Theory. This is the very same concept that effectively galvanized businessman Glenn Youngkin into winning the 2021 Virgnian governor’s election over his incumbent opponent, Terry McAuliffe, due to a national story involving CRT pushed by Democrats in Virginia’s Louden County School District. It is by far the most prominent of the Critical Theory sects in America, as it is uniquely our own — no other country possesses a history quite like ours when it concerns race and slavery, particularly where it concerns African Americans. Simply put, Critical Race Theory is our bane; where the Cultural Marxists had argued within the realms of social and economic class in other countries to further their cause, they had turned towards America’s sensitivities towards race as a thread to manipulate. No wonder this most prominent Critical branch is also the one most concisely defined: it argues that “race is a social construct that was created to maintain white privilege and white supremacy.”

It is fairly straightforward for one to see how this sect lines up with some of Postmodernism’s nuances by virtue of this definition alone, and especially how it has become a tool for use by the Cultural Marxist through materialist and Postmodern approaches. Both are fierce rivals against American liberalism, but it can be argued that the Postmodern perspective is more radical and harmful; because it is concerned with linguistics, social systems, biases and attitudes, not only is it an opponent of an American’s individuality, but it asserts that the material angle cannot be taken as long as material processes (whether they be legal, economic, cultural, or otherwise) are controlled by the “oppressor” — the white citizen. Perhaps this, then, is the reason behind current activists wielding Critical Race Theory as a Postmodern bludgeon while casting the more subdued materialist stance off into obscurity.

UCLA professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw even pushes it one step further by devising the concept of intersectionality, a propagation of Postmodern’s advocation of group identity by claiming that inherent injustices can “stack” and morph in unique ways based on one’s racial, social, cultural, sexual, and gender identities, among many others. Yet, intersectionality (and thus Critical Race Theory, by extension) are by their very natures diminutive. They reduce everything “to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by [Critical] Theory.” As such, CRT and intersectionality, like their kin under the Critical Theory umbrella, run completely against everything the United States stands for — an acceptable position for Cultural Marxists.

Inherent Flaws and Dangers

The subject of greatest contention within Critical Theory — as well as its most inhibiting flaw — revolves around an age-old concept, at least in the realm of American politics: The concept of liberty. Contrary to what is largely believed, there exists not one form of liberty, but two — the Rational and the Empirical. What most citizens of America and of the West would recognize as that which we have enjoyed and often endorsed is Empirical liberty; it possesses little to no engineering and planning, relying largely on spontaneity and the domestication of humanity’s ever-present self-interest to thrive.

The likes of Adam Smith, John Locke, and David Hume can all be called forebearers of this discipline, contending that humans are primarily self-concerned by nature and morally imperfectible. Social reforms and programs, they would assert, could do nothing to lessen the veracity of this fact. Indeed, the Empiricist perspective argues that societal institutions help to regulate our self-interests — a concept that had been employed and abided by until recently. For these reasons and because of elements already discussed, Critical Theory cannot be a patron of Empirical liberty in the slightest.

Rational liberty, on the other hand, is the complete opposite — it believes that humans are perfectible and that self-interests could be brought to align with societal interests as a result of social engineering. In essence, Rational liberty argues that societal institutions are the problem; its creators and subscribers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and many others, argue that equality between citizens is the only method through which cooperation, community and successful lives can be garnered.

Critical Theory, with its eye for viewing most of Western society through the lenses of social constructs and group identitarianism to dig out even the most minute specks of perceived injustices, falls squarely within this Rationalist perspective. Therefore, Critical Theory stands within the same camp as Rational liberty as being (somewhat contradictorily in the latter’s case) anti-liberal. Liberalism in the traditional sense, to be well-functioning in a given society, requires individual free will, a consent of the governed to be governed, and equality before the law; it requires systems and institutions to keep citizens’ natural self-interests regulated. Rational liberty demands individual free will, consent of the governed and equality without the creation or exercising of these societal institutions; Critical Theory is the blueprint by which Rationalists can meticulously pick apart the West’s systems from top to bottom, diminishing them down to their most unsavory components for the unwitting and the equally-unsavory to disembowel.

Critical Theory as a Tool of Cultural Marxism

The fundamentals behind how Cultural Marxism is able to spread using Critical Theory can be summarized aptly with an analogy. Imagine for yourself a children’s shape-matching toy where a variety of shapes can be dropped through respective holes from the top of the box and into a receptacle within. They can be any common figure you can think of — circles, squares, triangles, hexagons, or anything else. However, being that as it is, there are only a limited number of holes, thus ensuring that only a limited number of shape holes can be added. Now, imagine that a child is playing with the toy, but having used it for so many years, the child has started growing disillusioned with it. No longer do they want to follow the rules inherent to the nature of the toy; they want to create new holes, so they create them along the sides; they want to create new shapes, so they bug a parent until they make it for them. From there, they experiment every which way they can — forcing new shapes into old holes, finding ways shapes can squeeze through holes not meant for them, and putting the fault on the container and its holes when it’s unable to fit a shape through. All throughout, the child adds new holes and new shapes each time they grow dissatisfied. This continues, over and over, until the container can barely stand properly — and eventually collapses altogether. The container is then blamed for the shortcomings of its parameters before being replaced by a new, supposedly-better toy–that which has been designed and manufactured within the precepts of Critical Theory.

While not wholly perfect, this analogy is nonetheless designed to sum up how Critical Theory is utilized by Progressive and Marxist Left actors, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. In essence, it is a pressure tactic infused with what’s known as gaslighting (creating false notions of doubt by acting as though an individual has been in the wrong despite evidence pointing towards an alternate or opposite explanation). Leaders of the Left are the Children who, when looking at a social or economic problem, believe the resolution involves devising improper events, protests and other sociocultural alterers (new Shapes) and pushing the government (the Parent) to create new laws, policies and rulings (new Shapes and Holes). However, as we are beginning to observe, the American Receptacle is gaining new holes at an alarming rate — fueled by the Marxist Left in their quest to develop what some truly believe to be a greater society. As it has been discussed previously, however, this ambitious goal is impossible; their rejection of liberty, individualism and property rights seals their efforts as nothing but destructive.

Yet the Marxist leaders continue, joined by faithful followers, uninformed enablers, and the unfortunate souls who play along with the very systems of thought that set fire to the successes they and their ancestors had previously appreciated. They continue their decentralized yet authoritarian onslaught, fully believing that by carving up the Receptacle enough, they can collapse the entire structure so that they may devise a new toy modeled to their liking.

How to Push Against the Left’s Cultural Guerilla Warfare

Critical Theory and the workings of Cultural Marxism are vague and befuddling by design. Indeed, both are operating most prevalently at the local and state levels; combined with an ever-increasing focus upon the national scale of America by its citizens and media outlets, both have gained a level of decentralization that complicates one’s ability to identify and nix their occupations within America’s conventions and procedures. It is a type of cultural guerilla warfare that they practice, and at first glance, it makes the Leftist activists and radicals within government offices, businesses, and academia difficult to expose for what they are trying to enact. Nevertheless, beyond the likelihood of being replaced by someone of similar composition if removed, it would be just as harmful to expunge Cultural Marxists and Critical Theorists that have not explicitly broken the very laws and customs we defend — we would be betraying ourselves while simultaneously offering free ammunition for the radicals to fire upon the United States with.

Before any sort of resolution can be put into motion, it is pivotal that we first understand ourselves and the nation upon which we stand. We must comprehend and learn our founding documents to the greatest extent possible, for the radical Left will attempt to cherry-pick, gaslight, and mischaracterize these principles and enactments of the Founding Fathers to suit their idea of how the globe has been spinning.

We must understand that context is imperative to historical events; that nuance is an inherent quality within all that we read about and see. As most of us know, many Founders did own slaves and did not do much to address the slavery issue within their devising of America’s foundation.

The ideologies of Critical Theory and Cultural Marxism outright refuse their practitioners the ability to understand that taking action on the slavery issue would have led to the fracturing of the United States before its feet could ever begin to move. To these radicals, the very existence of slavery as an institution, regardless of how self-aware and troubled some of the Founders were about it and the lengths many citizens took to work against it, warrants severe punishment today in the form of reparations from white Americans to the descendants of men and women 160 years removed from the definitive tragedy of slavery. If an individual is able to recognize the elements of this situation for what they are rather than what they could be or what the person wants them to be, then they have demonstrated the fundamental necessities of impartiality and openness of ideas within Western liberalism.

The solution, however, is more straightforward than it seems; it is the type of answer that can be found through one’s intuition zooming in until it comes into view. Marxism and Critical Theory continue to utilize academia as their primary avenue into America’s institutions, as its public sectors provide a direct bridge between education and the government. Therefore, it must be possible to perform the inverse through this same education-based avenue. In fact, it is already being performed — establishments such as Northwood University alongside a slew of private and charter schools across the country are providing pupils with quality education with smaller pipelines to the government while also ignoring or outright rejecting Critical Theory.

Greater than these efforts is ultimately the rise of homeschooling as a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic: From late April to mid-October 2020 alone, the amount of homeschooled children rose from 5.4 percent to 11.1 percent. Regardless of the explicit quality of the education these homeschooled youth are receiving, the fact remains that parents have been made more prominent actors in their children’s upbringings.

It is through homeschooling and alternative sources of formal education that the American household — one of the smallest and thus most vital units of societal measurement — is empowered and strengthened. If this has been occurring in households that understand our founding doctrines and can see the prosperity and freedom these doctrines have enabled, then American culture at large — the driver of upheavals across all flavors since the Revolutionary War and the basis by which we live our lives today — may still be able to act as our catalyst of rejection for Critical Theory and the Cultural Marxists that propagate it.

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