On the afternoon of January 31, 1998, two hundred professors and graduate students gathered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to discuss a disturbing new movement. “A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life,” a flier announced, “the specter of Left Conservatism.” With participants including Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Jonathan Arac, and Paul A. Bové, the conference was designed to address the perceived split in the mid- to late ’90s between members of the so-called cultural and real Lefts.
What was the difference between the two? The conventional wisdom of the time had it that the cultural Left was composed of theory-obsessed, anti-American academic relativists who wrote obscure treatises and preferred ethnic- and gender-oriented identity politics to activism. Members of the real Left, on the other hand, were pragmatic humanists, earnest ’60s types who favored coalition building (with the labor movement, for one), abhorred class inequality, and pressed for political change via elections.
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