That’s the job of the professor, according to many influential theorists who belong to the MLA. Anyone who doesn’t teach in opposition to the hegemonic establishment shouldn’t get to teach. The job of the professor is to transform the young by authoritatively encouraging them to negate established authority as merely a veiled vehicle for oppression. So our literary theorists are the opposite of Burkeans, who give a preferential option to tradition and reform it only with caution.

One big issue, of course, is whether the history of America is mainstreaming radicalism. Our theoretical professors seem to agree with our Court that words are just weapons to maximize liberty, and we’re getting better and better at doing that over time.

This mainstreaming radicalism thesis works with the rights of women, although only to a point. The radical feminists haven’t yet deconstructed the family or modesty completely. Nobody really believes that the effects of radical thought on mainstream marriage or sexual life has been altogether positive, and “radical feminism” has been displaced largely (outside the academic world) with a chastened defense of women’s rights (and some appreciation of the dilemma of the resulting birth dearth, lonely single moms, and all that).

It works to some extent with “gay rights.” Although same-sex marriage remains a bone of contention, most Americans agree with, say, Rorty, that it’s progress that were less cruel and stigmatizing and all that when it comes to homosexuals. But it’s not simply progress, they seem to add, to identify one’s sexual life with dignified autonomy and nothing more.

It doesn’t work with the “Christian socialism” Rorty embraces or the general confidence of radicals of the recent past that capitalism would implode and be replaced by something better or more in accord with “social justice.” One lesson of Obama is that people have no confidence that bigger government can cure what ails us or really produce changes that will make our lives better or more virtuous. And I can say that without agreeing with Mr. Beck that anyone who uses “social justice” in a sentence is a conspiratorial evildoer. The free market is better appreciated and defended today than it was a generation ago. And only our radicals didn’t learn a lot from what we’ve found out over the last generation about horribly monstrous and massively murderous communism really was. (So the our war against communism was a bigger and more noble deal than even our cold warriors thought at the time.)

It doesn’t work with FDR’s rhetorical invocation of a randomly expanded list of rights, most of which haven’t caught on and shouldn’t. It doesn’t work with LBJ’s scheme for government eradicating the culture of poverty and satisfying every American’s hunger for beauty. So today’s Beckian anti-progressives—and today’s radical liberals—probably make too big a deal out of the transformational effects of the New Deal and the Great Society.

It doesn’t work with the alleged right to an abortion, despite the best efforts of our Court to bring the controversy to an end. The pro-lifers may be the radicals on the way to be mainstreamed, recent studies show

It doesn’t work with true or non-politicized religion. Americans remain remarkably resistant to every form of civil religion and whatever happens to be the newest form of the new atheism. Religion, studies show, functions less as a popular antidote and more as a defense of personal virtue against impersonal History (or promiscuous progressivism) and the impersonal market. People know that that they’re more than History fodder and more than autonomous or radically displaced individuals.

I’m all for “teaching the conflict,” of course—in the sense of teaching why there are good reasons why Americans are morally conflicted. So I remain opposed to the scientism of too many “studies show” course and the ideological identity propaganda of too may “studies” courses.

All this is a prelude to a endorsement of the excellent Burkean analysis of Mr. Jones below, with the caveat that Burke probably isn’t enough in our untraditional times.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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