An Awkward Elevator Moment With Post-Modern Conservatism

One of the reason’s I’m so discombobulated by contemporary conservatism’s embrace of post-modernism is that it is so, well, French. Bluestocking twaddle wholesalers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault have been force-fumigating Gauloise smoke up credulous leftie bum cracks for decades. The political right, though, turned its cheeks at such Francophone hot gas, spurning post-modernism’s tickle-your-fancy fresh philosophical airs. They’ve tended to treat it more like an embarrassing butt squeak ponging up a crowded elevator.

And, at least until now, I’ve generally stood with the forces of traditionalism and conservatism on this one. As an academic I’ve had to read my cod liver oil ration of post-modern writings, which abound with sentences like this: “The dialectical immediacy of transmutable perspectives resolves into a neo-semantic materialism, and though the shadow of Engels falls below the beard of Marx, an ounce of Freud beats a kilo of brussels sprouts any day.” Battalions of artisanal academic guff fabricators churn out reams of this stuff; whole journals are dedicated to it.

I generally try to ignore it all, but on very rare occasions I have to hold my nose and dive in because, and it pains me to admit it, I am a craven lickspittle to the anonymous reviewers who serve as gatekeepers to academic publication. Every once in a while, a fiendish journal editor will slip in a post-modern type reviewer and I’m forced to read stuff like, “This paper needs more attention to the seminal article I wrote on the structural de-structuralism of post-structural pre-structures and its implications for the future structure of structuralism.” The upshot to these sort of missives is an unpleasant hour or two in the library, which inevitably leads to unfortunate undergrads encountering a deranged professor in the stacks waving his arms around and yelling, “What the Foucault are they all prattling about? Are they just having us on?”

Near as anyone can tell, post-modernism is a world view that rejects the idea of an objective reality. Instead it posits that truth is a matter of perspective. So, if I base my notion of truth on verifiable facts and rational, scientific analysis, and you base your truth on a reading of magic beans and the latest bulletin from the lads over at madashatters.com, in post-modern eyes we have equally valid points of view. This makes it very hard to have grown up conversations.

Take the whole who-let-one-go in the elevator scenario as an example. To someone like me—what’s known in the trade as a logical positivist—there are a set of immutable facts about this situation, independent of senses or interpretation. To wit, someone had the ptomaine tacos for lunch, then the gaseous dog got into a confined space with others, let ‘er rip, and now everyone’s eyes are watering. To a post-modernist there are no facts there, only perspectives. The guy in the corner gagging may actually be experiencing attar of roses olfactory bliss, the gendered nature of flatulence clearly implies a latent intra-elevator class power structure, and this in turn is rooted in the unspoken patriarchal dominance that originates in the culinary totalitarianism of toot totin’ tacos.

Your mileage might vary of course, but the latter viewpoint is either a careful contextual deconstruction of an assumed reality that reveals a larger social truth or, and I’m using the technical term here, complete bullshit.  I come firmly down on the bovine scatological inference, but then I would, what with being a philistine grubber of facts and admitted practitioner of the dark arts of hypothesis testing.

This was all bad enough when post-modernism was a limited lefty pretension, but lately it seems to have been embraced wholesale by the right. In toddling across the ideological spectrum to get its smooch on with the conservatives, though, post-modernism seems to have lost something in translation. The lefties liked to keep up intellectual appearances, covering post-modernism’s gooey poop-filled center with a thick carapace of near impenetrable prose. There might not be any facts in there, but all the big words caroming around at least seemed to suggest some sort of serious cerebral labor was going on. Who the hell knows if some semblance of a coherent point was tangled up in all the fustian multisyllabic oratory, but lacking full comprehension you could never fully rule out that possibility.

In its embrace of post-modernism, though, the right has dropped any such conceit. There’s no equivalent phalanx of sophists swilling wine and thinking deep thoughts like, “how do we really know that what I call orange others may experience as black? And, if orange is the new black, is there a dense tome about chromatic power imbalances in it?” Nope, conservative post-modern tribunes don’t need prolix academic posers perfuming their manure spreading. No screwing around. They just goose facts straight into the slaughterhouse chute of their Twitter feeds and poleaxe them.

Donald Trump is, of course, the poster boy of the new post-modern right. He’s basically created an entire “post-truth” politics, a real world philosophical achievement that would leave Foucault in awe (at best, Foucault only managed to create a few post-truth faculty lounges). This clearly has more than a little to do with Trump’s powers as a vampire of verity, able to suck truth dry with social media fangs no more than 140 characters long. Reputable fact checking cites rate Trump’s fib rate as off the charts (see here, here, and here for examples). Those sorts of operations, though, are mostly missing the point. They make the assumption that facts and causal logic that can reliably rivet them to each other are what truth is all about. In other words, they think facts matter. They are clearly not post-modernists.

Trump devotees clearly are. As Scottie Nell Hughes, news director at Tea Party News Network put it, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”  Let that sink in. This is someone who purports to be in the news business saying facts don’t matter. As she put it, if Trump tweets something that millions believe, to them that’s truth. If another set of millions see those same tweets as giant whoppers from the burgher king, to them that’s truth. And, well, that’s it. The notion that some things—let alone most things—can be verified as authentic or inauthentic independent of political perspective is no more. No need to engage in any potentially painful review of facts to see if there is any evidentiary basis for whatever brain fart is currently jetting across your social media space. If it gives you a warm fuzzy it’s truth on a stick. If not, it’s a fib on a twig. Either way you’ve got a bit of rhetorical wood to beat the crap out of the other guy with. The notion there might be some way to objectively adjudicate the relative veracity of these positions is summarily coshed and left to expire in the corner. Perspective defines truth. That’s post-modernism.

This doesn’t leave much of a role for actual journalists, academics like me, grown-ups in either political party, or anyone else with a healthy skepticism that their own biases are a sound basis for getting an accurate understanding of the real world. There is no real-world in the post-modern universe, just the one we perceive. So us realpolitik types find ourselves strangely alone. No one seems to care about reality anymore. It’s just too damn inconvenient, stuffed with all those annoying facts that have an irritating habit of contradicting political preferences. What we have left are vast clouds of partisan gas that certainly make for a big stink, but foster little in the way of communication. Somewhere in all that fog are separate tribes greedily inhaling the bias-reinforcing intoxicants of their own myopic miasmas, their feet firmly planted on the fact-free vapor they mistake for earth. Getting these angels of self-deception out of their cloud any time soon seems unlikely, which means meaningful political discourse will continue to get atomized in the fact-free ether. You kind of need reality to have a meaningful conversation, and the market for reality is currently in a Black Monday-level free fall.

The market for post-positivism, though, is clearly booming thanks to its sudden passionate embrace by the right. “Being is. Being is in itself. Being is what it is,” as Sartre said. Know what that means? Me neither, but I think it means the Donald can get away with being who he is just as long as large numbers of citizens refuse to see any world but the one created from their own biased perspectives. It’s all very worrying because, regardless of where our political views lie, we’re all in the elevator of the Republic together and have a communal interest in the guy pushing the buttons. You might perceive him pushing the button that gets us to the penthouse suite of great-again America. You might perceive him yanking the emergency stop that’ll leave all of us swinging ten floors up on a fraying cable. Either way, it doesn’t mean that what you perceive is actually real. But if no one is interested in unzipping fact from fiction because it might sting too much, it’s hard to see where we’re really going at all. If we’re pointing fingers, both sides should be apportioned some blame for this sorry state of affairs. That said, if you’re wondering why your eyes are watering right now, I’m pretty sure the conservative did it.