op-ed

Reid Buckley does not understand postmodernism

Mytheos Holt Policy Analyst
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Having studied the conservative movement in some detail both in college and out, I was naturally intrigued by the recent interview that this particular publication did with Reid Buckley. While Mr. Buckley, whose brother’s old magazine has previously employed me, cannot be said to speak for his brother — and certainly not ex Cathedra — he is as close a source to the fons et origo of the Right as one can reasonably hope for now that WFB has passed. As such, we are compelled to take him seriously on matters of intellectual conservatism.

With respect to Mr. Buckley’s answers in the interview, many of them are provocative and interestingly thought out, and while I find much to disagree with — I do not think Mr. Buckley’s geographic determinism regarding the “philosophy” of the Midwest or the South is reflective of reality, nor do I find his desire to tie moral egalitarianism to the human condition via the Deity to be particularly conservative (I think Joseph de Maistre would object from beyond the grave if he could) — it is certainly worth a read. However, there is one area in which Mr. Buckley is not merely ideologically mistaken, but unqualifiedly wrong as a matter of description. I refer to this tidbit (redacted for the sake of clarity):

I think what we need is a philosophical understanding of post-modernism, its virtues and its faults … One thing that symbolizes our current situation is a howlingly funny anecdote that regards a museum that received two packages in the mail. It rejected one package, which was the bust of somebody and accepted the second package that turned out to be the plinth of the bust. The plinth became honored as a work of art. And that I think summarizes the wrongheadedness of post-modernism. Post-modernism is not only lacking in humility, it is filled with arrogance. Post-modernism rejects the Christian religion absolutely.

Let me state at the outset that Mr. Buckley’s implied warning — that postmodern academia is the greatest threat to conservatism presently on the academic landscape — is quite well taken. However, his final two sentences urge us to accept an erroneous conclusion; a conclusion that is understandable in its error, but still wrong.

One can’t doubt that most post-modern thinkers, and certainly most post-modern academics, are guilty both of nauseating arrogance and of unwarranted hostility to the Christian faith. However, this does not mean that the doctrine itself implies hostility. In fact, as I mean to prove, it implies precisely the opposite.

First, let us look at the name of the idea — “post-modernism.” Usually when the prefix “post” is bantered about in academic circles, it is what happens when the prefix “anti” has been suitably perfumed with the Whig view of history to avoid being sniffed out by politically correct bloodhounds. Post-modernism is no exception, which may explain the ludicrously evasive answers that faculty members will give if ever pressed on what, precisely, the concept means. Strip away that evasiveness, however, and you find that at its core, the concept of post-modernism is an assault on definition (“essentialisms,” in the jargon of its more obnoxious supporters), and through definition, the power of human reason to define reality using its own power. In short, the premise of modernism — that mankind’s “naked reason” can and should rip down the drapes of tradition and declare “Lo, I am Proud” in the harsh light of day — is found by post-modernists to be utterly bankrupt.

Is it arrogant to assail reason in this way? Perhaps, but it is surely not nearly as arrogant as the modernist idea that the (as modernists see it) thoroughly material brain of a glorified ape is an acceptable cognitive substitute for years of human history and experience. And even if it is arrogant, one must ask the more pressing question: is it conservative?

Absolutely. As proof of this (admittedly counterintuitive) contention, I cite two major authors: Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. And while MacIntyre’s name may be less familiar than that of the universally recognizable giant Kirk, I put him first because he has managed to expose how post-modernism, stripped of its natural tendency to conservatism, is nothing but a theoretical nonstarter. To see him at work in this task, we need only turn to his tremendously effective work of moral deconstruction, After Virtue, wherein MacIntyre demonstrates (with cutting logical correctness) that any and all moral judgments can only be traced to pre-rational moral premises acquired through some odd mix of socialization, revelation and human nature. These pre-rational premises rebel against logical examination to the point that such an endeavor is hopeless, and when they contradict (which is almost always), rebel even more against social cohesion. After all, it is impossible for people with literally nothing in common at the moral level to get along.

Having proven this theory of moral reasoning, MacIntyre then uses it to great effect to mount a scathing indictment of moral pluralism/relativism, which he accuses of sewing social discord and confusion by allowing the proliferation of multiple, mutually exclusive moral premises to rampage unchecked. This assault being done, he closes with an appeal for a return to moral premises grounded in Aristotelian and Christian thinking. Because of this final section more so than anything else, the book is a logical, self-contained whole, which must be argued within its own terms.

However, it is precisely this final piece where Leftist postmodernists blink. That is, while they can effortlessly deconstruct reason and its supposedly marginalizing effects, they have absolutely nothing to offer in its place beyond a weak-kneed notion that everyone should just get along. Some Leftists even embrace this metaphysical chaos as preferable to the “oppression” of modern life. Either way, while Leftist post-modern thinkers can hide behind their arrogance and diagnose as many problems with modern society as any malcontent could, they fall crucially short insofar as they can offer no cure for the ills they imagine. It takes a sense of history, and of the eternal verities, to do that.

This was a subject that Russell Kirk understood all too well — a view shared not only by me, but by Kirk scholar Gerald Russello in his book The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk. Russello points out that Kirk’s work, rather like MacIntyre’s, takes a pessimistic and highly post-modern view of modern society and its over-allegiance to reason, all while advancing a politics with a “prescriptive center” designed to compensate for the weaknesses of the modern Polis. Was Kirk a post-modernist? The question may be an anachronism, but he certainly would have had sympathies with its root theoretical concern, even if he probably would have found the practice of its disciples to be mostly cowardice and noise.

Admittedly, pointing this out is something of an exercise in guts on my part, and may smell somewhat of temerity, given that I am doing it as a rejoinder to an eminence like Reid Buckley. However, if we are going to confront the chaotic, irrational black hole that is Left wing post-modernism, we cannot afford to be lazy in dismissing the entire beast. Post-modernism, for all its flaws, is pregnant with possibility for the Right. It can provide either a window on the frailty of the human condition, or the back door to solipsistic nihilism. To dispel the toxicity of much of modern society, conservatives must be wary of leaving the right one of these open as a ventilator.

Mytheos Holt is a conservative opinion journalist and communications buff living in the DC metro area. He has previously published writing at The Daily Caller, National Review Online, Frum Forum and Big Government.