The Dignities of Modernity
Republished from Glenn Loury’s Substack
Editor’s Note: Glenn Loury did this interview with Institute for Cultural Evolution Senior Fellow, Greg Thomas, on The Glenn Show and published the transcribed excerpt below on his substack. We asked Glenn Loury for permission to republish it, and he agreed. It has been significantly edited from the video version for readability.
GLENN LOURY: What do you think is left of that great legacy? Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans. We’re talking here about Stanley Crouch. All of these men are gone. We have their books, but has not the conversation about race, especially amongst African Americans, been seized by people who are not all that friendly to the worldview of those who would want to embrace our American heritage, who would want to focus on what has been created culturally, politically, by African-descended people here in America? People involved in the larger project of the making of American civilization at its foundations?
I guess I’m trying to ask a question here, but I don’t know exactly what it is. I’m saying 50 years from now, are people going to know who Albert Murray was? Will they know who Stanley Crouch was?
GREG THOMAS: Well, if I have anything to say about it, they will. And the reason I say that is because I don’t just write about this legacy, I am also a part of a movement and a collaboration called “Combating Racism and Antisemitism Together: Shaping an Omni-American Future.” In October of 2021 we had a two-day broadcast where we gave Wynton Marsalis an honor. We had Bob O’Meally and Farah Jasmine Griffin from Columbia participate. We had various scholars, Jewish and black American, there to talk about the legacy of Albert Murray. And this is going to be an annual event. So definitely, if I have anything to do and say about it, it will continue.
But to answer the implied question that you asked, what happened to that legacy? And the answer is deep and complex, but I’ll try to bullet point it. I think that what happened starting in the ’60s, as John McWhorter points out, was that there was a shift. You have Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, but you also have a more radicalized movement arising in society. Not only the Black Arts Movement, but black nationalism, and Stokely Carmichael taking over SNCC from John Lewis. So you had a shift there, and Stanley Crouch talked about this a lot. But if you fast forward, that’s where some things began to go off-kilter. That’s when an intra-black American political development began to mirror this larger societal shift.
That’s when a larger perspective developed in the ’60s. You mentioned “worldview,” Glenn. Another worldview came online then, I think. A postmodern worldview. When you talk about the legacy of the Enlightenment, when you talk about the legacy of liberal democracy, when you talk about a secular orientation, as opposed to a religious traditional orientation, you’re talking about modernity. But postmodernity came online in the ’60s and developed, particularly in French thought with folks like Derrida and Foucault and others, a focus on the critique of power relations or the power dimensions of life. And then those who were left out of some of the fruits of modernity began to question: How do they do this? The postmodernists analyzed how power is gotten, kept, and maintained, and then they critiqued it, even down to the level of language. They deconstruct all of this, and this is what we see starting in the ’60s and continuing all the way through until today. When you are talking about Ibram X. Kendi and others like him, you’re talking about a whole new orientation, particularly on the progressive left, that emerged with postmodernism.
So understanding this particular postmodern worldview is really important, because once you understand it as a worldview, then you can say, okay, I see where they’re coming from. In the same way that modernity was built on top of traditionalism, where certain core values—family, duty, honor—provided an important foundation, but pushed off against the whole religious orientation, postmodernism pushes off against the downsides of modernity. So, each level is pushing off against its predecessor by critiquing it, while also being grounded in its predecessor’s achievements.
Without us being W.E.I.R.D.—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic—postmodernism wouldn’t even have a basis upon which to stand. The reason they can critique is because they can point out the contradictions in how the social contract in America, for example, was employed. But they’re not pointing out the fact that we are moving closer and closer to the ideals spelled out in that social contract. We have still got a ways to go, but it’s important to acknowledge that we are moving in the right direction. There are so many things that postmodernists miss and leave out because they’re focused on deconstructing and critiquing everything. When are we going to get to some reconstruction? When are we going to get to some synthesis? Something’s got to integrate these different worldviews. I’m also a part of that work, through an organization called the Institute for Cultural Evolution.
GLENN LOURY: Okay. I want to hear about the Institute for Cultural Evolution. But I first want to understand the connections between the development of political and cultural thinking amongst African Americans, on the one hand, and the advent of this large-scale movement and intellectual life that you’re calling postmodernism on the other. It’s not obvious to me that the latter should be driving the former, that it should have as much influence over the former as it does have.
I’m wondering, for example, about what happened to the church. I’m talking about the black church, which has a role in music, of course. It’s a foundational institution in the development of the black American experience on the North American continent since the dark days of enslavement. It has been a way of looking at and interpreting experience that has given comfort and lent support and structure to the enslaved people, our enslaved people, and their descendants. And it’s as far from postmodernism as you could possibly get, it would appear to me.
I mean, people love their Jesus. They believe in their Bible. They’re trying to live right and righteously in the sight of God and so forth. That’s not dead—yet—in black American culture. Why should it lose out to the postmodernist tendency? I mean, are we leaving something out? Is it not just black folks that we’re talking about here?
GREG THOMAS: Oh, we’re not just talking about black folks, absolutely. And I mean, what you’re talking about is the beautiful foundation of the traditional. That’s the traditional worldview I was referring to earlier. And that worldview has been a source of the development of a leadership class. That’s been the place where we were able to build communal institutions. That’s the place where on Sunday mornings we were able to sing a joyful noise unto the Lord. Whereas, on Saturday night, we have what Albert Murray called “the Saturday night function,” which was the blues idiom. But Sunday morning was more about the sacred and the devotional. So, you’re right. That is still there.
And the key thing is, this kind of developmental arc that I alluded to always happens in the same way. Namely that each generation has to learn certain lessons over again. We have to teach our children, and then our children have to teach their children. This is how these big worldviews maintain a certain coherent set of values across time. And each of these worldviews arises by critiquing its predecessors. Modernity can and should critique the downsides of the traditional religious worldview and its intersection with politics, but you don’t want to, as they say, throw out the baby with the bath water. It is the same thing with postmodernism. Yeah, you can critique the downsides of modernity, but good Lord, man. It’s not just disasters. There are also dignities in modernity.
So, I think the answer to your question, ultimately, is to have a way of looking at the positives, the contributions of each of these worldview levels, and focusing on integrating and synthesizing those positives, or at least attempting to, while also trying to avoid their downsides. Because each one has detriments, downsides, shadows. No question. The question is, how can we integrate the best aspects of each of them so we don’t lose something essential and end up in the kind of confusion that we’re in today?