Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Objective Truth, Post-Modernism & Obama

The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the singular ideal of movement-ness. Obama's followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff — another American hugely popular in Germany — hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.

The above quote is from an article by Jonah Goldberg in the USA Today discussing Obama as a post-modernist thinker for whom all truth is relative. Billy Hollis at Q&O has blogged on it and started an interesting and somewhat heated discussion on post-modernism in the comments section that pendants will appreciate.

This from Johah Goldberg writing in the USA Today:

In the Illinois senator’s world, words have no fixed meaning, and truth is often just a matter of perspective.

Asked to define sin, Barack Obama replied that sin is "being out of alignment with my values." Statements such as this have caused many people to wonder whether Obama has a God complex or is hopelessly arrogant. For the record, sin isn't being out of alignment with your own values (if it were, Hannibal Lecter wouldn't be a sinner because his values hold that it's OK to eat people) nor is it being out of alignment with Obama's — unless he really is our Savior.

There is, however, a third possibility. Obama is a postmodernist.

An explosive fad in the 1980s, postmodernism was and is an enormous intellectual hustle in which left-wing intellectuals take crowbars and pick axes to anything having to do with the civilizational Mount Rushmore of Dead White European Males.

"PoMos" hold that there is no such thing as capital-T "Truth." There are only lower-case "truths." Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false, are really just ways for those Pernicious Pale Patriarchs to keep the Coalition of the Oppressed in their place. In the PoMo's telling, reality is "socially constructed." And so the PoMos seek to tear down everything that "privileges" the powerful over the powerless and to replace it with new truths more to their liking.

Hence the deep dishonesty of postmodernism. It claims to liberate society from fixed meanings and rigid categories, but it is invariably used to impose new ones, usually in the form of political correctness. We've all seen how adept the PC brigades are celebrating free speech, when it's for speech they like.

Obama gives every indication of having evolved from this intellectual soup. As a student and, later, a law school instructor, Obama was sympathetic to Critical Race Theory, a wholly owned franchise of postmodernism. At Harvard, Obama revered Derrick Bell, a controversial black law professor who preferred personally defined literary truths over old-fashioned literal truth. Words are power, Bell and Co. argued, and your so-called facts are merely myths of the white power structure.

. . . One reason Obama seems arrogant is that he can never admit he was wrong, a common shortcoming of politicians. But Obama sometimes literally gets exasperated with people who think his words can mean anything other than what he thinks they should mean. Even when he says things he later regrets such as on, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement, he merely says that his rhetoric got overheated, but that he was still accurate. When Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and "spiritual adviser" of 20 years, was caught on videotape (recorded and sold by Wright himself) saying things that contradicted everything Obama ever said about being a post-racial, moderate candidate, Obama simply said that that's not the Jeremiah Wright he knows, as if his personal perspective settled the issue.

. . . On the troop surge, Obama's position has changed countless times, but he says it's unchanged. Worse, he has this grating habit of prefacing his new positions with something like "as I said at the time." But he didn't say "it" at the time, he said the opposite of "it." But saying that he said "it" is, to him, the same as having said "it."

. . . The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the singular ideal of movement-ness. Obama's followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff — another American hugely popular in Germany — hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.

In Berlin two weeks ago, Obama's speech was justified solely by the fact that he was giving it. He offered no policy and — not being a president — really had no reason to be there other than to tell people, essentially, "now is the moment." He informed the throbbing masses, bathing in his charisma the way hippies wallowed in the mud at Woodstock, that the greatest threat facing the world is the possibility we might allow "new walls to divide us from one another." Nuclear war? Feh. No, walls, walls are the danger. Of course, these new walls aren't real. Some might even say they're just words.

But not Barack Obama.

Read the entire article. As mentioned above, Billy Hollis at Q&O has blogged on the Goldberg article, adding his own thoughts:

I've noted many times here in comments at QandO that you can understand the actions and motivations of today's left much better if you look at how the left is infused with postmodernist thinking, and shuns traditional Enlightenment thinking.

The main difference is in what the core concept of "truth" really means. Post-modernists do not embrace the same concept of truth that Enlightenment thinkers do.

. . . I really do think that understanding today's left requires looking at them in light of postmodernism. However, I think that's a minority position among those in the center and right. Enlightenment-based thinkers, which includes conservatives, libertarians, and most moderates, generally just assume that everyone has the same basic concept of truth and logic. That leads to some of their confusion when they try to understand the actions and words of leftists.

Do read the entire post. And do see the interesting discussion it has touched off in the comments section that includes this exchange between Mr. Hollis and myself:

My reading of philosophy started with Plato and ended with Marx years ago. It seems to me that what I see of postmodernism is merely the next step along from Marx’s own theories. He rejected the bases for societal structure, including religion as a doctrine of fundamental and obective truth. In the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, he reframed all of history and current events with the simplistic and distorting theme that all events should be analyzed in terms of the oppressor and the oppressed, - in short, a world of demons and perpetual victims that seems at the center of modern political discourse from the left. Indeed, inherent in that proposition is a rejection of Western values, history and norms and, in its stead, an embrace of militant secularism, moral relativism and multiculturalism. When I look at postmodernism, I don’t feel like I am seeing anything new. Am I way off base in that assessment?

Written By: GW

I see the main difference as this: Marx did not doubt Enlightenment concepts about truth. He just had different axioms. The labor theory of value is an example.

Eventually, the conclusions of Marxist thought came up against reality and lost. Therefore, Marxist thought was proven to be fatally flawed. You can argue about exactly why that is; I personally put it down to his axioms that were in conflict with reality.

Postmodernism does not even accept the reasoning process of the Enlightenment and does not have the same concept of truth. That puts it in a different category than Marxist thought.

However, many who were enamoured of Marxism eventually had to face the fact that reality demonstrated convincingly that Marxism was wrong. Rather than countenance Lockeian alternatives, which they had long ago decided to reject, they looked for an alternative philosophy that would allow them to continue to believe in some of their Marxist principles, such as class warfare. Postmodernism was easily adapted to that purpose, because it’s so fuzzy it can be adapted to a wide variety of logic-defying positions.

That stew of discredited Marxism and trendy postmodernism got us the politically correct nonsense that we are contending with today. Because it was fashionable in academia, who are always looking for ways to see themselves as superior to those grubby materialists who actually build society, it wormed its way into our educational foundations.

So you’re right that there is overlap, both in concepts and in the people who adhere to both Marxism and postmodernism (though perhaps at different times in their lives). But postmodernism does add new concepts, albeit patently ridiculous ones, and it has had a comparable amount of success to Marxism in infiltrating its philosophical conclusions in a simplified form into the popular consciousness. (Examples: "hate speech" laws, campus speech codes)

. . . GW, another point worth pondering: since postmodernism rejects the very tenets of Enlightenment thinking, it is impossible to disprove postmodernism to someone who has bought into it. They simply construct themselves another "truth" that denies the validity of what they consider "your truth".

By contrast, Marxism made certain predictions about historical necessity and such, and when those predictions were shown to be wrong, Marxism was thereby shown to be wrong. Though some who still crave power over others still attempt to re-animate the dead corpse of Marxism, anyone with a brain and a connection with reality understands that it has been proven invalid by its own predictions.

Post-modernism has no such weakness. It makes no predictions and has nothing of consequence to say about how it could be tested against reality. To postmodernist, reality itself is a slippery, subjective concept, and there is no privileged view that can use reality to disprove postmodernism.

This is quite convenient. It allows postmodernists (and their pragmatic successors) to say anything they like and blithely ignore any criticism of it. In their mind, they "get it" and we don’t. They don’t have to accept any criticism we bring to bear because our criticism is based on what they view as a flawed premise, namely Enlightenment thinking.

Now, most postmodernists therefore don’t care to discuss issues with Enlightenment thinkers, just as most Christians are not interested in defending their faith to, say, a fundmentalist Muslim. Occasionally, you find one whose psychology demands attention, because they are desperately attempting to build something to make up for the fact that they have no inherent self-worth. Such an individual will endlessly discuss matters with people he knows he can never in a million years convince, constantly pontificating from a position of smug condescension, because that allows him to have a group to look down upon. We have such a commenter here, though thankfully he doesn’t bother us nearly as much as he used to, possibly because he reached the point that his idiocy was so transparent that you could barely tell the difference between him and a parody of him.

Update: At Crusader Rabbit, KG blogs on the recent judgement of an Australian professor who concludes that "POSTMODERNISM is hobbling Australia's best and brightest university students by locking them into narrow, prescriptive and politically correct ways of thinking and using language."


scott said...

That picture seems ...awfully...phallic. Don't you think?

GW said...


To quote Cleavon Little from Blazing Saddles, "Where 'de white women at."

tomcpp said...

Actually there is a simple argument to test postmodernism. Suppose "reality is what you make of it".

Say I'm going to kidnap you. I'll put you blindfolded in a dark room. You know nothing of this room. Specifically you do not know that in the middle of the room (or anywhere) there is a large hole.

Now if reality is what you make of it, you'll feel a room, you'll remember rooms all around, and you'll accept as a truth that you're locked up in a room that's a perfectly normal room. In essence, it will be a room without a hole. In other words, there is no hole in the room in the head of the kidnappee.

If reality is what he makes of it, nobody who was put in such a situation could possibly remember falling through that hole, because that would mean that some privileged reality forced it's way into his head. And did it with massive violence.

So in postmodern thought, a person that remembers falling through a hole doesn't exist.

Now perhaps this experiment is a bit drastic, but it is to illustrate a general principle trivially useable to disprove postmodernism : reality forcing itself onto a person.

You must realize that on "America's funniest home videos" this happens all the time. Reality forcing itself, unplanned, into the mind of a person. And you'll start to see that reality has forced itself into your mind with a bang on numerous occasions too. A few examples of reality forcing it's way into a person's mind :

This also shows the true nature of postmodernism. Postmodernism is getting rid of God by thinking you yourself ARE GOD. That you don't make mistakes.

Postmodernism is never having to say you're sorry.

suek said...

I've recommended Suzanne Hoff-Somers book "Who Stole Feminism" to people, because at one time I considered myself a feminist. Reading her book, I understood that I was a feminist when it was "equality feminism", but when the movement became "gender feminism" they left me - and many other women - behind. And out in the cold!
An interesting concept her book raises is that in the transfer to gender feminism, the underlying idea was that the past was dominated by men. The present was to be a woman's world. Women were "better". Logic was a male thing; emotion was a female thing. Since "male" was bad, so was logic. Since "female" was good, so was emotion. Hence using feelings to arrive at a conclusion was "right", and using logic was "wrong".
I have no idea whether this is post-modernism, or whether it's the "chicken" or the "egg" - but there certainly is a link.
Reading her book was like having a light turned on - it became completely clear what had been happening in our universities, and from thence, in politics. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a solution for reversing the trend - but if we don't, our goose - and gander - is cooked!