The Debunker, Debunked
Center-left intellectuals would prefer to act as if the revolution of 2020 never happened.
A species of left-liberal writer specializes in nitpicking, hairsplitting, quibbling, and demanding more “studies.” This kind of writer elevates pedantry into an art, often under the auspices of “debunking” any violation of left-liberal opinion. Though some well-known figures working in this genre might deem their methods heterodox, their analysis, by some strange metaphysics, always leads back to support for the reigning orthodoxy.
Zack Beauchamp, of the liberal-technocratic online magazine Vox, is a paragon of this approach. His recent review of my book, America’s Cultural Revolution, is worth scrutinizing not only to rebut his specific criticisms but also to expose the general method of the left-liberal nitpickers and to hold up the author as an exemplar: the debunker, debunked.
Beauchamp’s first criticism is that, contra my argument, left-wing radicalism has not conquered America’s institutions. “The seemingly credible evidence Rufo presents of radical influence—the mainstreaming of once-radical concepts like ‘structural racism,’ for example—thus ends up undermining his case,” he writes. “When radical language goes mainstream without accompanying radical shifts in policy, that’s not actually evidence of a radical takeover.”
This is a spectacular denial of reality. I devote a significant number of pages in the book to documenting the radical shift in policy in American institutions, from general trends to concrete details, including a full chapter on the radicalization of Portland’s public schools and of Seattle’s criminal-justice system. Social-science scholars such as Zach Goldberg, Eric Kaufman, and Jay Greene have demonstrated left-wing racialism’s stunning conquest in media, education, and academia. DEI bureaucracies, racial-preference policies, and other racialist remedies are now found nearly everywhere.
Beauchamp even seems to concede this dynamic in parts of his review. He admits that the main idea of critical race theory—that racism is “a core part of American national identity”—has gained traction in American institutions. And he cites social scientist Musa al-Gharbi’s article “The ‘Great Awokening’ Is Winding Down” to demonstrate that “evidence of the ascent of far-left radicalism” has now “shown a decline from previous highs.” But this point inadvertently undermines his thesis. Which is it? Is the “Great Awokening” real, or is it a right-wing fever-dream? Is it in decline, or did it never happen? Beauchamp wants to have it both ways: his argument about the rise of left-wing racialism amounts to the position that it hasn’t happened—and it’s already peaked.
Beauchamp’s second criticism is that, though the far Left indeed unleashed a “wave of domestic terrorism” in the 1960s and 1970s, “this brand of violent extremism has essentially been wiped out: a 2017 Start report found that there had been no deaths from left-wing terrorism in America since the 1980s.” There are two problems with this analysis. The first is obvious: much of the contemporary focus of America’s Cultural Revolution is on the wave of rioting, looting, murder, and destruction following the death of George Floyd in 2020, so failing to consider political violence after 2017 is deeply misleading. It’s not as if post-2017 data aren’t available: the Start database Beauchamp cites is easily accessible and updated through 2020, when left-wing political violence exploded. Conveniently, he ignores both the focus of my book and the substance of the most destructive left-wing riots in 50 years.
Beauchamp’s claim that “no deaths” resulted from left-wing terrorism between 1980 and 2017 is simply false. According to the Start database, in 2016 and 2017 alone, numerous deaths occurred as a result of left-wing racialism: a black nationalist who wanted to murder “as many white males as possible” killed four men in Fresno, California; a black nationalist with an anti-police ideology killed an innocent motorist while screaming “Black Lives Matter” in Bristol, Tennessee; a black nationalist ambushed and killed four police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and a black nationalist killed five police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas, later explaining that he “wanted to kill white people.” All these killings bear significant similarities to the violence of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army in previous decades.
Beauchamp is guilty of error, but there is a more serious charge against him: misrepresentation. He conducted an hour-long interview with me for his review and used quotations from that conversation to bolster his points. He manipulated several of these quotations, but I’ll focus on one in particular. Beauchamp claims that I told him that a single academic study from Roland Fryer “had shown, ‘in a bulletproof manner,’ that progressive approaches to crime adopted by district attorneys and city councils in the wake of George Floyd’s killing had led to the deaths of ‘lower-income Black men.’” This was not true, Beauchamp says, because “the study showed nothing of the kind” and “didn’t examine city-level initiatives of any kind, nor any actions taken at any level of government after 2020.”
But Beauchamp misrepresents my words. In full, I said that left-wing activist policies “get put into practice through DAs, through city councils, through police policy, de-policing, or eliminating proactive policing,” which have “a surface-level attraction” but unleash waves of violence in cities. “We saw a wave of it after Ferguson. We saw another wave of it after 2020. Roland Fryer and others [Paul Cassell, Wilfried Reilly, Dae-Young Kim, and more] have shown in a bulletproof manner that these policies—what my colleague Heather Mac Donald calls the ‘Ferguson Effect’ or the ‘Floyd Effect’—now end up killing the exact people whom the activists claim to be advocating on behalf of.” Beauchamp built a straw man and burned it, hoping I would submit to what I told him was a left-wing “amnesia effect”—namely, that the center-Left capitulated to these radical policies following Floyd’s death, saw the resultant carnage, and now deny having supported them in the first place.
Beauchamp concludes his review with a warning that my “dangerous” book might usher in an “authoritarian” political reaction. As evidence, he claims that I support Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s state media policies and his “government effort to seize control of what its citizens can hear.” This is nonsense. In the very piece Beauchamp cites as evidence, I criticize Hungary’s bloated state sector, which has enabled corruption, and explicitly argue that, in Hungary, “the state controls too much media”—the opposite of what Beauchamp claimed.
The real story here isn’t just about a misleading review—these are a fact of life—but about the kind of outlet that published it. The entire proposition of Vox and venues like it is that their elite-educated, data-driven journalists can produce “explainers” on complex topics that the average person cannot digest on his own. The reality is less flattering: such publications are staffed by highly credentialed but poorly educated operators whose task is to maintain left-liberal orthodoxy, with little or no regard for method.
The bottom line: the Left will do what it takes to downplay the ideological capture of American institutions and the surge of violence following the Black Lives Matter revolution. No doubt embarrassed by the rising chaos and murder victimizing the residents of American cities, and especially poor black men, they would prefer to act as if 2020 never happened.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.