Thursday, February 5, 2009

Postmodernism And Conservatism: The Fruit Salad Of Poison Trees

Paul Gowder, in response to a guy who calls himself the 'Postmodern Conservative' and says all sorts of weird things: "Combining postmodern and conservative is like combining enema and lye." This is certainly the standard understanding of the matter, which I think has something to do with why various people in academia are interested in finding clever ways to fit the views together in a way that doesn't cause serious intestinal pain. But I think these two things fit together a lot better than is commonly appreciated.

We liberals are the heirs of a long Enlightenment tradition of creating moral progress through reason. Feminism and the civil rights movement are good examples of how this looks in action. These movements are best understood as presupposing the idea that there are culture-independent facts about what's right and wrong, and that human beings can make progress in discovering them. After all, if all the facts about right and wrong are constituted by what societies approve and disapprove of, a feminist trying to reform the values of a deeply sexist society is automatically wrong.

A lot of postmodernism is about rejecting the ideals of the Enlightenment as hopeless and misguided, just as a lot of conservatism is about opposing these ideals. Certainly, old-fashioned conservatives take their moral views as capturing the truth about objective, culture-independent facts, while postmodernists don't. But if you go over to postmodernist views about moral truth, you deny Enlightenment liberals the external standards they need to justify their moral reforms. If you're in a culture with sexism, racism, and authoritarian politics, defending those things becomes a lot easier.

This isn't to say that there aren't some big differences between them, especially as regards religion. But they've got enough in common that I have to think that the big overlap between 'liberals' and people sympathetic to postmodern views is largely an artifact of demography. Liberals live closer to the marketplace of ideas, and that's where people are trying to sell you postmodernism.

7 comments:

drip said...

I agree with your observation. My limited take is that postmodernism requires detached observation of the status quo, at least for starters. This implies criticism of all sorts of accepted behavior. jean-luc godard, pretty much a template of postmodernism in 1959, was assaulted by the left for Breathless and especially for describing it as anarchistic. He sure didn't like a lot of what happened in Paris, but he loved what happened in Paris. Not left, not right, not center.

I'm not sure that you can be a conservative postmodernist, though, any more than you can be a liberal one. Having criticisms in common doesn't seem to be enough to keep a marriage together.

Ron E. said...

Conservatives believe in premodernism not postmodernism.

corvus said...

Was the civil rights movement really based upon Enlightenment. It seemed more reliant on Christian pacifism as a motivating force than reason.

And the idea of liberals being the heirs of the Enlightenment is not something I am completely comfortable with. I think the Enlightenment lost it's head during the Reign of Terror, and the Romantics emerged from the stump. It was proved wrong, about some very substantial things, and trying to continue living up to it's ideals seems incredibly wrongheaded to me. You have to take into account what came after. Not just the Romanticism, but Modernism and Postmodernism too.

drip said...

Enlightenment lost it's head during the Reign of Terror, and the Romantics emerged from the stump. Time for a graphic book on the intellectual history of Europe from 1720 on. Tarantino could do the movie.

Paul Gowder said...

I actually think this is right. The enema/lye remark was meant to capture more the non-linear quality of the added pain (enemas: painful. lye: painful. lye enemas? way more painful than the sum of their parts!) than any incompatibility. But you probably realize this.

Stentor said...

I think of postmodernism every time someone justifies their beliefs with "I was raised ..." or "My parents taught me that ..."

Paul Gowder said...

More remarks (item #2).