Flat White

Post-modern conservatism? Yes, it’s a thing

22 July 2018

12:04 PM

22 July 2018

12:04 PM

The other day I was notified about a recent Spectator Australia article by Andrew Urban mocking a recent piece I had produced for the great online magazine Merion West. Andrew’s article “A quick quiz you can’t win” was responding to my piece “What is a Post-Modern Conservative?”

Over the past few months, I have written a number of pieces on post-modern conservatism for magazines like Quillette (run by Australia’s own Claire Lehmann) and Philosophical Salon. The essence of my argument is that post-modernism isn’t just a fancy theoretical tradition propagated from the ivory tower downwards, and which encourages a few over-sensitive undergraduate students to demand safe spaces and censor everyone they disagree with.

Drawing on other writers like Marshall McLuhan – a fellow Canuck of “global village” fame – and Neil Postman I maintain that post-modernism is a specific culture which has had a dramatic impact on the way many Westerners understand truth, individuality, and political movements.  The initial political impact of this post-modern culture was seen on the Left end of the spectrum, with a host of philosophers and commentators developing new theories and the various identity politics we are all too familiar with mobilizing.

I then proceeded to claim that post-modern culture was now having an impact on the Right, leading to the emergence of what I call post-modern conservatism.  This can be seen with the rise of truth ignoring, identity politics propagating, “alternative facts” worshipping politicians like Donald Trump in the United States and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Now, full disclosure. I did not coin the term “post-modern conservative.” That honour belongs to the recently deceased political theorist (and staunch conservative Catholic) Peter Lawler, who used it as a positive label for what he thought conservatism should become.  But I have used the term post-modern conservatism very differently and much more critically, and have published on the topic to try and indicate how many political movements on the Right have gradually evolved into what they claimed to have hated more than anything else.

The piece in Merion West included hyperlinks to many of my other articles and was writes as a kind of Coles notes to my take on post-modern conservatism. It summarised the five main features of what I take a post-modern conservative to be, and why we should be concerned that they have emerged.


Andrew Urban’s response to my piece didn’t really address any of this. Without context, he presented my list of the five features I associated with post-modern conservatism and then proceeded to mock it for an apparent lack of self-awareness.  Now as a Canadian he may have just been using some Aussie humour (though I roomed with an Australian for a long time and figured I had that down).  But his quick little article seemed to just presume that I was apparently a Leftist (true enough), which of course means I support post-modern identity politics (not really, it’s complicated), and therefore wasn’t aware of the irony in my (wrongly?) calling out conservatives for adopting the same positions and practices.

If I’ve gotten his position right, then Urban’s article seems based on quite a few presumptions and inaccuracies.  Firstly, seems to assume that all people on the left end of the political spectrum invariably support post-modernism and identity politics.  This is simply untrue.  In fact, many of the most vicious attacks on post-modern theory come from left-liberals like Ronald Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum, Marxists like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, and human dignity loving international rights scholars such as myself.

The Left isn’t one ideological movement, and it is wrong to judge it based on what a few rather vocal activists and theorists say.  Secondly, Andrew Urban seems to simply think my argument is blatantly untrue and therefore doesn’t deserve serious consideration.

Ironically enough, that kind of hyper-partisan attitude towards reasoned debate is one of the features of post-modern conservatism I provide on my list. If he thinks my argument is wrong, he is welcome to try and explain why.  Just having a partisan laugh without actually engaging what I said is very far from convincing.

Matt McManus recently completed his PhD and is currently a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. He is wrapping up his first book on international law and human dignity and is in the midst of formalising a deal for a second on post-modern conservatism. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca and tweets at @MattPolProf.

Illustration: Pinterest.

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