Thermidor

© 2017 Thermidor Magazine.

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The Enlightenment Roots of Evergreen College's Frankenstein Monster

In the latest, and perhaps most insane, instance of campus madness, a student group at Evergreen State in Washington held a 'white day of absence' event where whites were not supposed to attend classes (as students or professors). When one professor and Jewish progressive, Bret Weinstein, vocally objected and declined to participate, this triggered an assortment of rabid protests. Student mobs confronted Weinstein and occupied parts of campus, blockading faculty and attempting to intimidate them. Their grievances, such as they were, often went beyond Weinstein's abstinence from the event into a whole litany of imaginary slights and claims of oppression. In response, 50 professors at Evergreen issued a letter in solidarity with the students, denouncing Weinstein and showing deference to the students' psychotic demands. While explicit defenders of him among the college's faculty have been few.

Following this completely deranged display of victimization politics, which are enthroned in humanities departments across the nation, there was the predictable backlash and outcry from the broader public. Sensible people everywhere understood that the students were out of line and had no defense. The shock at the video of them physically intimidating teachers caused even many would-be-allies to denounce them, while their remaining defenders were limited to a small cadre of radical left-wing ideologues.

While it's easy to criticize the students and they richly deserve it, it's worth noting that they've been fed a steady diet of propaganda for decades—emerging not only from academia, but their boomer parents, Hollywood, D.C., and news media—which has indoctrinated them into many of the ideas that they are being criticized for. Such as the notion that nefarious, shadowy forces like The Patriarchy and White Supremacy lurk in our institutions, or rather constitute the very foundation of our institutions, and are subsequently the source of all their failures and dissatisfaction in life. While often inchoate and not necessarily presented in the academic tongue, popular feminism and mainstream racial politics ingrain the very same messages. All before students are even delivered up for molding and shaping in the ways of Rightthink by the University sociology department.

Meanwhile, some of the harshest critics of the students have been professors and educators, for obvious reasons. People like Jonathan Haidt, Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian, and Jordan Peterson, who have been on the frontlines of the fight for academic freedom and viewpoint diversity amidst rising homogeneity and dogmatism. Most of these critics tend to be scientific thinkers, rather than social scientists, and proponents of Enlightenment rationalism (in one variant or another.) They see the way the students' behavior has been fueled by postmodern ideology in the humanities, represented by things like gender studies and critical race theory, and wish the students would return to the foundations of reason, as represented by the Enlightenment. While they are appalled by the students' behavior, they also see where they're getting it from and realize the problem goes deeper and further back. In this desire to return to a modernist, rationalist, Enlightenment paradigm, they believe they represent true liberalism (critical inquiry and open debate, free speech, scientific method, skepticism etc.) and that the problem with today's radical left is that they have forsaken that inheritance.

But if the postmodernist professors and ideologues are the Dr. Frankenstein that created the campus SJW monster, who created them?

While these critics are certainly right about the campus SJW menace and the poison of postmodernism which fuels it, they are blind—as most are—to the fact that postmodernism is not anti-modernism but hyper-modernism. It's modernity completed and fulfilled. Modernity is a force of destruction and dissolution and its project is continued by its postmodern little brother.

The narrative of liberation so central to the modern project is not abandoned under the postmodern regime but expanded and reified. Instead of liberation from one particularly Christian metanarrative of history and reality, it seeks deliverance from all metanarratives; rather than deliverance from dogma and tradition in favor of reason, it grows weary of the chains of reason itself; it not only refuses to be held hostage by official, canonical interpretations of texts, but demands to be liberated from the text altogether as the death of the author is proclaimed; instead of particular institutions, like monarchy or feudalism, being violent and oppressive, it writes violence into being itself. In each case the postmodern lies further along the trajectory already established; the seed that was sown has sprouted and come into bloom.

The students of today shut down dissent with much the same fervor as those infamous apostles of modernity, the Jacobins. They are not an aberration. Liberalism was illiberal from the start and its stated principles contain a self-devouring logic which has worked itself out in postmodernism. Freedom and equality, as construed by the modernist project, are inorganic and therefore require a tyrannical power to suppress those who would openly oppose 'freedom and equality.' So that's what happens, then and now.

This is why it's annoying when people like Shermer, Haidt, and Boghossian insist that Enlightenment principles are the cure rather than a merely somewhat less malignant form of the disease. The failure to see the underlying spiritual and ideological coherence of the modern-postmodern continuum is at the root of their own bewilderment at "how crazy the Left has gone." As the reformers enshrined individualism in matters ecclesial, as Enlightenment philosophers enthroned reason over tradition and revelation, and as the revolutionaries in France overthrew the ancien régime, those clamoring for the destruction of the structures of power and dominance of our own day follow in their footsteps.

"Ah," comes the reply, "but The Patriarchy and White Supremacy are imaginary oppressors while the tyranny of the Roman Catholic church and the Crown were real!"

The same resentment and rebellion against reality—whether in the form of God or Nature—is at work, as well as the same scapegoating.

Joseph de Maistre once said of the defenders of democracy (democracy being integral to the modernist project):

To hear these defenders of democracy talk, one would think that the people deliberate like a committee of wise men, whereas in truth judicial murders, foolhardy undertakings, wild choices, and above all foolish and disastrous wars are eminently the prerogatives of this form of government.

As "democracy" acts as a farcical front for chaos in the realm of government, so does "reason" in epistemology; so does "freedom and equality" in philosophy; so do "human rights" in the realm of justice. It shocks modern sensibilities to oppose such apparently manifest goods, but they are merely various masks of a single diabolical subversion. In the postmodern turn, the same subversion finds some new masks.

This is a disturbing realization if your conception of the world is defined by the mythos of the Enlightenment. If it turns out its true inheritors are plainly purveyors of madness and chaos, as seems to be the case, then the prospect of all you've held dear being a lie opens up before you. This is the dilemma that confronts the True Liberals™, and the solution of imagining that the postmodernists and their campus crazies represent a repudiation, rather than the fulfillment, of your ideology is a soothing one. A good indicator that it isn't a sound one (aside from an accurate ideological mapping of [post]modernity), is that it's just too easy. Jordan Peterson (who, to be fair, is the most equivocal in his evaluation of the Enlightenment and modernity in this crowd) often wisely insists that when you want to look for problems in the world and start sorting them out, begin by looking in the mirror. These champions of modernity should do just that.