Casey Peterson, Cultural Marxism, and the Goliath of the Diversity Industry

For the past several weeks, Casey Peterson, an electrical engineer in prestigious Sandia Labs (one of the hubs of the federal military industry) has been risking his career to fight mandated ideological training that promotes the systemic racism conspiracy theory and requires from white employees to exorcise their “whiteness.” Pushed by “diversity” commissars from equity/diversity departments, this reeducation campaign based on the Critical Race Theory (Cultural Marxism) spreads like fire over our federal, state, and corporate institutions. Any objections to the mandated indoctrination are considered insubordination and involve disciplinary actions. Many intimidated employees of the Labs secretly showed Peterson their support. But the “diversity” commissars retaliated, putting him on an administrative leave and removing his security clearance. Peterson does not give up. Will he become an American Andrei Sakharov? This Soviet nuclear physicist put his career and elite privileges on line to challenge the suffocating communist ideology in the 1970s-1980s; the Soviets retaliated by removing Sakharov from his job, stripping him of his awards, and putting him under a house arrest.

Politically Incorrect Research: What Scholars Have to Say about the Diversity Propaganda Industry

The recent critical research of the diversity industry, which was conducted by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev (2016), American and Israeli sociologists, has confirmed existing concerns about the corrosive effects of mandating this industry.  These scholars, who explored the mandatory diversity programs in 816 companies, came to conclusion that command-and-control diversity quota-oriented programs were counterproductive.  Set to reward, discipline, and punish managers and employees, these programs were in fact breeding fear, animosity, and distrust.   The scholars also stressed that, neglecting an individual merit approach, such mandated diversity amplified gender, ethnic, and racial “tribalism.”  The ultimate verdict Dobbin and Kalev issued was quite devastating for the whole multi-million diversity industry in the United States. 

Particularly, they stressed that, contrary to rosy mainstream perceptions, American experience in enforcing diversity miserably failed, and it could not serve as a policy blueprint for other countries.  The researchers have also suggested that the best possible option in this situation would be to “decentralize” the whole diversity machine and let people on the ground decide for themselves how they wanted to reach its goals.  My assumption is that in each university, corporation, school, and institution people should be free to choose and vote (by a secret ballot) on whether they want and need the “diversity” training.  From what we saw in the Sandia Labs, the employees had no say about the reeducation campaign the corporate diversity commissars arbitrarily imposed on them.

Although wrapped into a cautious academic prose, research conducted by a group of social psychologists headed by Leigh Wilton (Wilton 2018; Jacobs 2018; Good 2018) produced even more devastating conclusions, which in fact had been obvious to any critical-minded person.  For the first time targeting the entire multiculturalism ideology, the Wilton research team set out to explore whether the promotion of “diversity” reduced or enhanced a fixation on race on a popular level. Exploring two large groups of people (students and adult non-students), Wilton and her colleagues found out that making people think about racial and cultural differences on a permanent basis hammered in their minds the idea that these differences were central, vital, and crucial.  Obviously, to safeguard themselves, Wilton (2018) and her team included such disclaimers as “We do not mean to imply that multiculturalism should be universally discarded” and “Neither multiculturalism nor color blindness offers a simple panacea for improving diversity.” Still, they have been adamant in their conclusion that, as an unintended consequence, the engineering “diversity” from above enhanced racial essentialism and that “the primacy of Multiculturalism as a mechanism for prejudice reduction or racial inequality is not without question.” They also stressed that, in contrast to a color-blind approach that mutes the fixation on race, the whole “diversity” message amplifies group differences and may lead to negative inter-group outcomes.

One of the natural political side effects of the persistent cultivation of “non-White” identity, attempt to impose it on the rest of society, aggressive rhetoric against “white privilege,” and the promotion of the systemic racism conspiracy theory was the emergence of so-called alt-right White Power movement – a mirror image of the Black Power, Latino Power and similar identity movements among the people of “color.”  Left writer Anis Shivani stressed that by inflaming and empowering the racial and ethnic identity of the “underprivileged,” the cultural left opened the identitarian Pandora’s box, which naturally leads to legitimization of “blood,” “soul,” and “soil” agenda in American politics. Shivani, who became upset about the identitarian turn of his comrades, has stressed that under those circumstances, it is quite natural that “the rise of each group in terms of recognition encourages countervailing reactions amongst other groups, so that recognition becomes simultaneously self-inflating (breeding reactionism and irrationality) and an impossible ideal to attain. Again, the rise of white nationalism recently is a testament to this tendency, a natural corollary to the very logic of identity politics.”

Intellectual Sources of the Diversity Industry

One of the major intellectual sources of the mandated “diversity,” which has been superimposed on our society, go back to the frustration of the left about traditional class-based socialism that had occupied the dominant position in the old intellectual mainstream.  The ole left privileged the industrial working class (or proletariat, according to the traditional Marxist jargon) as the primary victim of and simultaneously the humankind’s redeemer from capitalism.  To the dismay of the left, Marx’s prophecy about the skyrocketing misery of the proletariat under capitalism miserably failed.  On the contrary, the Western labor dramatically improved its living conditions and lost its revolutionary vitality. 

For this reason, in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Western left were gradually ditching the industrial working class, finding instead new kinds of “noble savages” in the Third World and at home among such groups as people of “color,” women, gays, and later in the alphabet soup of newly emerging groups that too claimed a victimhood status.  Along with the Third World, these segments of population were singled out as the new victims of and simultaneously redeemers from the capitalist oppression. To be exact, since the 1960s, for the New Left it was not so much capitalism but rather the entire Western civilization that became the major culprit.  In contrast to the old left who were fixated on material progress, the New Left, on the contrary, came to criticize progress and materialism as spiritually corrupt to authentic and progressive lifestyles.  Such new attitude helped make an ideological switch from the class-based economic agenda to cultural issues.

Conservatives and libertarians have referred to that cultural turn among the Western progressives as Cultural Marxism.  The current mainstream left, who are frequently not aware of or do not want to be reminded of their genetic links with classical Marxism, object to the use of this term.  Instead, they prefer to operate with such broad expression as “Critical Theory” or with more specific definitions such as “Critical Cultural Studies,” “Critical Racial Studies,” “Critical Legal Studies,” and so forth. For the best critical review of the Critical Theory, its rise, and the present-day state of the woke left, see Helen Pluckrose and Jack Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody (2020). The Critical Theory, which claims the supreme knowledge, is notoriously uncritical toward itself; this brings to mind Vladimir Lenin, the chief of the Bolsheviks who once uttered, “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.”

Since in the past the domestic people of “color” in Western countries and the Third World people were the objects of Euro-American racism and colonialism, progressive proponents of the Critical Theory (Cultural Marxism) take it for granted that such things as bigotry, racism, oppression are “white” Western phenomena.  As designated victims, the emerging Third World nations, domestic people of “color” along with sexual minorities are thought to be on the righteous side incapable of any wrongdoing. In other words, the cultural left created the “aristocracy of the outcasts.”  This explains, for example, why the left frequently downplay the brutal treatment of women and gays in Islamic societies and so-called hate crimes (and crimes in general) perpetrated by the representatives of the “victim” groups inside Western countries (for example, Muslim immigrants in France and Sweden or blacks in the United States). To the most ardent proponents of “diversity,” non-Western societies serve as carriers of profound spiritual wisdom and collectivism that serve to educate “rotten” and “materialist” West about better forms of life.

The Rise of the Diversity Industry and the Multiculturalism Ideology

By the end of the 1970s, American administrative and judicial system saw the emergence of “commissars of diversity” – a network of federal, state, and educational bureaucracies that were empowered by laws, institutions, and media outlets to police racial, ethnic, and gender representation both in public and private sector.  The regime of the racial segregation that had existed in the South prior to the 1950s offended American sensibilities to such an extent that both the congress and the “white” majority, driven by the profound guilt feelings, voluntarily accepted special measures designated to correct historical injustice and uplift people of “color.”  Little thought was given to the fact that to fight racism and sexism with racism and sexism was a flawed strategy and that well-meant and benevolent measures did not necessarily produce benevolent outcomes.

The system of job, business contract, and education quotas and preferences introduced in the 1970s through affirmative action programs were thought to be temporary measures that were to “upgrade” selected minorities.  Yet, as it frequently happens, the temporary measures were institutionalized and eventually became a permanent part of American polity, producing an overall corruptive effect on society.  It not only led to the emergence of the alphabet list of new groups that were eager to claim a victimhood status to secure moral, political, and economic benefits, but it also resulted in mass economic and educational fraud.  For example, thousands of dark-skinned immigrants began posing as “black” to fit in the officially established “ethno-racial pentagon” classification that was introduced by the Office of Budget and Management (OBM) in 1977 for policy goals.

This OBM Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (“Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting”) pigeonholed Americans into specific racial categories, which people were encouraged to fit themselves in: white (WASPs), black (African-Americans), brown (Hispanics), yellow (Asians), and red (Native Americans).  The official goal was to standardize available statistics to conduct efficiently affirmative action and other race-conscious policies.  One can consider the year of 1977, when this directive was introduced, a symbolic landmark when “diversity” became the guiding light for the entire political and economic establishment in US.  Eventually, this ethno-racial “pentagon” system became so entrenched into American polity that it came to play the role of standard lenses through which both Democratic and Republican elites began to screen their decisions on all kinds of economic and social issues. 

At this point of our history, we already can talk about the existence of the mainstream multicultural ideology that crusades against Western values, and that is fixated on promoting group identity at an expense of an individual. This ideology uses the slogan of toleration to maintain itself as the hegemonic force (pardon my leftist jargon) in our society. Consequently, those who object that ideology and call for the treatment of people as individuals based on their merit are labeled as racist and intolerant people. This explains the reticence and fear both in society and especially among bureaucrats to question the dubious nature of the whole project.  By the way, that was precisely the niche that Cultural Marxists from BLM were able to use to wiggle themselves into the mainstream and to successfully intimidate a large part of American society into submission.  

The “diversity” machine and the multicultural ideology created by that machine by now acquired a life of their own. It is a vivid an example of how seemingly benign initiatives, which had been originally established to resolve an specific urgent problem, lead to unanticipated consequences. As such, the whole situation serves as the illustration of the old wisdom: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In addition to influential racial and ethnic lobby groups, this machine now includes a large apparatus in federal, state, university, and corporate institutions.  For example, by 2018, at the University of California, Berkeley, the number of diversity bureaucrats increased up to 175 people.  Many of them generate high salaries. Thus, a diversity chief at the University of Michigan makes $385,000 a year (“The Rise of Universities’ Diversity Bureaucrats”).  For this omnipotent bureaucracy, amplifying identity politics and dramatizing ethnic, racial, and gender issues became one of the major ways to stay in power and secure the continuing flow of finances both from government and private donors.

One can divide the institutions that promote the “diversity” creed in the United States into three large units.  The first is represented by watchdog institutions (Human Resources (HR) and Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) or equity departments) that gather statistics on how well major racial, ethnic and gender groups are represented in all walks of life.  HRs and equity offices are weaponized institutions that not only collect relevant data and set codes of behavior but also police and penalize bureaucrats and individuals who do not comply with prescribed ideological regulations and imposed quotas (Jeb Kinnison, Death by HR (2016).  The HR and equity/OEO desks share the job of supervision over personnel and its activities. Like HR, equity desks and offices exist in all American federal, state, educational, and in many corporate institutions. 

The second group of institutions is represented by various Multicultural desks and offices that are specialized in popularizing non-Western cultures and lifestyles by organizing, for example, various ethnic, racial, and gender festivals and fairs. These cultural events are usually focused on the valorization of selected cultures and their representatives, which are frequently set into the context of victimhood, oppression, and resistance.  For example, my first introduction to one of such festivals, which took place in Ohio in 1994, was a visit to a Latin American multicultural festival that was celebrating generic Latino legacy.  At the entrance, visitors were welcomed by a huge banner with the following phase, “Latin America: 400 Years of Resistance.”  To this, my Puerto-Rican colleague sarcastically remarked, “Why resistance? Resistance to what and against whom?”  A small example of cultural activism supported by those desks is a campaign of moral shaming of people for so-called cultural appropriation. For those who are not yet familiar with this most recent meme of the cultural left, I want to explain that any “white” person who publicly dons “non-Western” garb or attire (e.g. Mexican sombrero, Japanese kimono, Afro-American dreadlocks) automatically becomes a racist “colonizer” who “steals” and “appropriates” from the victims of “color.”  

The third component of the multicultural “diversity” ideological machine is represented by various identity studies departments such as Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Women Studies (Bruce Bawer, The The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the  Liberal Mind (2012). Pioneered in the 1960s as special university-based programs that were expected to inject existing college curricula with non-Western and female perspectives, many of them eventually acquired not only the status of regular university departments but turned into ideological units.  These programs openly declare that their major goal is not traditional academic pursuits but rather activist scholarship.  The latter heavily relies on the above-mentioned Critical Theory methods, which had been pioneered by Herbert Marcuse and like-minded post-Marxist writers

In other words, identity studies are focused on providing an ideological back up to specific racial, ethnic, and gender agendas. The practitioners of identity studies are preoccupied with the critique of what they define as “white” Western civilization and hegemony.  Simultaneously, they valorize non-Western cultures and lifestyles that they define as progressive and spiritually enhancing. From the partisan “diversity” perspective, the cultivation of ethno-racial consciousness and solidarity for designated “non-White” and “non-Western” groups is progressive and desirable, whereas a color-blind individualistic approach is treated as racist and reactionary. 

Moreover, for the past fifty years, mainstream humanities disciplines such as sociology, literary studies, American studies, geography, anthropology, social work, and especially education acquired a similar ideological “diversity” bent that one can find in abundance in the identity studies.  The social scholarship too heavily assimilated Critical Theory into its methodology and became fixated on searching for the signs of racial, ethnic, and gender oppression both in the past and in the present in all walks of surrounding life. 

The threat to our liberty comes from the fact that the greater part of the cadre, which now works in our government, law firms, and corporate world, are former college graduates who internalized memes and precepts propagated by the Critical Theory scholarship and made them the new normal. Many of them are sincerely convinced that they must change the surrounding life according to the ideological prescriptions of “multiculturalism” by promoting the group (racial, gender, ethnic) justice and arbitrarily dividing our society into the classes of the “oppressed” and “oppressors.”  The latter, according to Marcuse who was one of the founders of the Critical Theory, must be shut down and canceled by all means available.  This means that the core values of the Western civilization are now at stake (the rule of law, freedom of speech, checks and balances, and the very institute of elections).

On a final note, responding to the rising tide of mandated “diversity” reeducation programs, on September 4, the US Office of Budget and Management issued a memorandum to stop wasting tax dollars for all race-bating “training” that is based on the ideology of the Critical Theory and that is focused on bashing “whiteness” and Western values. Of course, it is ridiculous to assume that one can simply ban an ideology; it will take years and years to dismantle the “diversity” industry and its ideological apparatus. Yet, as a first step, that measure is essential for our entire political and economic system. The current administration has sent a clear signal to the “deep state” bureaucrats, who are opportunistic by their very nature, that the woke “repressive tolerance” of the cultural left will not be tolerated anymore. If we push further in this direction, there is a hope that we shall overcome.

Nightcap

  1. FDR’s New Deal state and segregation Colin Gordon, Jacobin
  2. Europe’s Left is rethinking multiculturalism Joel Kotkin, City Journal
  3. The hardest problem in public policy Scott Sumner, EconLog
  4. The last great American novelist (Morrison) Ross Douthat, New York Times

Nightcap

  1. Anti-Semitism from Trotsky to Soros James Sheehan, Commonweal
  2. How to combat parochialism in philosophy Peter Adamson, Times Literary Supplement
  3. The era of limited government is over Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. The paradox of voting Arathy Puthillam, Pragati

In the Spirit of Socialist Realism: Sampling American Multikulti Cinema

On the new year day, searching on Youtube for something to watch, by chance, I stumbled upon a low budget and poorly made Western Yellow Rock (2012). By now, I watched enough of Hollywood products that were tailored to current “diversity” ideology and PC tastes. At least, some of them (e.g. Django Unchained, Black Panther, Dances with Wolves) were well crafted . But this Yellow Rock really “rocks.” It totally “overwhelmed” me. 

An official plot description is rather innocent:

“A man searching for his missing son hires a group of rugged cowboys to take him into territory controlled by the Black Paw Indians. When they come upon an ancient burial ground, their own greed tears them apart, as the posse turns on itself.”

Yet, in reality, from the first scenes, you are literally plunged into the “diversity pulp fiction”: caricature whisky-drinking and swearing white male rednecks (the posse) approach a camp of no less caricature noble American Indians who are taken care of by an all-female team of noble physicians and nurses. The head of the posse claims that he is looking for his missing son. Yet, in reality, they need to secure a permission from the tribe to cross Indian lands to reach an abandoned gold mine to get hold of some sacks with gold dust. Through their wooden characters, from the very beginning, producers defined clearly ideological sides: noble victims (Native Americans), allies (white women), and oppressors (white males). Not a single shade of grey. The only exception is a white male alcoholic scout who takes the posse into the wild. As a victim of his addiction, he is also somewhat qualified to be noble, and, in fact, he acts as an ally too.

nol_4The cliche plot is painfully predictable: the posse of the “whitey” wants to cross straight across Indian burial grounds, although the “Injuns” warn them not to do it. Of course, by violating the sacred land, the “whitey” offend local spirits, who send against the rednecks a pack of wolves who appear as grotesque caricature shiny silver wolves resembling their brethren from New Age postcards and posters. Finally, the evil posse, which en route harasses an accompanying female physician and a male Indian, finds the gold. Yet, driven by an expected greed, the members of the posse take on each other. The rest of them are finished by the physician who is able to snatch a gun and by Black Paw Indians who arrive just in time to commit the act of justice. The movie ends with a scene of a slow motion collective execution of the last greedy redneck by a group of the Black Paws who repeatedly shoot the guy holding tightly a sack of gold. When the justice warriors lean over the dead corpse, they find out that gold dust somehow miraculously turned into regular dust; elements of paranormal and New Age mystique are rather common in latter day Westerns.

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I would not have ventured into the description of this “movie” unless it had not provoked me to jump to an obvious conclusion: at times a trashy cultural product might serve as a good learning tool. Trashy stuff highlights dominant ideological cliches and sentiments more than any other more or less well crafted movie. Like an imbecile who mimics the behavior of surrounding people, such “masterpieces” clone the mainstream ideology that is superimposed on people in public schools and colleges. To me, Yellow Rocks demonstrated how deeply the educational system (film studies along with the rest of humanities) and print media has ingrained in the minds of movie makes the pillars of what people on the right label Cultural Marxism and that people on the left call Critical Theory. In its turn, this elusive theoretical “beast” served as a major fountainhead of the Multiculturalism ideology.

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Watching that particular movie, I suddenly felt catapulted to the “good old” Soviet Union. Replace noble Indians+female do-gooders with noble workers (proletarians) and greedy white evil males with greedy capitalists and you will get a solid Soviet movie tailored according to the cliches of Socialist Realism. For those who do not know what Socialist Realism is, I want to note that it was a Stalinist doctrine that required from movie makers, poets, writers, and the rest of the intellectual gang to depict the surrounding life not as it was but as should be in the ideal future. I have also realized that comparing old Soviet and communist Chinese movies with current multikulti products in European and American realms might have a pedagogical value. It will allow us to trace the genetic links between the Marxism of old that had been obsessed with political economy and class warfare and the current Cultural Marxism that is obsessed with racial and gender identity wars. In the 1920s and the 1930s, both in the Soviet Union and Western progressive subculture the ultimate noble savage was a metaphysical muscular male proletarian.

Since the 1960s, “noble savages” of old Marxism became replaced by the new cultural left with new “noble savages”: third world, people of “color,” females, gays….The list of victims who are simultaneously to act as redeemers from the evil Western civilization is not yet complete.

In a typical Soviet heroic movie a people-friendly misfit character without a stable class-based moral compass chaotically fought against oppression. He or she needed a solid back up form a wise muscular industrial proletarian who, with his working class salt of the earth wisdom, was to take this character to the highest level of consciousness. In Yellow Rock, the alcoholic scout similarly was upgraded by female and Indian wisdom. Incidentally, the same trope one can observe in the third part of the famous (and well made) Hunger Games trilogy that I watched again last night. The major character, Katniss Everdeen, a noble female warrior, was not complete without receiving an endorsement (in the final scene of that trilogy) from the victim/redeemer of a “higher caliber.” After Everdeen defeats dictator Snow, an aged cunning white male, a black female elder approaches Everdeen and gently leads her to the center of the new power, where masters of the multikulti paradise gathered to usher the new world.

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What sort of discipline is women’s studies?

Some of the central tenets of women’s studies — and gender or multicultural studies — of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, don’t work with the dominant model of scientific hypotheses, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories like patriarchy as quasi-theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political ones.

To demonstrate the point: firstly, schools like these posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish (whether through problems with central planning or otherwise), or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like third-wave feminism, so far from Steinem; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.

Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to belief and orthodoxical obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculinist oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are part of mandatory classroom cirricula, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.

“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.

Carlos-Castaneda-The-Teachings-of-Don-Juan

Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”