Po-Mo, Post-Truth, and Useful Idiots

Po-Mo, Post-Truth, and Useful Idiots July 18, 2019

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the Truth?

You’d think at this late date, with Trump’s venal presidency in its third year and the Brexit debacle tearing Europe apart, there’d be no more deck chairs to rearrange on the Titanic. But instead of trying to identify the legitimate causes of the substantial problems with liberal democracy, pundits are still pointing fingers at the most unlikely culprits. Rather than expending time and effort to deal with racism, voter suppression, the corporate influence in our politics, Russian meddling, income inequality and a crisis of confidence in our institutions, some people persist in the belief that postmodern thinkers got us into this mess.

The Frenchies took our Truth!

I’ve said before that this is a kooky belief, but I can understand the appeal of the explanation. The Trump Administration’s mendacity is so appalling in its scope and brazenness that people long for the days when public policy in the USA was conducted according to strict standards of honesty and mutual respect for the Truth.

And this was when, exactly?

The Truth About the Decline of Truth

The folks at Philosophy Talk, who should really know better, recently decided to dust off this old canard for a article entitled “Postmodernism and the Decline of Truth.” Author Joshua Landy admits that the notion that abstruse postmodern thought somehow influenced the neo-fascist right wing may be “hard to believe,” but quotes some alarmist from the Atlantic as proof that po-mo scribes held the door open for Trump & co.:

[T]here is perhaps a case to be made for postmodernism having an effect, by creating an environment conducive to their flourishing. Kurt Andersen points out that postmodern ideas didn’t stay locked in the ivory tower but gradually circulated in the wider culture, convincing more and more people that each person has his or her own “truth,” and that it’s impolite (if not downright hegemonic) to say that someone is wrong. The result, according to Andersen? “Once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.” And thus “postmodern intellectuals… turned out to be useful idiots… for the American right.”

For people who are bemoaning the dishonesty of others, Landy and Anderson are no slouches in the white-lie department themselves. They should be well aware that postmodernists don’t claim that “each person has his or her own truth,” or assert that no one should be told they’re wrong. Elsewhere in the article, Landy “paraphrases” the po-mos by completely misrepresenting them:

Science, in other words, is no more objective than Scientology; astronomy is no more objective than astrology.

I’ll Know My Song Well Before I Start Mud Slinging

This kind of screed seems tailor made for science fans, who only know as much about postmodern writers as they’ve learned from hit pieces by their New Atheist nabobs and hatchet jobs by bloggers with no sympathy for the aims and values of the po-mos. Here at Patheos Nonreligious, we hear a lot from bloggers who are proud of their ignorance of philosophy and dismiss postmodernism without a whiff of familiarity with the thought involved. They’re not much different from the Christian bloggers who launch embarrassingly vapid broadsides against their own asinine caricature of postmodernism.

That comparison is less of a stretch than it seems at first, once you realize that science fans and fundies share the idea of Truth as some sort of eternal, unchanging set of descriptions that we learn through a systematic process of revelation. The reason the atheist blogosphere is so full of ridicule and derision for postmodernism is because thinkers like Foucault were examining the link between truth and power. In the same way that fundies can’t abide anyone questioning their chosen dogma, science fans see any attempt to mount a sociological or political critique of science as heresy.

The Myth of Truth

For all the abstruse philosophizing that’s associated with it, postmodernism boils down to the idea that knowledge is a function of power. Terms like truth and reality are a shorthand for a vast set of historical processes through which human civilization has created knowledge. Either we acknowledge that everything we know about the universe and history derives from forms of inquiry created and conducted by humans, and that these forms of inquiry take place in a political and socioeconomic context, or we’re no better than fundies who won’t even admit that religion is man-made.

This is an important concession to make. The more we acknowledge the social construction of truth or reality, the more we realize that the social order and its inequities are products of power dynamics—not the ineluctable consequences of “how reality is.”

Power is Complicated

You have to feel bad for science fans. Their heroes have told them that Nothing is more sacred than the facts, while everything that has happened in society for decades should have long since disabused them of such a notion. Fact checking, it turns out, has no magic power to eliminate untrue or malicious ideas from public discourse; the Obama birth certificate conspiracy theory may have been incoherent and racist, but the person who pushed it the hardest in public is now sitting in the Oval Office. Aside from wringing their hands about the “decline of Truth,” they have no strategy for dealing with the Trumps, Conways and Bannons of our day and age.

Why couldn’t the anti-Trump brigade have made the postmodernists their useful idiots? Whether or not there’s objective Truth, we could have learned a lot of very important lessons from the po-mos if we hadn’t been so busy mocking. Richard Rorty (one of Landy’s villains in his piece) stressed that an approach to Truth should focus on one’s ability to justify one’s beliefs to others; wouldn’t this have been a lot more effective in public debate than merely insisting that the content of our beliefs is the same as the grounds for accepting them? Foucault wasn’t trying to say that establishing Truth is futile; in fact, he considered it essential to replacing unjust social dynamics with ones more geared toward inclusion:

It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.

In other words, if our Truth is important to us and the future of our planet, we should be able to articulate and justify our beliefs, rather than just insist that everyone who disagrees with us is delusional.

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  • Luther Blissett

    You express a concern with accuracy here, so it would be nice if you had applied that concern to the article you are discussing.

    (1) It does not say that postmodernism was the sole or even the decisive factor. Instead it says this: “Of course, the post-truth era has a host of other causes, many of which may well be more significant: the elimination of the fairness doctrine, the rise of 24-hour news, the internet, social media… But what if postmodernism also contributed, in its own modest way?”

    (2) It is not talking about the rise of Trump or about the decline of liberal democracy. You are quite right that the ascent of Trump has to do with racism, voter suppression, Russian meddling, and so on. It’s just that the article you are discussing is about the post-truth era (to include left-wing anti-vaxxers) and not about the rise of Trump.

    (3) It admits that postmodernists differ, and offers Baudrillard as one example of a postmodernist who appears to have been diagnosing the decline of truth, rather than calling for it.

    (4) It offers textual evidence, which you elide here, for Rorty taking Scientology (for example) to be as objective as science: “vocabularies… are not ‘more objective’ or ‘less objective’”; “objects are not ‘more objectively’ described in any vocabulary than in any other.” These are verbatim quotes.

    As for articulation and justification, it would be very hard to pretend that these desiderata were invented in the 1960s; the character Socrates we find in Plato’s dialogues already seems concerned with them.

    Let’s please have a little bit more accuracy, just as you claim to want.

  • Antoon Pardon

    What do you mean with acknowleding the social construction of thruth and reality?

    I have little problem with acknowleding the social contruction of our knowledge, but the social construction of reality? Sure in one sense with live in a society that is build on a lot of social construction. Money is an obvious example. On the other hand I have seen people claim that homeopathy/magic/prayer not working is a social construction.

    These people claim that all these things worked in the past until science came into power and as a result we now live in a social construction were these things don’t work. Unless you can find an environment where you can shield yourself enough from the influence of science.

    I also would like to know how when thruth is a social construction, convicting someone of a crime is different from scape goating someone. Sure I acknowledge the failings of the current judiciary system. But on what ground can we claim it fails if truth is just a social construction? How do we evaluate a social construction?

  • Geoff Boulton

    Brexit is not tearing Europe apart, it is tearing the UK apart. The EU has long since moved on to more important issues and is more than ready for a no-deal Brexit. Sure there will be a financial cost for the EU, but if anything, the ongoing debacle that is Brexit has only strengthened the resolve of most Europeans to protect and maintain the EU. Even among right-wing parties talk of leaving the EU has been replaced with mumbling about ‘reform’ instead. Don’t fall for the Farage rhetoric, which got the UK into this mess to start with, about how ‘important’ the UK is to Europe, and how Europe needs us more than we need them – it simply isn’t true. Quite apart from the social benefits, worker’s and environmental protection, peaceful co-existance, and the many, many other benefits of being in the EU, the economy of the EU as a whole dwarfs that of the UK. Europe will be fine. – A Brit living in Poland.

  • PD

    Geez. I don’t get it, Shem. I just left a perfectly good comment– long but other than that nothing outside the norm (unless I used a trigger word unknowingly?). Once again, my thoughts are stuck in purgatory. Please approve the comment on PoMo/era of “post-truth” etc. Thanks.