This being the first column of a new series here on EveryJoe entitled “Riposte Modernism,” I thought it appropriate that we talk about the nemesis of modern civilization. De Toqueville had famously said that the United States would never fall to an outside foe, but could only die by suicide; really, he should have extended his claim to mean all of western civilization. The suicide in question is more like an infection, a kind of cancer that turns its intelligentsia against itself; we’re talking of course about postmodernism.
Now first and foremost, I want to make it clear that I’m not a bog-standard conservative. I am that most dangerous of maniacs: I have no sense of allegiance whatsoever to American Party Politics (indeed, I’m not even American!), and I’m an absolutely shameless social libertine. I believe above all in the absolute freedom and thus the absolute responsibility of the individual. I also happen to believe that the essential guard to that freedom is a just and civilized society founded on the concept of inalienable rights, and dedicated to progress for everyone. You can’t have freedom, equality, or the opportunity for prosperity (i.e., the “pursuit of happiness”) for all people if you don’t have a foundation based on the ethics of rational thought in the analysis of truth.
Recently, I have been hearing some left-wingers whine about the amorality of the leadership of American Conservatism; more specifically, they were talking about how American conservatism’s leadership is amoral, in essence believing that they don’t have to follow any kind of rules of proper conduct anymore, and that things like truth don’t matter.
I think there’s a legitimate point in that claim, somewhere. And it’s been developing for some time. However, I also think that the fault of this, the blame for where a situation where this can exist, is squarely on the intellectual Left.
First, let’s look at the facts: the kind of relativism that leads people, particularly people who want power (and what politician doesn’t?), to feel that they can just manufacture whatever truth they want is something that has affected both of the major political parties in the United States (and most other countries in the western world too, for that matter). They use different terminology for it, but there’s no question they’re both infected with this notion. The Left, and the Democratic party as part of the Left, talk about “narratives.” The neo-conservatives on the Right (and excepting a few crackpots and a tiny handful of idealists, most of the leadership of the Republican party are neo-cons, whether they admit it or not) are at least more honest about it. Who can forget George W. Bush’s government blatantly talking about how they can ‘create their own reality’? They did that most openly with their ultimately faulty ventures into Middle-Eastern military engagement, but it was just as much of a feature of their economic policy (real conservatives in the United States desperately need to come to terms with the fact that there hasn’t been a real capitalist, as opposed to corporatist, economic policy in either party for a very long time).
But this all conceals one important detail: that in spite of all their outrage at the utter amorality of some of the American Right, this is a situation the Left has created for itself by embracing relativism and making it so acceptable in our society. They created a monster, and now it will devour them (and maybe all of us), because while they thought that a relativistic world would somehow work to their “progressive” advantage, the reality of relativism is that it will ultimately enable psychopaths to rule, and for the brutal and ruthless to abuse or oppress the weak.
In a relatively recent post on grist.org, there was a link to a series of tweets that tried to point out how conservatism has now embraced postmodernism. Yes, tweets; possibly the dumbest medium of communication for anything serious in history. How stupidly hipster is that? But what can you do? If there’s one still-significant difference between the supposedly intellectual Left and the supposedly intellectual Right it’s that the former is absolutely desperate to be fashionable, to the point of absurdity.
In any case, the tweets themselves (ignoring the idiocy of the medium) are shocking but ringing of truth. The first instinct of a conservative might be to try to deny it, but the fact is that for a long time now the leadership of the Right in the western world has embraced the same poisonous concept: postmodernism, in a nutshell, discards the concept that there even is some kind of absolute truth that we should try to approach. Instead, it argues, liberated from the confines of the evil and authoritarian need to actually prove truth, you now have the power to create a narrative out of your semantic argument.
Put in plainer terms: if you can create a set of words, put them together into a semantic argument, you can define anything as anything. You can say (as the tweets point out) that an apple is in fact an orange; it doesn’t matter whether that’s “true” or not because there’s no such thing as truth, and instead all that matters is that you be able to argue it often enough and well enough that it gets accepted by enough people to create a ‘reality bubble’. Its magical thinking of the worst kind applied on a cultural scale. And coupled with the deconstructionist ideal that was embraced by the baby-boomer generation (which, again in a nutshell, argues that any kind of Authority is Inherently Illegitimate, that trying to claim any kind of hierarchy, be it in institutions or in the very nature of scholarship, is inherently a form of abuse over overs), this ultimately means that in the post-modern world you can not only claim that an apple is actually an orange, but that no one has the right to say that you’re wrong; if they try, they’re “oppressing” you.
It doesn’t matter if they try to argue from a logical perspective, a scientific perspective (pointing out the ways that “apples” and “oranges” are different biological substances), a moral perspective, or from an appeal to tradition; nor does it even matter if the person trying to argue with you is the world’s foremost academic authority on oranges with over 30 years of studies on citrus fruits while you haven’t ever actually so much as seen an orange in your life, there’s just no one in the post-modern world who has any inherent authority to tell you that whatever you pull out of your backside isn’t correct.
The only marker of whether an idea should succeed or fail in these circumstances, according to the postmodernists, isn’t whether it is objectively true or not (because to them, nothing is), but only whether or not it is semantically successful. If you can argue it loudly or strongly enough, if you can control language to enforce your worldview on others, then you win.
Of course, what this does in practice is destroy the entire intellectual, political, civil, and moral foundations of western civilization, as surely as a cancer would slowly eat away at its victim’s internal organs. If you can’t make any kind of argument to oppose any nonsense any random idiot decides is right, be it from a logical, scientific, moral, or historical perspective, then this means that western civilization’s pillars of logical/rational thinking, science, moral philosophy, and even its history and culture (with all of its branches, including the arts and the education system, two of the earliest victims of postmodernism) will utterly collapse.
And now we find ourselves in the darkly amusing situation where, with the right-wing having started to embrace this same kind of post-modern worldview, suddenly the Left feels outraged and worried about this! Oh, the irony!
I can’t imagine the left-wingers angry about U.S. Conservatives’ manipulation of truth, where (to quote David Roberts) “epistemology becomes competing tantrums,” don’t realize that this is a direct consequence of the philosophical foundations laid down by Foucault, the darling of the Pseudo-Intellectual Left, right?
If you keep saying “there’s no such thing as true or false, right or wrong, there’s only personal narratives that can only be forced or defended by Semantics,” you are arguing for the intellectual equivalent of “Might-Makes-Right.” And the problem with that is that this philosophy very rarely favors the weak, the poor, minorities, etc., for very long.
The Left kept telling the Right that their ideas about Truth or Morals didn’t mean anything and were equally valid as anyone’s opinion. That all authority was inherently illegitimate. That rules were for squares, man; and that we could create our own reality. And sure, the Left had an idea of trying to force a hippie-wonderland reality of being “Nice”, “tolerant”, of helping minorities, etc. But they had no intellectual or moral basis for these ideas, because they believe in nothing. Their principle was that it was their opinion that we should be nice, their “narrative” of how we should be to each other, and they bet the whole farm on their certainty that they could control Language (Semantics) in such a way as to run circles around the old dumb right-wingers who stupid enough still actually believe in stuff.
Now we have people running the Right (not the ones at the base, but the elites of the Right) who have figured out the game, and been absorbed into the postmodernist paradigm; so they suddenly don’t believe in Truth either. The problem is, their Narrative of being Complete Psychopaths In It For Themselves is a stronger Semantic Weapon than the liberal-douchebag narrative of being snide but ineffective whiners.
It was the same reason more than one hippie commune failed: as soon as you say “there are no rules, we can all do our own thing and rap it out, brother!”, the guy who’s going to win from that is the asshole who is best at being the most manipulative.
Sooner or later, postmodernism leads to barbarism. It leads to a world that is the opposite of civilized: where you have no ability to stand up and say “this is wrong” for any objective reason. You can claim “this is wrong because I really, really feel like it’s wrong”, but who cares? If someone else doesn’t feel it’s wrong to bash their neighbor’s brains out and take their stuff, you have no objective or absolute basis by which to oppose them. This is why the Left proves terribly ineffectual against both amoral psychopaths (who don’t care if other people live or die so long as they personally get ahead), and against dangerous fanatics (like religious extremists from other parts of the world who still believe in things strongly enough to kill or die for them).
In its end-game, postmodernism inevitably moves out of the world of semantics and into the world of brute violence, because there’s no rational basis by which postmodernism can oppose violence. Authority – of the intellectual or of the political/social variety – can be misused and abused to harm or oppress the weak; but what these morons didn’t figure out is that if you remove Authority altogether, you also remove any authority to protect the rights of the weak. No more philanthropy, no more “noblesse oblige,” no more firmly-held principles of truths-worth-dying-for that guarantee inalienable rights to all humanity. All you are left with, on the Left or Right, is a world where the strongest and most powerful get to impose their “reality” on everyone.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.