Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, October 09, 2006

Our PreMo President

I adore the blog Hullabaloo and read it nearly every day, especially the posts by its primary contributor “Digby.” But I want to comment briefly here on one of those rare posts of his in which he makes a point that drives me nuts every time I hear it made. Of our current President, Digby writes:
"His words indicate that he sees ‘history’ as the ultimate get out of jail free card. (‘I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma.’) Perhaps he truly does believe that he's God's instrument who has no real will of his own and therefore no culpability -- or maybe he's just a nihilist at heart. Whatever his reasons, he seems to have adopted a shallow PoMo-style philosophy that everything is debatable down through time so it doesn't matter what he does.

It is the attribution to Bush of a “PoMo-style philosophy” (a claim reinforced by Digby’s title for the piece: “The PoMo President”) that really annoys me to no end here.

Bush is a gangster, a liar, a dumb smug Aristocrat. His politics are the incredibly familiar politics of self-appointed elites fighting the ongoing emergence and expression of democracy. And, honestly, lying and stealing are just not even remotely what the intellectuals who tend to get corralled together under the heading of “postmodernism” by know-nothings who have usually never read anything by any of the thinkers they are deriding actually have in mind in their diverse writings.

Bush is, if anything, decidedly PreMo, not PoMo.

I simply cannot stress strongly enough that the term “postmodern” is precisely the same kind of term “politically correct” is: Namely, it is a smoke-screen behind which difficult ideas and difficult problems vanish the better to be replaced with clownish caricatures in which unappealing cartoons mouth self-referential incoherencies.

You know, almost nobody calls themselves “politically correct” or “postmodernist.” Almost nobody who takes the relevant ideas seriously would be so foolish as to claim to have accomplished a genuinely postmodern stance or attained a genuinely politically correct sensibility. If anything these are terms that function permanently to undermine certainty in our moral and pragmatic pieties, just so as to keep us open to criticism, open to unexpected voices of protest, open to invigorating change. These are good things, important things, things not to be derided or taken lightly by people of the left.

In fact, it is this very democratizing inculcation of openness that is usually the real target of those who insist most passionately that they discern in “postmodernism” some kind of terrifying “anything goes” relativism or in “political correctness” an attitude of smug superiority.

In almost every case I’ve personally encountered, criticisms of “postmodernism” or “political correctness” have been lodged by know-nothings who haven’t read or otherwise encountered much of the work they imagine they are critiquing so decisively. Too often the critique of “postmodern” relativism is a surrogate justification for unwarranted certainty in one’s own pet platitudes in a demanding era of rapid technoscientific transformation, just as too often the critique of “political correctness” is a surrogate justification for one’s cherished prejudices in a demanding era of pluralist stakeholder politics.

There is a lot of the usual hoo-ing and hah-ing about silly effete elitist academic types that gets unattractively indulged in the moment this sort of argument comes up, whether from the right (from which it makes a basic kind of sense) or, more and more lately, from the left (from which I think it makes no kind of sense at all).

One commentor to Digby’s post suggests, “As soon as I joined the postmodernist debate in graduate school, it was obvious to me that the real winners in the ‘there is no truth’ philosophy would be the right wing.” I can only wish that this person actually read a bit more carefully the texts they were assigned in grad school. It should be quite clear from Digby’s own formulation quoted above that Bush’s problem is not so much his jettisoning of truth as his fundamentalist certainty in the pieties he takes as truth.

Digby points out that it is a conservative “article of faith” –- no pun intended, I assume -– “that liberals ha[ve] no values and [believe] in nothing -- an image that sticks to us like flypaper, even today. Yet nobody has practiced relativism more successfully than the modern Republican party. The Republican President of the United States believes that truth is fungible and history is debated like a highway bill on the floor of the senate -- so it doesn't really matter what he does.” It is hard to know how we are to take this formulation.

It is true that the intellectual views that get tarred with the “postmodern” moniker tend to emphasize that warranted scientific beliefs are defeasible and that our criteria for warranted assertibility give us good beliefs in which we can put confidence but never final ones on which we can confer certainty, and also that warranted moral beliefs differ according to the moral communities which give rise to them and that the political reconciliation of these diverse beliefs must be partial, contingent, and ongoing.

While it is true that it is hard to justify fundamentalist faith or moral insensitivity once one has come to terms with these difficult contemporary worldly knowledges, it is simply wrong to imply that a person who understands the world in these terms has lost their ability to affirm the descriptions of consensus science or advocate reasonable political, moral, ethical, or esthetic positions. Why would a person who affirms a deliberative model of truth-formation and truth-ascription -- as opposed presumably to a model in which truth is a matter of unreflectively accepting one's intuitions or the assertions of priestly authorities -- go from there to the curious "implication" that, somehow, therefore, "it doesn't really matter what [one] does"?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I have come to believe that those who think or claim to think otherwise are either clinging to irrational prejudices or are just too lazy to think about challenging ideas.

Contemporary global technodevelopmental social struggle among contending plural stakeholders confronting pandemic, climate change, weapons proliferation, and global poverty is a struggle that needs the flexibility, responsiveness, and responsibility of democracy. I am inclined to agree with Bruno Latour that rather than claim to be modern or postmodern or post-postmodern or what have you it is best to admit that humanity has never quite managed the feat of “being modern” in the first place. All this is, for me, rather akin to Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought of western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” But none of this reasonable irony and skepticism should give comfort to the cocksure reductionists who rail against the “fashionable nonsense” that presumably prevails in humanities Departments or among mean snot-nosed liberal intellectuals (you know, like me).

Progressive people never have anything to gain from an attitude of anti-intellectualism and any anti-intellectualist politics will ultimately benefit anti-democratic forces, whether it arises first from the right or from the left.

1 comment:

Jose said...

I think Bush critics often give him too much credit by taking his rhetoric at face value.

The anti-intellectual attitude is annoying. I suspect it has more to do with a reaction to modernity/secularism than anything else.