I need to confess something about my contribution to the American Spectator ’s young conservatives symposium . The two points I try to make are, first, that the Right should stop carping about relativism because practically no one on the Left is a relativist anymore, and second, that the next culture war should target technocratic utilitarianism, which dominates our political conversation and is slowly taking over our moral and cultural conversations too. I think I make I pretty strong case for relativism’s defunctitude, and I honestly do believe that particular enemy has been definitively vanquished, but—and this is my confession—my anti-anti-relativism broadside was partly motivated by self-interest. Sweet heavens above, I am so bored by arguments against relativism, and I would probably be bored by them even if relativism were still a threat worth worrying about. I come close to admitting as much in the article:
There are traces of relativism in pluralism, freedom of speech, cosmopolitanism, foreign-policy realism, and a thousand other principles, including many that conservatives like. With the help of good judgment, these concepts have allowed the West to find a middle ground between nihilism and absolutism. Promiscuous use of the R word only makes that project more difficult. It is also—and this is a personal opinion—mind-numbingly dull. “Some things are good, others are bad,” has sometimes been an extremely important point to make, but never has it been an interesting one.Those who enjoy a good bash of the TED-talk mindset will like page 2 :
A cynic might say that accusations of relativism are so popular because they are just as evasive as relativism itself, and they end conversations just as abruptly. If relativism is an easy way to avoid saying why something is bad, calling your opponent a relativist is a way to escape explaining why your own opinion is good. It stacks the deck in the accuser’s favor: He doesn’t need a compelling position to win the argument; just having a position will do. Even when the Right’s opponents really were relativists, this looked like a lazy defense.
Readers who are skeptical that relativism is moribund should realize, first of all, that it seems much more influential than it really is. Those of its adherents who got jobs in our various cultural establishments over the last couple of decades are still there, only now they have seniority or, worse, tenure. But behind that veneer of power, relativism is doing no better than Communism was in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Polish and Czech bureaucracies were still staffed by the same apparatchiks as before, but only because no one, not even Lech Walesa, can conjure an experienced workforce out of thin air. The party itself was mostly defunct, its ideology even more so. The countries of Eastern Europe, like the last redoubts of relativism in the U.S., will find new ways to fail, but they won’t fail in that particular way again.
In the last culture war, relativism’s influence was evident in the stock arguments that kept appearing in magazines and op-ed pages: Breaking taboos is valuable for its own sake; people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it; what you call a social evil is really just a cultural difference; et cetera. But those articles are no longer seen so often. Now, the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is the social-scientific analysis, as if a person can’t speak with authority without citing economics or sociology. This is bad enough in political conversation, but it has begun to affect people’s ethical thinking. Under the new cultural rules, moral condemnation is a legitimate thing to express, but only if you can demonstrate that the sin you want to condemn makes someone twice as likely to take antidepressants or 40 percent less likely to be promoted at work . . . .Read more here . My fellow symposiast Dan Foster is a young conservative who can actually pull off starting an article with Replacements lyrics, and his contribution is here .
Now that Shakespeare is out of the dead-white-guy doghouse, perhaps colleges could reverse some of the damage they’ve done by teaching All’s Well That Ends Well , which opens with Parolles trying to convince Helena to change her attitude toward sexual continence:Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. That you were made of is metal to make virgins. Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost.The idea that promiscuity would yield a net increase in virginity makes perfect sense quantitatively but no sense morally. It’s just the sort of thing an economist could prove.