Postmodern Trumpism (continued)

          The postmodern view that truth is subjective has important epistemological consequences. We no longer have to listen to each other: we don’t have to try to reconcile competing claims and information. If you maintain that thousands were massacred at Wounded Knee on that day in 1890 while I contend that no one was killed, if we believe that there is an objective truth, we would engage each other. We would investigate what support there is for the competing positions, and perhaps do more research. As a result, we might abandon or modify our original assertions. If, however, truth is subjective, if truth is what is true for each individual, we will not undertake this shared enterprise seeking a better understanding of the truth. Thousands dead is true for you. Nobody died is true for me. End of story. It’s all relative.

          The notion that truth was relative wedged its way into a wider world and crept into many areas of thought outside of academia. For example, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” (Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.)

          It also entered an Ivy League seminar room. I don’t remember the topic discussion for the class I was recently leading, but when I called on one student, she said, “Don’t you want to know what my opinion is?” I snapped “No!” The bright young woman had a shocked look. Surely her opinion was valuable. Others around the table were concerned. Many looked as if this was the first time a student opinion was rejected. I went on to say, “I want your facts; your information. What relevant experiences have you had? Then you can tell me how your opinion arises out of those data.” She went silent. But in a world where truth is subjective, all opinions are equally valid, and she probably thought that I should have allowed her to present her truth no matter how it was derived. (I got one bad teaching evaluation from this seminar. I assume that it was she, but that is just my opinion; I don’t have facts to back it up.)

          Postmodern thinking has affected diplomats. Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth quotes a Russian propagandist. “All narratives are contingent, Surkov suggested, and all politicians are liars; therefore, the alternative facts put out by the Kremlin (and by Donald Trump) are just as valid as everyone else’s.” Surkov “invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language—to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated.”

          Postmodernist thinking even invaded science. On The Big Bang Theory it is a laugh line when Penny’s not-overly-bright boyfriend says to Leonard and the rest of the Caltech crowd: “Agree to disagree. That’s what I love about science. There’s no right answer.” But supposedly bright people began to maintain that science was merely socially constructed and that science could not claim to be neutral. Science could not seek universal truths because it was fatally affected by a scientist’s identity and cultural values. (Tell that to the scientist spouse and watch her seethe!)

          One of my leftist academic colleagues adopted this anti-science position. The United States Supreme Court had written an opinion about what scientific evidence could be admitted into trials. I appeared with my colleague on a panel at a neighboring law school discussing this decision. My colleague denigrated the decision by glibly saying that science like other knowledge was merely “socially constructed” and subjective. On the other hand, I knew that she had taken an elevator to the conference room, and I wondered if she truly thought that the principles that allowed that lift to ascend and descend were mere subjective social constructions. If we truly believed that there was no objective scientific truth, we could not operate in the world. No one really believes what she was trying to peddle. Instead, a more sophisticated approach might have allowed that science does not produce absolute truths because it is always trying to refine its knowledge or that scientific funding, which influences what gets studied, can be affected by cultural and society forces. But we all know that there is a universal truth behind the physics of gravity and friction.

(continued January 10)

Postmodern Trumpism

          The end of year. A new year begins. We mark this time with traditions that seem to have been with us forever—egg nog, Auld Lang Syne, the ball drop at Times Square, fireworks everywhere, pine needles in unlikely spots from an aging Christmas tree, resolutions and promises–but we also now have a seasonal tradition that is only three years old. Various news organizations tell us how many falsehoods Trump has told in the last annum. This might not seem as festive as other traditions, but it is becoming as entrenched.

          It is mystifying that a president can produce so much that is false and still have the support of so many. Probably no simple explanation can satisfy, but I suggest that we consider the effect of a literary theory. While the juxtaposition of “literary theory” and “Trump” may seem bizarre, bear with me.

          At one time, literary scholars uniformly saw a text as the creation of the author. The writer “owned” it and determined its meaning. Readers searched for what Hawthorne or Stendhal or Locke or Pound meant.

          However, a competing view emerged. It noted that an author cannot determine how a reader reacts to a given text. These new literary theorists led by Jacques Derrida maintained that it is critical readers who determine what a piece of writing means, which may not necessarily be what the author intended it to mean.

          This “postmodern” or “deconstructionist” approach transformed the meaning of “truth” in a text. If the author’s intention is the meaning, then there is just one “truth,” and those exploring a writing were all after the same thing. But if the crucial question is not what the writer means, but how the text is interpreted by its readers, there can be as many “truths” as there are readers. Something may be true for one reader and not another. Truth no longer was a single, objective concept but was subjective and variable. A text could have many meanings depending on who’s reading it.

          As long as postmodernism was confined to literary theory, it had limited significance, but it broke out into other disciplines. Anti-authoritarians and the New Left promoted the notion that many “facts” were the product of entrenched, Western, white, and male-dominated thinking. Instead, the new critics maintained that in reality there were no universal truths but only personal ones shaped by cultural and social forces. Postmodernism denied an objective reality existing apart from human perception. Knowledge, they said, was filtered through class, race, gender, and other factors.

          This approach had merit and gave valuable perspectives on history and society. So, for example, there is not one truth about capitalism. The economic system is different from the perspective of the corporate officer or the migrant worker picking lettuce. Class, race, and gender, the postmodernists maintained, shape thinking about the value of the police. The positive effects of Christopher Columbus are viewed differently from various perspectives.

          Postmodernism points out that received wisdom is often the product of a limited or biased view and should not be uncritically accepted. That point has great value and should be a call to work harder to comprehend a given phenomenon. More information, more views should be sought to improve understanding. I should not accept that a mountain is forested just because the south face is covered in trees. The north face may be barren. I must go around the mountain to get a better understanding of it.

          This can be difficult work that might not completely satisfy. So, for example, if I want to understand what happened on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, postmodernistic thinking could tell me that I cannot just accept the official army reports. I should seek the views of Lakota members, army regulars, bystanders, and others. I might have to learn about the Ghost Dance movement and how a ghost dance appeared from the Lakota perspective versus the perspective of the soldiers on that day. I could expect to find contradictions and gaps in information and perhaps not a completely satisfying understanding of the massacre, but my understanding would be deeper because I sought out different perspectives rather than just relying on official reports.

          However, those undertaking this endeavor still believe there are objective facts. Hundreds of men, women, and children were killed that day. I am seeking to get a better understanding of those facts, and I expect that you would reach a similar understanding if you, too, undertook this endeavor. We may not agree completely, but we are after the same thing–an objective truth.

          But this “postmodernism” is not the postmodernism of the literary theory. The textual analysts rejected that there was a single truth that all critical readers were after. Instead, they concluded that the meaning of the text varied from reader to reader and that “truth” was subjective. If an understanding was true for a reader, it was true even if was not true for a different reader. In one way, then, postmodernism deepened our understanding of the world when the assault on traditional knowledge required seeking different perspectives on a phenomenon. However, it was another matter when this literary theory crossed over into other fields bringing the message that truth is “relative” or “contingent”; that there is no objective truth; and that truth is subjective.

(continued January 8)

The New Left Needs Epithets

I occasionally receive emails from someone who monitors right wing media, and they indicate that those on the far right often castigate other conservatives. These far rightists seem to nitpick over some of the smallest details and claim that others are not truly conservative—that they are in, essence, illegitimate conservatives. In 2016, the term “cuckservative” started appearing more often to denigrate those who did not hold the right right views, although I would not be surprised if other terms, unbeknownst to me, have now emerged.

This looks like an extension of the RINO movement–Republican In Name Only–starting in the 1990s. (Of course, there were similar attempts to purge even earlier, but without the RINO name. Remember Rockefeller Republicans?) But the name calling over ideological lint mostly makes me think back to the beginning of my legal career when I worked with various people who regarded themselves as socialists. These people had long, arcane arguments among themselves, although I believe they would have said that they had political discussions. When they started arguing about which socialist organization most resolutely carried forward or subverted Trotskyite principles, I did not laugh; I tuned out.

I had little interest in their disputes because I did not even know what they meant by socialism. I gathered it somehow differed from communism, but I thought that both involved the state or the government or the workers owning or controlling the means of production. Their discussions over arcane positions just seemed silly since it seemed clear that no socialist was going to be elected to office.

I did remember one Frank Zeidler, a socialist, who had been mayor of Milwaukee throughout the 1950s. While my impression was that he had been regarded as a good mayor, I did not know how as a socialist his positions were different from others who might have thought of themselves as progressive or liberal. (Zeidler, I believe, was aided because Milwaukee’s mayoralty election was nonpartisan, and he did not have to run under a socialist party label.) I did not know what in America makes a person a socialist.

I also knew that in the early and mid-twentieth century, people proclaiming themselves socialist were elected to various offices, but I had assumed that no socialist would ever be elected again. Thus, I was surprised when I first learned that Bernie Sanders, one-time mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and then U.S. Senator from Vermont, was a Democratic Socialist and that others now adopt that banner. If Democratic Socialism is a new movement, I don’t know what it means. If you do, let me know. I recently asked friends what Democratic Socialism was. Both quickly replied, “It’s what used to be called liberalism.” Indeed, in running for the Democratic nomination for President, Sanders seemed to indicate that he was not much different from other Democrats, and his ideas could fit within that party. Why else would he have sought to be head of that party?

I can’t take this new left seriously. It should learn from the alt-right who seems to have learned from the old left. To be seen as a new ideological movement, this new left needs to find things to argue about among themselves for the sake of purity. I don’t mean that there must be cell meetings where the true meaning of Bakunin’s collectivist anarchism is so furiously debated that violence is imminent. However, a political movement, to be a viable, apparently has to find ways to denigrate others who seem to hold similar, but not precisely the same, views.

Insults have to be found. I am told that “cuckservative” is a mashup of cuckold and conservative. The new Democratic Socialists need something like that. How about pervgressive? So for example, that president said he cared about liberal and progressive issues, but helped the deregulation of the investment industry, which aided his friends and donors on Wall Street; hurt American workers with NAFTA; signed a law that made it easier to discriminate in the guise of religion; supported the near gutting of habeas corpus; backed draconian drug sentences that disproportionately affected non-whites; did little to nothing about the stagnation of middle-class wages; and set back the reform of health care. That president was a real pervgressive.



The New Right is the Old Left

Many of my work colleagues through the years could have been described as leftist in their political and philosophical bent. Some of them were proudly of the post-modernist variety who spouted the clichés that there was no objective reality; that truth and morality were only “contingent.” Truth varied depending upon your viewpoint. This meant not just that all opinions should be considered and analyzed, but that all opinions must be respected, which soon morphed into the idea that all opinions were of equal validity. If something were true for you, then it was true. Facts were always subjective. There was no objective truth.

Sometimes a fraternity-style lingo was involved. I would hear terms like “reification,” “ramification,” or “hermeneutics.” To me these were quintessentially postmodernist terms. I would ask what they meant, and I would get different responses. I learned that they meant whatever the utterer meant them to mean, which did not have to mean what another utterer meant. They seemed to have no objective definition. But they sounded impressive, and since they seemed to be without a fixed meaning, when I heard them I began to believe that their presence often hid the absence of an idea.

Philosophers were invoked, often French ones. I felt that my knowledge was incomplete so I tried studying Messrs. Foucalt and Derrida. I would read a paragraph but could not make sense of it. I would read it again. I would read it a third time, but meaning would not emerge. Perhaps I was not as bright as my colleagues who discussed this philosophy, but I doubted that, and I began to doubt those who claimed to understand so much of this philosophy. Emperors and new clothes came to mind. I saw terrible writers or thinkers whose thought was so unclear that they could not clearly express what they meant. I am of the school that if the writing is opaque, the thinking is too. But the books seemed definitely postmodernist. Their truths were “contingent.” Each reader read individual meanings into the words.

Back in the day, it was anti-conservatives who claimed truth was indeterminate and subjective, and right-wingers railed against those who could not tell right from wrong or could not tell there was a recognizable, firm truth.

We have had a switch. Now “conservatives” say something similar to what leftists said before. Rudy Giuliani, for example, has recently stated that truth is relative. Other conservatives talk about “alternative facts.” Conservatives deny evidence about climate change suggesting that science, too, is relative–that it is only political. Conservatives seem to have adopted postmodernism, but they have gone beyond it.

(Concluded on July 11)