Author: Matt McManus

Understanding Postmodern Conservatism: A Reply To Aaron Hanlon

“Truth is Not Truth” ~Rudy Giuliani, Meet the Press, August 20, 2018 On August 31, the Washington Post published an interesting opinion piece entitled “Postmodernism Didn’t Cause Trump. It Explains Him” by Professor Aaron Hanlon, an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. In his article, Professor Hanlon referred to my May 17 article for Quillette, “The Rise and Emergence of Postmodern Conservatism” as an example of a prominent tendency on to “blame” postmodernism for the rise of Trumpism. Hanlon describes this tendency at length midway through the article. I will quote him in full to avoid misrepresenting his position: Today, critics on both Left and Right are happy to wave their fingers at postmodern theory, so long as they can blame it for the Trump electorate’s unprecedented disregard for the truth. In Quillette—an online magazine obsessed with the evils of ‘critical theory’ and postmodernism—Matt McManus reflects on “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism.” From the Right, David Ernst contends that “Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself .” And from the Left, Kakutani recently wrote in the Guardian: “Relativism has …

What Is the Law?

Recent debates about the looming appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court have once again indicated the depth of disagreement amongst American jurists and politicians about what legal officials should do and which legal interpretations are valid. Should a state have an interventionist Court or a restrained one? Is an interventionist Court one that takes a pragmatic approach to the law, or one that stresses paying attention to the so called ‘original meaning’ of legal texts? The intensity of these debates reflects the power granted to many legal officials in the American constitutional order. At different times, judges have handed down enormously consequential decisions that impact the way civil rights are understood, determine whether or not abortion will be legal and accessible, help us to understand the structure of American democracy, and so on. Americans are not alone in deliberating on these hot button issues—criticism of the power of legal officials, and discussion about what constitutes legitimate legal interpretation, also rage in Canada and on the European continent. These debates belie deeper and more complex questions …

Is There Anybody In There?—Derek Parfit’s Criticism of the Self

Dedicated to the Memory of Connor O’Callaghan The recent passing of a very good friend of mine, to whom this article is dedicated, has prompted me to reflect more deeply on certain philosophical questions about who were are and what really matters. Few contemporary philosophers have done more to challenge conventional answers to such questions than Derek Parfit, who tragically passed away on January 1, 2017. Though his work was not as widely known by the general public as other intellectual luminaries, his brilliant philosophical insights and imagination deserve a wider audience. This article on Parfit’s criticism of the self and personal identity is intended to make a small contribution to that goal. Parfit’s work divided into two related set of concerns. Firstly, Parfit was concerned with the perplexing question of the self and personal identity. Do we have self? If so, what is it? Does the self possess any value? And so on. His philosophical examination of these issues were presented in seminal works such as his 1971 paper “Personal Identity” and his now …

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood: Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative …

Post-Postmodernism on the Left

Postmodernism has never been as unpopular as it is today, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Often, conservative critics can be heard to blame left-wing ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ for the emergence of a vitriolic identity politics that eschews a commitment to truth, reason, and dialogue. Left-wing postmodernists are seen as undermining truth, reason, and dialogue by criticizing these values as ideological ‘myths’ designed to reinforce white male privilege, Western colonialism, and so on. The specter of left-wing postmodernism is also invoked as one of the forces undermining the confidence of the West, leading us to submit to dangerous and illiberal groups around the globe. Some even go so far as to claim that, in allegedly promoting a fundamentally collectivist philosophy qua the Soviet Union, left-wing postmodernists are proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent. On this reading, the philosophy which guides the utterances of a transsexual rights activist in the United States and a Maoist revolutionary in China, are one and the same and just as dangerous in principle: …

Three Justifications for Liberalism

In his 1988 article “Unger’s Philosophy: A Critical Legal Study” William B. Ewald criticized young leftwing up-and-comer Roberto Unger for his simplistic characterization of liberalism.  Unger was one of the key founders of the critical legal studies movement, which philosophically oriented itself around his 1975 book Knowledge and Politics. In this seminal text, published when the author was only 28, Unger develops a systematic “total criticism” of liberal doctrines. He runs through broad interpretations of liberal psychology and liberal politics, arguing that these constitute a unified doctrine which “total criticism” largely knocks apart. In his response, Ewald argued that while Unger was often creative and occasionally brilliant, he had badly mischaracterized liberalism. Far from being a unified doctrine, liberalism had historically been justified from a number of different philosophical perspectives. This made it far less vulnerable to “total criticism” than authors like Unger supposed. Indeed, it was quite hard to even pin down what liberalism was in a concrete sense. As Ewald eloquently put it: Even at the level of concrete political discourse, the term (liberalism) …

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Few things agitate today’s intellectually informed conservatives and classical liberals like postmodern theory and its concretization in identity politics. In an article for the National Review back in 2014, Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institute compared postmodernism to “poison,” and decried falling standards of “truth and falsity.” Jordan Peterson has characterized postmodernism as dangerous, and identity politics as a kind of self-pitying victimization. In my home country of Canada, Rex Murphy of the right leaning National Post has characterized movements oriented around identity politics as “intolerant” and their participants as a “mob.” In Britain, Roger Scruton accused postmodern intellectuals of destroying “high culture” be effacing aesthetic standards. And so the litany goes on. It would be impossible to itemize the details of all these varied criticisms here. Instead, I will summarize them before moving on to the main topic of this essay: the emergence of postmodern conservatism and identity politics. The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold. Firstly, conservatives are concerned with the theoretical consequences of postmodern theory. In less sophisticated critiques, …

Two Arguments for Inequality

Social inequality is amongst the most contentious and prominent social issues in the twenty-first century. After declining significantly in the mid-twentieth century, inequality has now reached stark levels. A recent Credit Suisse report indicated that the globe’s richest 1 percent are on track to own half of the world’s wealth. In November 2017, Forbes reported that the three wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million. The disparity between those who have a great deal, and those with much less, has grown so stark that in his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century economist Thomas Piketty warned that we might be entering a new “Gilded Age.” It would be driven by a global class of individuals who enjoy vast inherited wealth, demonstrate little allegiance to the nation state and its tax laws, and commit themselves to further entrenching their social power. These prompts raise the question of what can possibly justify such stark inequities; especially in a global context where the World Bank estimates that in 2013 roughly 767 million individuals lived on …

Liberalism, Classical and Egalitarian

Few reactions against postmodernism and identity politics have been as noticeable as the surging interest in classical liberalism. Against a hyper-egalitarianism concerned with safe spaces and achieving equality of outcome for all, modern classical liberals emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and meritocracy. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend is Jordan Peterson. A self-described classical liberal, Peterson has offered scathing critiques of postmodern intersectionality and its concern with achieving equality of outcome for all people regardless of their inclinations and natural talents. He enjoys a lot of company these days. In a recent article for Quillette, Andrew Kelman condemns the influence of post-modern philosophy on the law via critical legal studies, and calls for a return to classical liberal principles in legal analysis. Recently fired Atlantic author Kevin Williamson has bemoaned the turn to radicalism on the Right and Left, lamenting that there is “no political home for classical liberalism at all” in contemporary society. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame has written a dour book entitled Why Liberalism Failed …

In Defence of Critical Legal Theory: A Reply to Andrew Kelman

I read Andrew Kelman’s recent Quillette article “Beyond All Warnings: The Radical Assault on Truth in Law” with interest and some appreciation. Kelman characterises his article as an attack on ‘critical legal theory.’ Invoking Jordan Peterson, Kelman connects the emergence of critical legal theory in the law school with the broader academic fad of what Peterson has called “postmodern neo-Marxism.” These relativistic philosophies, Kelman argues, have undermined the belief that there can be neutrality and truth in any field, including the law. Drawing on postmodern philosophy, critical legal theorists and their followers, convinced that all law is about power, seek to use the legal system to redistribute power to those groups they feel have been traditionally marginalised in society. "Conservatives and classical liberals must unite to find a new way to end bigotry without the tribalism of extremist identity politics…Twenty years of increasing corruption in the law has passed, and we are now beyond all warnings." https://t.co/g5DyGRV32m — AndrewKelman (@TheUKDemocrat) April 3, 2018 Kelman argues that the influence of critical legal theorists has been pernicious. Under …