Postmodern Conservative

Dissident Studies and Postmodern Conservatism

So it took a substantial signing bonus, a multi-year contract, a huge golden parachute, and certain other perks I’m ashamed to mention, but I’m still glad to say we were able to get Flagg Taylor to join us as a postmodern conservative.

Flagg is, among other great things, the editor of that indispensable teaching tool for liberal education in our time, The Great Lie. That ideological lie is the one that animated 20th-century totalitarianism. And Flagg has collected all the very best accounts of the origin and power of that lie, as well as of the dignified, courageous, and ultimately triumphant resistance to it.

Particularly important in the development of postmodern conservatism has been the dissident thought of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel. Both of those great thinkers risked everything to live in the truth, and, for them, personal liberation meant not compromising the correspondence between what you can’t help but know about who you are and what you do. That’s why, as Solzhenitsyn said, the one true progress occurs in the direction of wisdom and virtue over the course of a particular human life. And that’s why we should regard the material blessings and the relational challenges of technological progress as the ennobling trials given  to each of our free wills specific  to our time.

For Havel and Solzhenitsyn, being postmodern means affirming what’s true while rejecting the excesses of the premodern emphasis on personal spirituality and the modern emphasis on the “how” of technology at the expense of the “why” of purposeful human life. For the man who was happy imprisoned in the Gulag, nothing was clearer than it you’re truthfully animated by the “why” you can get by with almost any “how.” The dissident Solzhenitsyn also claimed to hear beneath the surface of happy-talk, problem-solving American techno-pragmatism the howl of existentialism.  (The philosopher-comedian Louis C.K. has reminded us that the howl is imperfectly mirrored by the “faraway sound” of the Big Man’s sax solo in  Bruce Springsteen and the  E Street Band’s “Jungleland.”)

One reason for that howl (that corresponds to an emptiness for which we have no words) is that we don’t take liberal education seriously, as Flagg explains below. And so we don’t have the thoughtful, countercultural courage to resist the excesses of our mostly relativistic, high-tech democracy. That’s why I can’t contain my dissident anger when I hear the libertarians say that the only issue that faces us is economic growth, and all our personal problems would fade if we had more of it.

The only thing left to do is to remind you that today is Blaise Pascal’s birthday.

UPDATE: Some sent me a link to an article I wrote a long time ago on the professor as dissident. I had the joy of rediscovering myself and the misery of being reminded that, as you get older, a lot of what you write is “reinventing your own wheel.”

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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