Power Line's Steven Hayward dissects the leftist behemoth
We probably think of Power Line's Steven Hayward as a first-rate writer at first glance, but he's got this other side and it's a doozy: He's a distinguished law professor who gets awards and gives special-event lectures for his accomplishments at universities. He's done quite a few.
I got the opportunity to hear him speak at the University of San Diego last night, as the featured guest at the Bowes-Madison Distinguished Speaker series, and his speech called "Justice without hyphens" offered amazing insights on the persistence of the left and its grip on America's cultural institutions.
For the left, there's no such thing as justice, or justice-justice, but just the lefty "intersectional" variants of it as they define it. Here's how he laid it out:
Why is the essential noun “justice” so often accompanied by a modifier, or a hyphen, today? We have social justice, environmental justice and climate justice, racial justice, feminist justice, gender justice, even spatial justice, and more. Why this conspicuous rise of contingent justice? Whatever happened to simple “justice” without a modifier?
Good question, no? He went into such topics such as post-modernism, (which has wrecked the humanities and arts), political correctness and identity politics, and the persistence of communism in academia despite its failed record.
Many of Hayward's ideas were derived from his latest book, "Patriotism is Not Enough," published last year and set to come out in a paperback edition this year. I'm certainly getting it.
He pointed out that postmodernism was a muddled word, and began with the irony of how the left and the right seemed to have changed places. Back in the 1950s, the left championed free speech and academic ideas, today it's the right that does that. Same deal with democracy or constitutional government, customs, individualism, even the Enlightenment. The left has problems with all of those concepts, likely because they no longer support the concept of using reason. Hayward explained:
“Who could be against reason, science, humanism, and progress?”, Pinker asks. “[C]ounter-Enlightenment ideas continues to be found across a surprising range of elite cultural and intellectual movements.” Needless to say most of these elite movements are dominated by the left.
7 And the most important or influential of these is postmodernism.
Pinker: “[T]he postmodernist credo [is] that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox.”
Sound like some academia places you know? They're always yelling about power structures, when it's they themselves who have all the power. And they insist objectivity is for the birds, all that matters is how they feel about such things. No wonder they have problems with guys like Voltaire and Washington and Burke, so he explained, much more elegantly, I'll add. He said this:
If objectivity is impossible, if language is subjective or corrupt or determined purely by power-relations, if common deliberation is actually not possible, then it raises a stark question: Why exactly are we having this conversation? More importantly, how are we having this conversation?
The radical skepticism of critical theory should be contrasted with oldfashioned Socratic skepticism. Socratic skepticism begins with the famous axiom, “I know that I know nothing,” which is meant to indicate a complete openness to being, a quest that begins always with the question, “What is. . .” about everything.
Postmodern skepticism evinces the exact opposite: I know that nothing can be known. Few postmodern thinkers say this very directly or necessarily think this explicitly, but when you try to take in the layer upon layer of the complications critical theorists lay down in the path to understanding anything, it amounts to the same thing.
They love themselves some relativism. Higher education bubble, anyone? He sums up the problem here:
Is it possible to get to the heart of the matter, and grasp in simple terms why it is so difficult to apprehend and comprehend objective reality? If objective reality is impossible to apprehend, what takes the place of objectivity as the ground of moral and political judgment? The answer is historicism. Here we come to the crux of the matter, and the most relevant point, which is that historicism is the background noise, the intellectual muzak of our time, even among people who aren’t radical postmodernists. The point is: our everchanging historical circumstances are so powerful and overwhelming that we simply cannot penetrate to the real mysteries of being.
Every generation will apply its own context to all ideas and classic works of the past. Tradition of any kind has no standing. [This goes a long way toward explaining the death of the humanities in our time. Why then do they matter? If there is nothing of real or lasting value to be learned from old books and once-great authors so long as they are merely a mirror to our own thoughts and prejudices, why bother with all that reading?]
Now the lefty world is starting to make sense.
The core philosophical question of conservatism is finding the unchanging ground of changing experience. Postmodernism says there is no unchanging ground: nothing is permanent.
This is a variation of Russell Kirk’s first great principle of conservatism, which he describes as the view that there is a transcendent moral order of the universe.
What does that mean? Although Edmund Burke argued that humans are fundamentally religious beings, the proposition that there is a transcendent moral order of the universe does not mean that everyone must believe in God, still less that everyone must profess a sectarian religion or even that religion must or should be the authoritative source for our opinions.
It means that there is a real structure or order to existence, and especially human existence. But a complete understanding of the wholeness of existence is inherently impossible to achieve—that’s what is meant by any understanding of “transcendence.” It requires an openness to metaphysics, which is partially beyond the grasp of pure reason. The mysteries of the physical universe, the subject of
14 intense interest in advanced physics today, is matched by the mysteries of the human social universe. The conservative tradition has long pointed to the natural law as the embodiment of both the difficulties and provisional solutions to this mystery, starting with the fact that there is such a thing as human nature though it would take an entire separate lecture to begin to lay out this rich teaching. But the essential conservative truth is perhaps best expressed by the old line of the Roman poet Horace: You can expel nature with a pitchfork, but it will come back at you through the window. Postmodernists or their epigones are the wielders of intellectual pitchforks, making war on human nature, trying to close the window against a return.
Hayward had many more insights drawn from a deep well of law, the meanings of words, philosophy and the arts, distilled clearly and precisely. I always knew that many lawyers were good writers, (a lawyer pal at Columbia j-school pointed that out to me) but it's that very fealty to words and their meaning which is why law can be practiced at all in the Western world. When words lose their meaning, law itself becomes mush, which is just what lefties appear to like.
For more on why the left seems to have such a cultural upper hand, a look at Hayward's book sounds like just the thing.