Skip to content

Postmodern conservative triumphalism rulz!

Kevin Mattson says that his new book, Rebels All! A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America, ends with a look at

…the rise of what I call “postmodern conservatism”—how an almost poststructuralist embrace of diversity and criticism of universal values informs the wars against “objectivity” and the mainstream media, the dominance of evolution and the call to teach intelligent design (ID) in public schools, and David Horowitz’s struggle for a student bill of rights in higher education.

The idea of “intellectual diversity” is a classic of postmodern conservatism (for those who don’t like their conservatism quite so postmodernized, it’s “intellectual pluralism”). It’s a slippery concept that’s inspired plenty of heated and arcane debates—to get a feel for them, go Fish. Based on what I’ve seen—a fairly haphazard sample—“intellectual diversity” is mostly used as a pretentious euphemism for “political diversity,” something that’s a lot like cultural diversity. If smart, educated, and decent people can come from a wide range of races and cultures, then it seems reasonable to say they can come from the different political persuasions as well. I’m not sure how many people really believe that, in their heart of hearts, and the relativism is sure ironic coming from the conservative side. But there’s some merit in the idea, I think. Cloistered orthodoxy and petty intolerance are endemic to academia, and the tendencies are only encouraged by too much homogeneity. A while back I pointed out a couple of professors whose contributions are tied to the way they stand out as conservatives against a background that’s largely liberal.

Positive examples are especially illuminating because intellectual diversity is usually promoted by highlighting the negatives its supposed to fix—the outrages of liberal bias and political correctness. In fact, it seems to me that one of the better arguments against intellectual diversity as a reform agenda is the poor quality of the polemics launched by some of its promoters and fans. When high-minded ideals are coupled with low-minded rhetoric and feeble, agenda-driven reasoning, it’s the practice that reveals the intentions and integrity of the critic far more than the preaching. David Thompson is a peripheral example, KC Johnson a more central one. What the practice suggests is that an ideologically balanced campus would be like one of those TV shows where liberal and conservative pundits try to shout each other down. It’s a mindset that offers nothing of value to academia’s pool of intellectual diversity.

In his column in the Cornell Daily Sun, Gabriel Arana criticises conservatives on his campus for dwelling on denounciation and symbolic resistance to what they see as the dominant culture instead of offering intellectually engaged alternatives. (hat tip)

In this sense The Cornell Review and the conservative discourse it represents owe more to Ann Coulter than William F. Buckley; the discourse is polemical, a tired repetition of conservative mantras attacking a liberal campus culture. If the Veritas grant does anything, I hope it will be to invigorate conservative discourse that has—at least during my time here—failed to really engage the intellectual community here, to bring to light new opinions that do not simply recapitulate conservative pundits’ talking points. Perhaps it can start by refraining from attacking our faculty and students and propose something to talk about.

The editorial was in response to the announcement of a $50k grant from the Veritas Fund for Higher Education to help launch Cornell’s new Program on Freedom and Free Societies. Arana’s objections aren’t with the program, they’re with the rhetoric coming from the Fund’s executive director, David DeRosiers. And he isn’t alone—even the Program’s point man on campus, Prof. Barry Strauss, distanced himself from DeRosiers’ rhetoric (“…I wish they had consulted me about their summer update. I would have told them that I respectfully disagree with much of what they say.”). Here’s a sample:

Veritas identified Cornell as one such university that prides itself on diversity, but lacks the intellectual kind, stating in its update, “most new courses of the last several decades have focused entirely on race, gender, or postmodernism.” Cornell, over the last forty years, has neglected traditional learning offerings such as Western society, thought and economics, according to the statement.

“The idea behind what we’re doing is to bring back triumphalism to moderate the excesses of gender and [diversity courses],” said DeRosiers. “To teach courses that have gone out of style. They have had a focus on race, gender, class—and in doing so, students have been given a partial view of reality with America as the force of many evils. It’s more to the fact that they’re only receiving a diet of such things—they’re being malnourished.”

According to Arana, the sweeping claims about the curriculum are easily rebutted by Cornell’s course catalog. That’s small potatoes, though, compared to the apparent determination to fight excess with excess by “bring[ing] back triumphalism.” Triumphalism? I can’t imagine a self-respecting humanities professor promoting the idea—maybe that just shows how deep the grooves of liberal bias are in my brain. But if triumphalism is seriously part of the program, it seems like a shame to put the West back in it’s rightful position at the apex of history and just stop there. Might as well put mankind back in his rightful place at the apex of creation, too—“intelligent design” is ready and waiting. And with science out the window, why not go whole hog and bring back geocentrism, too? That would be some potent triumphalism—America at the center of God’s universe. With a little of that in the curriculum you might just moderate all those America-hating zealots of oppression studies right out of existence.