When I first set about trying to make sense of the ongoing Great Awakening of social justice fanaticism, I found that the most helpful sources of information were books written in the mid-to-late-’90s, shortly after the last wave of political correctness had attracted mainstream attention. I’d been wondering how long it would be until we started to see book-length analyses of today’s SJWs, and now Kim Holmes has produced one of the first examples:
Progressive liberalism in America today is not at all like what has come before. It is not merely a logical extension of the old progressivism popular at the turn of the 20th century, or the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and its outgrowth, the “Great Society” liberalism of Lyndon Johnson. It is not even the same as the 1960s New Left. It is something entirely new. It has roots in these old movements, but it has acquired a new ideology all its own.
The historical roots are twofold: 1) the tradition of radical egalitarianism that first surfaced over two centuries ago in the radical Enlightenment; and 2) various intellectual movements that arose as a negative reaction to the Enlightenment’s rationalism, often lumped together in a movement called the Counter-Enlightenment. The first tradition is normally associated with the left, while the second is a phenomenon normally of the right, at least in Europe. The fusion of these two opposing intellectual traditions is a major reason why the postmodern left is so philosophically elusive. It is also a factor in why it has been so politically successful.
The historical inspirations for the New Left were typically leftist. But the postmodern left was also fed by another set of ideas associated with the right-leaning Counter-Enlightenment. Partly a romantic rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but also a continuation of some of its more radical egalitarian ideas, the Counter-Enlightenment was characterized by distrust of rational discourse, a disdain for empiricism, contempt for Western liberalism, a hatred of modernity, and a tendency to glorify human passion as the mark of authentic individualism.
Hegel’s dialectic in action! The old windbag is probably smiling in his grave. Holmes goes on to distinguish postmodern leftism from traditional liberalism (the postmodern left favors epistemic relativism over liberalism’s affinity for natural law, it has no qualms about using state power to coerce opposition to accept its radical egalitarian claims, and it is strongly opposed to open inquiry and debate) and from early-20th-century progressivism (progressives, he stresses, were interested above all in building a new collective society, not in creating a balkanized zone of warring identity tribes, and they approved of the basic cultural and moral frameworks of Western civilization).
Taxonomy aside, he notes one especially interesting thing about their style of argument:
The deconstructionist method used by the postmodernists, albeit ostensibly theoretical in intent, is a powerful political weapon. It is a way to critique society without exposing oneself to easy counterattacks. By promising, for example, to tear away the veil of myth that supposedly props up capitalism and Western culture, it offers an all-purpose method of criticism that is political without appearing to be political. Postmodernists present themselves as relativists, not dogmatists, and thus they can sling arrows at the system from every possible angle. Since they are not held responsible for defending anything that actually exists, they wear their theoretical slipperiness as a badge of honor, as proof of a profound authenticity that is exceedingly difficult to disprove. They are intellectual guerrilla fighters in an asymmetrical war against Western culture, only they often pretend not to be fighters at all, but simply disinterested academics. They attack from the cultural flanks and then slip back into the cloistered protection of the academy, professing an interest only in literary theory or the nature of perception, language, and knowledge.
This actually made me laugh. Those of you who used to read the blog Who Is IOZ? (it’s now private, as the author, Jacob Bacharach, has gone on to become a novelist) back in the day should recognize this description. He espoused an intensely moralistic, non-denominational radicalism while sarcastically, ironically deflecting all challenges to him to defend a practical stance (and, perhaps true to his generation’s stereotype, he still likes to style himself as too special to fit within anyone else’s categorizations). IOZ managed to keep the shtick alive for several years due to his exceptional and entertaining writing ability, but in the hands of an ordinary practitioner, its sanctimony is merely tiresome.
At any rate, the salient point is that, unlike the fellow-traveling left of the early 20th century and the Third-World-liberationist sympathies of the New Left, today’s radicals are too jaded/afraid to be caught committing to a positive vision; theirs is entirely negative, relentlessly critical. Everything that actually exists is to be condemned for its imperfection (or, as a wiseacre likes to say, everything’s a problem). But how long can you occupy a morally pure “view from nowhere” while still expecting the targets of your attacks to continue taking you seriously? Hopefully, if the appearance of books like this is any indication, not much longer.