Of the many ways in which the postmodern academy has undermined America, its emasculation of objective truth, which I first described in Postmodern Philodoxers, is on vivid display in this election year. The key question is whether our people can see through the postmodern fog enough to confront the dire condition in which we find ourselves.
Yuval Levin describes that condition in The Weekly Standard (“Our Age of Anxiety,” May 28, 2012):
The United States government is now on track for an unprecedented fiscal disaster—with debt quickly surpassing the size of our GDP and reaching twice that size in the coming decades, crushing any chance for robust growth….We are on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.
Given that prospect—the handiwork of both political parties—the postmodern politics of our governing elites has replaced rhetoric based on knowledge and reason with sophistry based on ideological illusion. President Obama’s philosophy of economic growth is an example of that turn: Backward is forward, effect is cause, reality is what the postmodern politician tells us it should be.
Academic postmodernism posits that there are no objective truths or facts, moral universals, or fundamental realities. All claims to knowledge are “socially constructed,” and merely serve to mask power relationships. Postmodernism rejects modernism, the Western applications of reason and science to pursue knowledge, truth, and human progress, which ideas are now deemed oppressive. All knowledge and morality are relative: nothing is right or wrong and power makes it so.
Such postmodern thinking has been spread throughout our society by college-educated elites. It has debased the veracity of political speech at the highest levels of American government and the media.
Barack Obama is seen by some as the first postmodern president. The editors of The Wall Street Journal (Review & Outlook, August 9, 2012) comment that
President Obama spent his formative years in academia, so he’s no doubt familiar with postmodernism, the literary theory that rejects objective reality and insists instead that everything is a matter of interpretation and relative ‘truth.’ At any rate he’s running the first postmodern Presidential campaign, now organized almost exclusively around allegations about his opponent that bear no relation to the observable universe….The entire theory of the Obama campaign seems to be that the more outrageous the claim the better, because the more you repeat it the more the media will talk about it, and the lie will achieve a kind of legendary truth.
Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life (2004), cancelled a civil forum planned with President Obama and Mitt Romney because of “uncivil discourse between the two campaigns.” He added, “I’ve never seen more irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads.” (Ericka I. Ritchie, “Rick Warren cancels Obama-Romney forum at Saddleback Church,” The Orange County Register, August 22, 2012) Yuval Levin provides a prime example of such a dishonest ad in “They’ll Just Lie,” National Review Online, August 28, 2012. And the tone exemplifies what Peter Wood has called the New Anger in A Bee in the Mouth (2007).
Politicians have always engaged in distortions, deceptions, and demagoguery in election campaigns; that much isn’t new. But the postmodern political conversation has degenerated into a childlike version of “liar, liar, pants on fire.” Speaking of speeches at the Republican National Convention, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter (ironically, herself criticized for lying) said on Face the Nation, “the one thing you were left with is they really think lying is a virtue.” (Leigh Ann Caldwell, “Democratic aide: GOP thinks ‘lying is a virtue’,” CBS News, September 2, 2012)
Commenting on the participation of the postmodern media in the liar derby, L. Gordon Crovitz observes in The Wall Street Journal (“Double-Checking the Journalist ‘Fact-Checkers’,” September 9, 2012):
Reporting as “fact checking” might have started as a check on outright falsehoods, but it has morphed into a technique for supposedly nonpartisan journalists to present opinion as “facts”….Justifying journalism that takes sides, New York University professor Jay Rosen claimed in his PressThink blog that Republicans are pursuing a “post-truth strategy in electioneering.”…Mickey Kaus…wrote that when journalists claim that a candidate has lied, “it opens up a giant sluice for the introduction of concealed bias, especially when the ‘facts’ are fed to the fact-checkers by the competing campaign.”….Accusations of lying are often politics by another means.
Specious speech and dishonest dialogue, abetted by a complicit media, have become the norm in our political process. Postmodern politics is deliberately designed to make the American people believe lies that are inimical to their future. This is not the way our republic was to be governed.
Henry Steele Commager quotes Thomas Jefferson’s views of governance in Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment (1974):
We believed that men, habituated to thinking for themselves, and to following their reason as a guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased by ignorance.
Americans’ minds have been vitiated by postmodern education, and are nourished in error by postmodern politics. And reason was just one more casualty of the postmodern academy.
In Part II of his April 2011 essay Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Steve Balch considered whether our civilization has created its own mega-bubble by the thinking of elites who “consume society’s substance chasing impossibilities”; he concludes that “an accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s condition is what threatens to puncture it.” Our postmodern politicians have inflated such a bubble to feed the public’s hopes rather than disclose the limits required on created expectations.
But the Western understanding of humanity’s condition is coming to prevail in the real world. The mathematical actualities of economics and finance now confronting our nation’s unrealizable entitlement promises are converging to confound the chimera of postmodern social constructionism. Such illusions can only lead to failed policies and outcomes.
In his Keynote Address at the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie emphasized the need for telling the truth to the American people and for leadership to overcome the serious challenges facing the nation.
We believe in telling hard working families the truth about our country’s fiscal realities….The math of federal spending doesn’t add up…. We have no other option but to make the hard choices, cut federal spending and fundamentally reduce the size of government. They believe that the American people don’t want to hear the truth about the extent of our fiscal difficulties and need to be coddled by big government. They believe the American people are content to live the lie with them….
Make no mistake, the problems are too big to let the American people lose—the slowest economic recovery in decades, a spiraling out of control deficit, an education system that’s failing to compete in the world….Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We must all share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth….
If you’re willing to hear the truth about the hard road ahead, and the rewards for America that truth will bear, I’m here to begin with you this new era of truth-telling.
One can only hope. Both political parties might start with the truths provided by former U. S. Comptroller General David Walker’s Comeback America Initiative. According to Walker, the U. S. government owes $70 trillion when unfunded Social Security, Medicare, and retiree pensions are included in the debt. But “the biggest deficit this country has today is not a budget deficit but a leadership deficit.”
The knowledge imparted by the heritage of Western civilization—which NAS so properly and urgently seeks to restore—provides the kind of thinking needed to address our nation’s challenges. It should once again be applied to overcome postmodern politics aimed at appeasing factions that depend upon government benefits, which next week’s article will address.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).