Pathologies of "Postmodern Progressivism"
with Steve McIntosh
I’m an intellectual pugilist by temperament. When I’m engaged in an argument, I want to duke it out and come out on top. That’s especially true of the culture war, where the stakes are extremely high. But combat isn’t the only metaphor available to those of us who are trying to preserve important aspects of our culture that presently are under threat. And I admit, it may not always be the most helpful one. Sometimes a new language can help to enlist new recruits who may be sympathetic to the cause but unenthusiastic about the notion of warfare, metaphorical and otherwise.
Steve McIntosh, of the President, Co-Founder, and Director of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, has a way of thinking about things that expands the vocabulary of struggle a little bit. He’s opposed to what he terms “postmodern progressivism” as a threat to the most crucial advances made by modernity: science, economic liberty, the right to individual self-determination, and the universality of human dignity. Steve has a complicated understanding of human history’s progression, one with which I’m still grappling. But we agree that the anti-patriotic and so-called anti-racist strains of postmodern progressivism threaten some of the most fundamental gains of the recent past.
In the following excerpt from my recent conversation with Steve, he introduces his notion of postmodern progressivism and explains how he and his colleagues at the Institute for Cultural Evolution hope to overcome its most worrisome aspects while retaining what’s helpful. I appreciate that Steve doesn’t underestimate the seriousness of our predicament, and while he seems ambivalent about the metaphor of a “culture war,” I’m happy to have him as an ally.
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GLENN LOURY: So we have the Enlightenment. We have the triumph of scientific rationality over religious superstition. We have this idea of representative government. What is it that makes legitimate the power of social contract, or ideas of this kind. We have this prising of individual rights, of liberties, of the dignity of the human person. That change in sensibility is an illustration of cultural evolution in your view of things?
STEVE MCINTOSH: Definitely. The emergence of that package of values and perspectives and approaches and methods that you just described, we frame that as the worldview of modernity. And we're still not the only ones to do that.
I mean, look at what that does. That makes Galileo not a criminal, a thought criminal. That makes the emancipation of slaves a moral imperative. That makes the equality of status of women before the law a moral imperative. That makes commerce, freedom of exchange and property rights and rule of law an institutional achievement. You're comparing that profound transformation in human culture to what's going on right now with postmodern, anti-racist, Black Lives Matter agitation. I mean, that seems like apples and oranges to me.
Sure. Well, let me explain that modernity is, as many commentators would call it, the great fact. It's like the Cambrian explosion in cultural evolution. In the same way that, in biological evolution, the Cambrian explosion brought about the backbone, the vertebrate, which sort of formed the foundation for all future complex organisms, modernity gives us backbone as citizens. It makes us sovereign political actors, and it's gonna be necessary to preserve that key innovation for all further cultural evolution.
Now I'm not saying that that progressive postmodern culture is anywhere as significant or as morally profound as modernity. I'm not trying to reduce it to that or reduce modernity to that. But it is a predictable reaction, an antithesis. The giant thesis of modernity, where do you go from there? The striving for cultural evolution, that need for a sense of transcendence, the evolutionary restlessness that is a part of the human condition leads people to try to go beyond it. Whether they go beyond it successfully or not is certainly something we can talk about.
But if we can at least view progressive postmodernism, despite its pathologies and its threats, part of the way of going beyond it is to understand it as sympathetically as we can so that we can effectively transcend it. Instead of being in a boxing match with it, we can kind of do a judo move on it and get beyond it by carrying forward the best and pruning away the worst of this cultural attempt to transcend modernity.
Okay. Can we talk in more concrete terms? What would be an example within the current political culture of the United States, whether it's, I don't know, affirmative action or diversity, equity, and inclusion stuff, whether it's about transgender and gender identity stuff, whether it's about Donald Trump and the politics of anti-elite, coastal versus the middle-of-the-country, red state-blue state stuff? Climate change, you mentioned that in our introductory discussion. I'm trying to get my hands around these ideas and I need some help in terms of illustration.
Sure. So as it first emerges as a discrete kind of culture in the '60s, the opportunity to make the world a better place, at least as its perceived by the progenitors of postmodernity, is defined by what's wrong with modernity. So the concern about civil rights not being fully developed, the concern about the degradation of the environment, the concern about the women's liberation movement not have having achieved full success. There's a whole variety at the beginning, in the '60s, of propositions of cultural transcendence, if you will, that helped form that culture.
And even though those are discrete things, you can see in the culture itself how they form a loose whole. The people who are for civil rights are generally people who are concerned about the environment. The worldview helps create identity and give meaning to what's important. So it begins in the '60s with the '60s culture, which has a variety of causes that are in alliance with each other.
And then as it matures, those values or those concerns, the chief goals of this emerging worldview, we can see them in the environmental movement, we can see it in the transgender movement, we can see it in the variety of forms of wokeism, if you'll allow me to use that term. One one of the things that binds all these different cultural threads together is an agreement regarding the abundant pathologies of modernity, a sort of anti-modernism. And what's now emerging is what we might call reverse patriotism. So the things that were held dear by these previous worldviews are in some ways that which this new antithetical worldview attacks. So there's an attack on patriotism. There's an attack on liberal values.
The pathologies of progressivism, after its 50-year run as a counterculture in America, because it's attracted a significant portion of the educated elite, it's captured many institutions. This signals the point at which this cultural thrust is beginning to become exhausted, that its pathologies are beginning to overtake the good that it may have done and is trying to do.
I'm sorry, are those the pathologies of modernity or of postmodernity?
No, pathologies of this progressive postmodern worldview. Anti-modernism, reverse patriotism. These are things we have to combat.
Well, I'm certainly on board with that. But I want a fight. I think that's one reason why Stephanie has sent me to you for further instruction. She's been working on me for years now. I want conflict. I want to win. I want my defense of modernity against the barbarians who are at the gates. In my case, they're at the gates of the university. They're canceling speakers. They won't allow for the full discussion of ideas, because they think they already know what's right, and they are aggressive in enforcing conformity with their presuppositions about what's right.
And that offends me, I must be honest with you, and frightens me and threatens me, and I wanna fight. Our friend Stephanie, who has introduced me to you, is trying to counsel me otherwise. And I'm not yet persuaded that these barbarians don't need to be “defeated” rather than … And I don't even know what the alternative to defeating them is, because they sure don't seem interested in negotiation or reasoned deliberation.
They seem interested in having their way. They want to call me a transphobe if I ask a certain question. They want to call me—not me personally but people like me who have my ideas—racist if we raise certain issues. If I am concerned about the future of the family as an institution because all of these evolutions of liberation seem to be tearing at the fabric of social structure, and I'm conservative—with a small-C—conservative about that, they're gonna me a name. They're gonna call me a defender of the patriarchy. I'm not sure what you guys have in mind for managing the evolution of culture through these various phases and challenges. But for my money, the barbarians need to be, first of all, identified and, secondly, opposed vociferously. Tell me why I'm wrong about that.
You're not wrong. I thoroughly agree with you. I think that defeating these forces and their uncharitable narrative of the American project, as you put it, is imperative right now. That's why I'm so inspired by your thought leadership and others who are sort of really leading the way in a powerful way, like Bari Weiss. Her latest speech to the [University of Austin] was deeply inspiring to my heart. I agree with her thoroughly. And so in some ways the fact that the battle has been joined is a good sign, because I think that ultimately the forces of truth and goodness and beauty will prevail. I think this is certainly a threat and a regression. So I agree that fighting needs to take place to a degree.
I mean, we should tell people if there's anyone who doesn't know, Bari Weiss, formerly of the New York Times, with a very successful and influential Substack now, is also an advisor to the University of Austin, a new higher education institution that's being stood up de novo, stood up from scratch in Austin, Texas. Pano Kanelos is the president, the leader of this enterprise. But yeah, Bari has become a friend. And she's fairly combative on occasion, when the stakes get high enough, when she's talking about the stuff that's near and dear to her heart. What has the work of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, if I may ask, accomplished in the years that you guys have been laboring away?
Well, the development of this political philosophy itself, which offers a new front in the culture war, if you will, or a new approach to understanding our opponents, if I can at least put it that way. Those who would tear down the best of what's come before, those who are hostile to the American project, those who I think wrongly attribute things like systemic racism and white supremacy to American culture. And I think we can get nuanced how we might find some truth in that, but certainly I would agree that it's overblown. So part of it involves understanding—again, I don't want to put it in such stark terms, but I will for purposes of this conversation—understanding our enemy, understanding what they're after, trying to be as sympathetic as possible while also recognizing our duty to to fight against those who would destroy the American project.
I am a recently "enlightened" (in the sense of being aware of what the hell is going on in Progressive World, and what it's doing to many people's understanding of how the world works) Enlightenment Liberal. I am now aware of what is going on, because two of my daughters (whom I raised to be old-school feminists and to think like scientists) recently declared themselves to be "nonbinary". I knew that there was an upswing in kids being "into" this worldview, and in my search for what the hell this was all about, I discovered that it's a particularly militant corollary of postmodernism. A person is simply not allowed to question the idea that gender is defined solely by one's own "feeling" that one is really a man/woman (a designation completely divorced from physical sex, which latter is now considered a "spectrum"), and if they do, they can expect to be cut off from their children, ostracized from their social circle, or even lose their job. Of couse. Postmodernism is bullshit, completely divorced from anything we actually know, or could actually find out. Does Critical Race Theory point out some things that we have still to do, beyond the tremendous accomplishments of Enlightenment Liberalism, where we recognize as a first principle that we are all people? Sure. Should we address it using Critical Race Theory? Not a chance. I'm delighted to discover that there are others aware of all this. What do we do? I'm not really looking forward to explaining to my kids what postmodernism is, if they'll even listen. I showed my son an article about the science which raises some questions about the appropriateness of transitioning children, and he told me the article was "disgusting", presumably because it doesn't go along with what he's been persuaded is absolutely true. Why is postmodernist activism so bloody addictive, can you tell me that?
My path to conservatism wasn't all that different from yours. I came from a family of solid Roosevelt Democrats. I didn't know any Republicans or conservatives growing up. In junior high school, I was a member of Young Democrats. In high school, I became a leftist student radical. Then as a college freshman in 1969, I was told by the head of the campus radicals that to be a real radical, I had to support the Arabs against Israel. That started me down the road towards conservatism. The big turning point was during law school when I read Bork's "The Antitrust Paradox." That was my first introduction to what you call "neoliberal economics" and it was an eye-opener. Between economics and the law, I could start to see how the world really worked. The final turning point was President Reagan, whose successes in both foreign and domestic policies convinced me that conservatism provided better solutions.