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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Postmodernism in the mainstream

The great crisis that the United States is passing through has many different elements.  Politically, for more than three years, an incompetent, almost illiterate demagogue has occupied the White House, showing that he is in every way incompetent to function as President of the United States.  The Republican Party has done nothing about this because he has given it so much of what they wanted. Medically we face the worst epidemic since 1918, and our initial success in cutting down its spread is now threatened in large part because of the President's incompetence.  Economically we have had an economic collapse without parallel in its rapidity, and we really have no idea of how we shall get out of it.  It is an intellectual crisis, however, which I want to talk about today, because I think I provide some understanding of how we got where we are today.

Reading the first fifteen inaugural addresses and 46 state of the union addresses of the Presidents--the source material for the book I am now writing--has brought home to me clearly that the United States was founded as an Enlightenment experiment.  Our founders were not starry-eyed idealists.  They had grappled first hand with the most serious political issues, they had fought a revolution that was in part a civil war, and they had watched the British constitution--which they had valued as the most enlightened government on earth--try to impose tyranny upon themselves.  They had also read histories of ancient Greece and Rome and knew how early republics had become tyrannies. Attempting to establish a government based upon complete political equality among the citizenry--an entirely new experiment in the western world at that time--they spoke frequently of the dangers of the abuse of power.  They also understood that only an educated citizenry that was alive to the dangers of too much passion in politics could make the new nation work.  

This heritage is threatened now on both sides of the political spectrum.  Nearly 20 years ago, a high official of the George W. Bush Administration--generally thought to have been Karl Rove--placed that administration in opposition to what he called the "reality-based community." "We're an empire now," he said, "and we create our own reality."  Now our president recreates reality to satisfy his own unconscious several times a day, and his whole staff and an entire television network bow, scrape, salute, and go forth to preach the new gospel.  Yet things are not that much better on the other side of the political fence.  I want to illustrate this by discussing two letters that were published this past week. Then I want to draw on my own experience as an academic to try to explain where new views, increasingly in the ascendant, originated.

The first letter, signed by about 150 journalists, academics, and artists, was published early last week on the web site of Harper's magazine. While applauding recent protests for racial and social justice, they reject "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity." They specifically cite a number of specific newsworthy incidents without mentioning any names. "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes." "This stifling atmosphere," they continue, "will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes."  The signatories include some of the best-known names in journalism, the arts, and literature, including Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Linda Greenhouse, Randall Kennedy, Mark Lilla, Winton Marsalis, George Packer, Orlando Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Gary Wills, and Fareed Zakaria.  The list, as you can see, is very diverse with respect to both race and gender.   On the other hand, although I do not have the time to look everyone up, the list does not, sadly, seem to be very diverse with respect to age.  The vast majority of signatories come from the Silent and Boom generations.

Before turning to the reply, I want to talk about the developments in academia over the last forty years or so that lie behind it.  

During the 1980s, new views of reality, language, and the nature of intellectual life became popular.  Their most important exponent was probably the French historian Michel Foucault, and they rapidly came to dominate both gender studies and racial and ethnic studies.  They held, to begin with, that language was the ultimate reality and the medium through which politics took place.  It always seemed to me quite understandable that that principle became popular in academia, because it does quite accurately describe academic reality, though not reality out in the real world.  At any given moment in disciplines like history and literary criticism, certain ideas and approaches are particularly popular, and careers are indeed made, and occasionally broken, by choices to go with the flow.  The exponents of the most popular ideas hold academic power.  What academics often forget, however, is that the citizenry at large often knows little and cares even less about their intellectual flavor of the month, because they live in their own world.

The second key aspect of postmodernism was the identification of power--expressed through language--with particular demographic groups.  This was not new.  Marxists had long argued, with some justice, that economically dominant classes more easily got their messages across than poorer ones.  The new categories, however, turned on gender and race, not wealth.  Straight white males, the new orthodoxy came to argue, had dominated intellectual discourse--and had used this dominance to advance their own interests at others' expense.  Meanwhile, the voices of women, nonwhites, gays, and (later) transgender folk had been "marginalized".  It is very clear, I think, why this world view became so popular among academics who were not straight white males--to the point where very few straight white males dared to speak out against it or to put forward any alternative views of what history or literary criticism should be.  For many (though never all) female or nonwhite academics, the new orthodoxy not only defined the problem, but prescribed the cure: to hire them, allowing them to correct a centuries-old power imbalance by "giving voices" to their own groups.  Their perspective deserved more space because it had had so little in the past--and no straight white male had the right to question it, since to do so would simply try to maintain the previous power balance.  And every perspective was equally valid, regardless of the relative numbers of people belonging to a particular demographic.  

Being myself a straight white male who has spent his life writing (mostly, although not exclusively) about the doings of other straight white males, I have to take a moment now to put forth an alternative view.  My books were never about unified attempts of straight white males to dominate women or other racial groups (although imperialism played an important role in some of them.)  They were about arguments, struggles, and wars among different white males, who often had very different views of what the world should look like and what appropriate decisions in certain situations might be.  That dynamic, it seems to me, has shaped far more of the history of the western world than conflicts between demographics.  That view is now directly threatened, however, especially with respect to the history of the United States.  The New York Times's 1619 Project, which I wrote about at length in an earlier post, argued that slavery and the oppression of black people was "central" to the American experiment from the beginning.  Now slavery was already central to society in the southern colonies, but it certainly was not central to the issues that led the colonies to fight a war for independence. In addition, as I pointed out just last week, the founders made sure that it was not central to the new Constitution, by refusing even to mention it explicitly or to give it any permanent legal sanction.  It is time now, however, to return to the issue at hand.

A reply to the Harper's letter, also signed by about 150 people, appears to have been published yesterday.  The signatories include many academics, writers, and journalists, who are much less well known.  That is, in a sense their point. Their argument is a perfect representation of the ideology that I described in the last three paragraphs.

"The signatories," they write, "many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country."  This sentence, I must remark, exemplifies another aspect of postmodernist scholarship that I have encountered many times: when you check their footnotes, the original source doesn't say what they claim it does.  The original letter never says that its signatories fear being silenced themselves or losing their own jobs.  It pleads the case of much younger people who have lsot their jobs and advocates freedom of expression in principle.  The response, however, in good post-modernist fashion, has to deny that any such thing as the advocacy of free expression in principle even exists.  In its view, no one ever advocates for speech except on behalf of their own demographic or class.

The next paragraph is equally revealing:

"The letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes 'that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level.' Since the letter was published, some commentators have used Williams’s presence and the presence of other non-white writers to argue that the letter presents a selection of diverse voices. But they miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing."

The quote from Thomas Chatterton Williams is designed to discredit him.  Any good postmodernist now thinks that racism is systemic, structural, and bound up with white and black identities to an extent that none of us can possibly escape.  The last sentence is key: because, in their view, "marginalized voices" have been silenced for generations--a statement which would have surprised a long list of black and female writers going back for over a century that I could make--no one else can be allowed to complain about infringements upon other speech untl the balance has been redressed. How many years, decades or centuries that will take, they do not say.  I am struck, by the way, by the letter's failure in this paragraph to refer at all to marginalization based on gender.  This reflects the current moment. The controversy over the death of George Floyd has definitely put gender equality on the back burner.  

Continuing, the reply argues that the original letter is really concerned about something else entirely. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive."  This, of course, is projection:  obseesed themselves with racial and gender identities (although not, once again, with simple femaleness), they assume that the men and women who signed the letter--despite their racial diversity--are simply standing their own obsessions on their head.  They aren't.

Then comes the other key postmodernist word:

"The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. [To repeat: no, they didn't.] Many of the signatories have coworkers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some who feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not."

One more paragraph makes clear exactly what is at issue.

"The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out."

The idea of integration by race and gender originally was to open up various fields of endeavor to more candidates to let them show the world what they could do and secure appropriate reward for their talents.  Today, however, the signatories of the reply letter would denounce what I have just said as pure straight white male elitism, designed to keep the values of people who look like me in power.  Not only do we have an obligation to give women, racial minorities, and different gender identities more positions--straight white males have no right to question anything that they may say, or how they choose to say it, or even to say anything themselves that nonwhitemales find hurtful.  A New York Times editor, as the original letter pointed out, had to resign because he approved an op-ed by a US Senator that black staffers said made them feel unsafe.

The reply then runs down and identifies the six examples to which the original letter referred.  With respect to one of them--a professor fired from a research firm because he tweeted a summary of an academic paper arguing that violent protests did not, historically, advance racial justice--they agree tht such a firing would be "indefensible" but claim that it was "anomalous."  With respect to Tom Cotton's op-ed in the Times, they argue that he has enough of a platform already to justify the Times leaving him out--a principle that could have application indeed.  In the other cases, they argue either that members of dominant groups got away with something members of marginalized groups could not, or that they deserved what they got.  They then attack various specific signatories of the letter on specific grounds, and claim that all the signatories have "reinforced the actions and beliefs of its most prominent signatories, some of whom have gone out of their way to harass trans writers or pedantically criticize Black writers."

"The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse," they conclude, "especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort."  Thus, they end by not only marginalizing, but erasing, the large numbers of black and female signatories of the original letter--but also by reaffirming, once again, the critical principle of postmodernism. Individual liberty, the foundation of our institutions--and a concept freely open to all--is meaningless to postmodernism. We are all defined by race, gender, and sexuality, and we cannot escape.  We were--in effect--born without freedom of thought.

These ideas have been mainstream on college campuses for decades, and lie behind the many controversies that have roiled campuses in recent years.  It occurs to me, indeed, that it's probably fortunate for higher education that the current eruption of protest took place when campuses were all closed, since it would have renewed attacks on all sorts of traditional targets.  Now, they apparently dominate the thinking of many of the younger people not only in academia, but in journalism and the arts.  I thank the signatories of the original letter for protesting, and I am glad that I still feel the freedom to do the same.


Matthew E said...

I know that postmodernism is one of your favourite topics, but consider that a lot of what you are portraying as postmodernism in the response letter is just an attempt to point out the context of the original letter.

The original letter is not a very strong statement. It's not provocatively written, and the things it champions are uncontroversial. To the extent that its signers knew what they were signing and actually agreed to sign it, I think it's likely that most of them did so in good faith and with the best of intentions. If it existed in a vacuum, I'd sign it myself, if anyone asked me to. (Although maybe not: I do get a strong whiff of the-peasants-shouldn't-talk-about-their-betters from it. Also, "The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away"? No. But that's a different conversation.) But it doesn't exist in a vacuum.

One problem with the letter's context is that, currently, the right wing has mostly taken over the conversation about free speech. Free speech has come to mean, for example, the freedom to deny the Holocaust happened, and the left wing is portrayed as the threat to free speech. And this letter plays into that, reinforcing the idea that it's the left wing that is against free speech. In real life, I am assured, the opposite is more often true. (I can look for examples if you want 'em.)

Another problem is something that the response letter pointed out: some of the signers are people who have conspicuously and legitimately drawn the wrath of lots of people online, and who don't like the reactions they're getting. So their sincerity in signing this letter is dubious. In the case of J.K. Rowling, for example, she has said and repeated some nasty things about trans people, and thousands have reacted angrily... and now she can produce this letter in defense of herself. Again, I can look for examples if you want me to: the original letter has increased attacks on trans people online; it's seen by defenders of Rowling and Singal and other antitrans signers as justification for their positions.

The phenomenon of the internet, where anyone and everyone can have their public say, is something that human society hasn't seen before. The people who signed this letter might do better to consider that this is what the marketplace of ideas actually looks and acts like. That if they do or say something that draws a wave of strong criticism, maybe they should take a second to see if it has a point.

Energyflow said...

I read an interesting article recently in German regarding the proposal to require that the conservative CDU should have 50% of candidates as female. The author, looking at the current political atmosphere commented that we were going towards a situation where quotas based on sex, race, religion and other issues like gayness would be written into law for parliamentarxy membership. In the end elections would be superfluous. He said that the last time such proposals were made in the 50s it was from the right, now such concepts are coming from the left. Eliminate democracy in favor of caste systems. Next of course this would be implemented at all workplaces, university and schools, etc. Your acheivement would mean nothing just what was on your birth certificate. Changing religions or sex to get a better job or university place might be possible of course or pretending to be gay or bisexual. India is trying to eliminate its caste systems while the West introduces them. What startd as 60s protest culture has gotten increasingly twisted and taken to its logical extreme. I recall tories of pre industrial revolution where one had to marry the widow of a man to obtain his position in the local guild. Now we have had growth, expansion, opportunity 200 years running. This streak of luck may be running out and so the logic of a caste system would be applied for the same reasons as in India or medieval Europe. Change, upward mobility might be completely stifled and the only justice is group justice tied to economic fate. So this would be totally regressive in one sense but in terms of a world of limits, zero population growth, rationing of resources to save the environment and similar, such an approach would neccessarily forestall a bloodbath as groups fight for portions of a shrinking pie. Identity in such a system would mean everything and quotas. Immigration or emigration even between regions would be restricted. One would be born into one's fate. No process ever stops at the point it is at in the moment. The logic always keeps churning in the next generation's thoughts and life conditions. The 60s left in the 2020s starts to take on the cloak of medievalism and given enough time the new conept of freedom will become slavery as in Orwellian Doublespeak. On campus many blacks feel separate is equal as they feel offended. Gays and trans react similarly to 'microaggressions'. Middle ages Japanese language codes and dress codes to denote status, job, etc so that all know who you are in life and address you correctly belong in our future. The hippy era was about total freedom and will end with the strictest Etiquette. Body language, words, attire will all have subtle meanings and disputes between groups will be managed by elders. Most will live separately, ghettoized to avoid disturbance. Like my wife's family who lived between the franco-prussian and secondvworld war in a Ukrainian village 100% separate and German speaking, like the American Amish. The deeper modern questionnis of course whether most differences are just skin deep. Love is love, gay or straight and black, white, female, male can all do most jobs about the same(men and women seem to have some acuity in certain areas giving advantages). Perhaps the male/female gap will be reestablished as the ethnic/racial gap reemerges. We can only guess at future trends. History has moved too fast and perhaps now it will go in reverse.

Bozon said...

Wow...... Wow.

Here's merely an aside, to some of this marvelous rant.

No diversities, no includivities, are created equal.

All the best

David Brin said...

I keep getting mail and comments from folks pushing the "all sides are crazy" argument. Citing this or that awful/stupid thing shouted by some extreme postmodernist crank, or some fervid, out-of-context shout by a rightfully-righteously enraged activist, they aim to show that the left is just as intemperate and gone-nuts as the right. Of course this mostly comes from Republicans who -- at last forced to admit their side has gone utterly treasonous and insane -- are clutching at excuses to save face, bemoaning that 'partisanship' has banished thought and reason or any chance at negotiation.

But let's distill this down.

Yes, the FAR left CONTAINS some fact-allergic, troglodyte-screeching dogmatists who wage war on science and hate the American tradition of steady, pragmatic reform, and who would impose their prescribed morality on you.

But today’s mad ENTIRE right CONSISTS of fact-allergic, troglodyte-screeching dogmatists who wage war on science and hate the American tradition of steady, pragmatic reform, and who would impose their prescribed morality on you.

There is all the world’s difference between FAR and ENTIRE.

As there is all the world’s difference between CONTAINS and CONSISTS.

You'll notice (or should) that writers like this one work in ANECDOTES, citing this or that post-modernist or enraged activist, very often out of context. There are no statistics, no citations of widely credible polls examining genuine distribution of attitudes.
You know that these examples, presented to an average democrat would raise revulsion. Yes the party line pushed on Fox etc is "see these loony lefties? All liberals are like that."

This is rich, in the face of the right's all out war against all fact-using professions. Especially as Clinton and Obama spent their first years in office desperately seeking some way to restart negotiation and compromise, two words that were EXPLICITLY banished from the vocabulary of the Republican Party by - among others - the party's head, Dennis "friend to boys" Hastert, whose eponymous "Rule" enforced dire punishment on any Republican who so much as made a friendship with a Democrat, let alone tried to work out bipartisan deals.

Sorry, this ploy - a last-ditch, desperate effort to keep Foxites suckling that glass teat, despite knowing their side is steeped in treason and lunacy - will not work. Oh, I despise the most extreme and intemperate campus post-modernists and jibbering PC police, too. Many -even most - Democrats do.

But those PC bullies are not our problem, right now. In fact they are being artificially empowered by the KGB-backed confederacy.

Bozon said...

History unfolding today.

My own view is that Neff's forced resignation is just the kind of thing that Brooks and company complain about in the original Harpers letter.

If his nondisclosure of his private remarks does violate his contract with Fox, then of course that is his own fault for signing and then not abiding by its terms.

Enlightenment pundits, Diderot, D"Alembert, etc, The Encyclopedists, had claimed to be willing to defend their opponents' right to express their opposition to the so called enlightenment with their last breath.

The reality on the ground against their opponents was the opposite.

Would Brooks defend Neff?

All the best

Roy Bakos said...

Matthew E hit it right on the head in his analysis of both letters. We can not ignore the 50 year push by the right wing in this country that has both moved the country rightward economically and preyed upon the American distrust of intellectuals. To claim, as most on the right (all about all in the Trumpist/Populist camp on the right do) that professors and thinkers represent the "elite" that the common man needs to rail against is to allow the actual elite, the 5% of the population that falls into the Investment Class, to continue to take and control 95% of our GDP. Almost all of our social problems can be traced back to this inequality.

Many marginalized folks are also marginalized by economics as well as other cultural identifiers. We are literally listening to their voices en masse for the first time in our history and we must be conscious of the American Metternichs in our midst on the right and the ultra-wealthy left are doing all they can to discredit those voices that challenge their economic and cultural hegemony.

Professor, much of your analysis is interesting and your defense of individual liberty must be in the forefront as we move forward. The NY Times Editor should not have been fired for running Cotton's editorial and all of the other individual squelchings of speech mentioned should not happen either. That goes without saying. Making these things seem like they are the norm from the left is a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening. What we must not do is allow the right to continue to make bogeymen out of very good things like multiculturalism, feminism, diversity, anti-racism, and socialism, the way that they did with liberalism back in the 1970s and 1980s. By continually attacking postmodernism as some coordinated force that is trying to tear apart everything that we hold dear, you are playing into the hands of the reactionary right and using language and rhetoric to demonize something that doesn't exist in the manner that you describe it.

As always, thanks for posting and thanks for your continued and thought-provoking writing.

David Kaiser said...

Nice to see you, Matthew.
In mainstream journalism and academia almost the entire threat to free speech is from the Left--so much so that in academia almost no one will challenge orthodoxy any more. (Mark Lilla, Laura Kipnis and John McWhorter, all signatories, are three of the ones who still will. And it almost cost Kipnis her job at one point.) That is why, ironically, at least one reader I know in academia complained that I even mentioned Trump at the outset of the piece--she thinks he's no threat compared to leftists. I don't agree with that, but I totally disagree with you on this one.
As for Rowling, I think that there is a big difference between expressing skepticism about transgender identities as they have evolved at the current moment, and "saying nasty things about trans people." I think the phenomenon includes very different kinds of people with different motives. One motive, clearly, is people rejecting the labels "man" and "woman" because they insist they mean "oppressor" and "oppressed" and they don't want to be labeled as either one. I don't think that some one (like myself) who believes sex--male and femaleness--is, for 99% of the population, an immutable biological reality, is "saying nasty things about trans people."
For the record, here's an account of what originally got Rowling into trouble:
J.K. Rowling, the author of the beloved “Harry Potter” book series, came under attack Thursday for a tweet defending a researcher who lost her job for saying that “men cannot change into women.”

Rowling tweeted Thursday in defense of British researcher Maya Forstater, who lost her job after tweeting that “men cannot change into women,” the Independent reported Thursday. Forstater was referring to biological males who identify as transgender women.

“Dress however you please,” Rowling tweeted. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”

I hope all is well with you.

Bozon said...

Re Mr Bakos' comment,

Anti intellectualism here, including both modernism and postmodernism, as you have noted as I recall, has been of both right and left varieties.

For example, one might almost characterize something like the Amherst Common Language Guide initiative as an example of the illiberalism, and to some extent the anti intellectualism, of liberalism, the worm turning.

All the best