Activist in Residence

Dec 06, 2018 |  Rachelle Peterson

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Activist in Residence

Dec 06, 2018 | 

Rachelle Peterson

Editor's note: This article was originally published by the Claremont Review of Books on December 4, 2018. 

Rutgers University recently installed Naomi Klein as its first Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. Klein, who dropped out of the University of Toronto to pursue journalism, is an unconventional choice for an endowed chair. But she is a good match with Rutgers’ hope that, over the course of the three-year appointment, the Steinem Chair will “organize public events, conduct research and immerse students in debate and scholarship” on topics such as “the role of activist journalists in revolutionary movements.”

“Activist journalist” is a fitting characterization of Klein. Her lengthy books, packed with statistics, nevertheless read like novels, following characters through their quests to endure sweatshops, flee natural disasters, protest atop oil rigs, or march against fossil fuel investments.

Klein is best known as the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate (2015), a 576-page tome that opened a rift among global warming activists. As her book title suggests, Klein sees impending climate catastrophe mainly as an opportunity to rid the world of an even greater danger: free markets.

Many climate activists, believing the climate itself is the present danger, were chagrined that one of their own would divulge an ulterior motive to the public. Klein’s book played into the hands of climate skeptics who have long believed climate hysteria was a stalking horse for international socialism and other post-national utopias.

Her first book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000, 544 pages), introduces readers to London Fog manufacturers in Jakarta, striking after being asked to work overtime on illegally low wages. Klein traces the progressive slogans of big-name brands in the West and notes their dissonance with the lifestyles and work conditions of the overseas workers who produced the products. 

No Logo went to press just as the “Battle of Seattle” took place, in which 40,000 protesters descended upon the Emerald City to object to the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference there. Klein quickly released Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002), a collection of essays about the protests. 

No Logo, by virtue of putting in place a philosophical and narrative framework that perfectly matched yet stood apart from the WTO protests, became required reading among the anti-globalist left, and rocketed Klein to fame. Ms. Magazine listed her among its women of the year in 2001The Times (London) called her "probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world." The New York Times called the book a “movement bible” in the campaign against globalization. The Socialist Review praised Klein for expressing “brilliantly the rage that so many people feel about what is going on in the world, giving us ammunition against the bosses and governments.”

Klein’s third book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008), takes aim not at capitalism itself but at those who set it up. There is no invisible hand of the market, Klein charges, only the iron fists of big businessmen and politicians scurrying to set up “free” markets every time a catastrophe clears space for them to build.

In the opening pages we meet Jamar Perry, a Baton Rouge evacuee standing in a Red Cross food line after Hurricane Katrina, angry that developers saw a “clean sheet” and “very big opportunities” to reimagine the city’s layout. Klein quotes a Wall Street Journal op-ed from Milton Friedman, three months after Katrina,   declaring that the destruction of New Orleans’ public schools presents “an opportunity to radically reform the education system.” Klein bewails the introduction of vouchers and the steep increase in the number of charter schools.

Klein argues that free market fundamentalists have seized upon or even devised other “shocks” as excuses to break unions, privatize national companies, and impose laissez faire policies. A central villain is President Bush, whose war on terror, Klein argues, was practically invented for the purpose of plumping war profiteers. Like torture techniques—and Klein quotes from CIA manuals on the way “a kind of psychological shock” can “explode” the subject’s perception of the world and his place in it—the September 2001 attacks “for millions of people exploded ‘the world that is familiar.’” This situation, she claims, “the Bush administration expertly exploited.”

Rachel Maddow declared The Shock Doctrine “The only book of the last few years in American publishing that I would describe as a mandatory must-read.”

This, despite other reviewers—some sympathetic leftists—who realized that Klein’s total commitment to her theory sat ill with the evidence that some decisions, individual or national, really are driven by causes other than economics and materialism. Jonathan Chait chastised Klein in The New Republic for trying to cast the Tiananmen Square massacre as the consequence of capitalism in China. “It wasn't Communism [Deng] was protecting with his crackdown,” Klein had written, “but capitalism.” Chait, who agreed that Klein’s catalogue of social ills were indeed “enormous outrages and significant problems,” nevertheless concluded that “Klein's relentless lumping together of all her ideological adversaries in the service of a monocausal theory of the world ultimately renders her analysis perfect nonsense.”

Philosophical coherence aside, many people find Klein’s argument makes perfect emotional sense. Once we’ve declared that social movements ought to be “allies,” why not assume that they really are fighting the same war, not just the same enemy? Feminism isn’t just a fight for women’s dignity against the patriarchy, Klein and her followers assert; it’s also deeply connected to the fight against free markets. The environmental movement isn’t just about carbon dioxide or pollution, but also part of the Black Lives Matter movement, via the concept of “environmental racism,” which supposes that the ruling white classes intentionally perpetuate environmental degradation among minorities.

Klein has no shortage of acolytes. Her Leap Manifesto, a progressive social and economic policy agenda for Canada calling for a world in which “Caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sectors,” has nearly 51,000 signatures. She has 480,000 Twitter followers. With her filmmaker husband, Avi Lewis, she has turned several of her books into successful documentariesHer 2017 book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, debuted at #2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Perhaps, then, Rutgers saw selecting Klein for the Gloria Steinem Chair, for which it raised $3 million, as a financially savvy move, one sure to boost the university’s social justice credibility. Its announcement bills Klein as a “public intellectual” and “a global thought leader” who has led “explorations” of “social, economic and ecological injustice.” Jonathan Potter, dean of the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, says Klein “represents intellectual brilliance and innovative thinking about the way inequalities are being perpetuated in our society.” Klein, for her part, says she is “eager” to help students in “connecting the dots between some of the most critical issues of our time.”

Rutgers has made plenty of previous forays into the world of far-left advocacy. In 2017, it began requiring incoming students to take a one-hour course on microaggressions, designed by the its Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities. This May it launched a “DREAM Zone” program, which the director hopes to make mandatory for all students, in order to train students to empathize with and support illegal immigrants. 

These are official university actions, but Rutgers is also a central hub for radical students and faculty members. In 2016, students mobbed a Board of Governors meeting, upset that President Robert Barchi had only declared Rutgers a “safe haven” for illegal alien students, and not called the university a “sanctuary campus.” In 2015, Rutgers instructor Zachary Campbell was one of three professors charged with assaulting police officers during an anti-police demonstration at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Klein’s addition to Rutgers’ faculty roster appears to be a further step in aligning the public, taxpayer-supported institution with hard-left partisanship. Klein firmly rejects the ideal of scholarship that presents evidence and arguments on all sides of an issue. She is foremost an advocate for the overthrow of Western capitalism, and she sees the world through the narrow lens of a battle between corporate exploitations and noble revolutionaries fighting for the oppressed.

Students should indeed learn something about the utopian doctrines that devastated much of the world in the 20th Century and that still attract adherents today. But giving a prestigious chair to an advocate of revolution seems a doubtful way to serve Rutgers’ students. The message is surely that Klein’s blend of scorched-earth anti-economics is to be treated with intellectual respect, and celebrated as a significant contribution to “debate.”

Those are mistakes. Klein is a popularizer of neo-Marxist doctrines whose writing shows her disdain for the basic principles of honest scholarship. Her appointment as the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies is another benchmark in American higher education’s decline.  

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