Friday, March 20, 2015

PoMo Theories Coming Home to Roost OR, Apologies Due from the Academic Left (28 June 2014)

The aide [Karl Rove] said that guys like me [reporter Ron Suskind] were "in what we call 
the reality-based community," which he defined as people 
 who "believe that solutions emerge 
from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and 
murmured something about enlightenment  principles and empiricism
 He cut me off. "That's not the way  the world really works anymore."
 He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. 
And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, 
creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things w
ill sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, w
ill be left to just study what we do." 

All politicians operate within an Orwellian nimbus where words 
don't mean what they normally mean, but Rovism posits that
there is no objective, verifiable reality at all. 
Reality is what you say it is …. 
— Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times; October 25, 2004

            While we await apologies from Donald Rumsfeld and the Neoconservatives for the increasing mess in Iraq and environs; while we're bemoaning radically skewed unfair income distribution and impossibly-high college costs and an impoverished American public sphere — some time during the next several years, I want to hear an apology or two from some of the "more-Left-than-thou" academics who pushed way too hard on postmodernist themes and identity politics in the latter parts of the 20th century.

            Identity politics are far more forgivable because, in moderation, they are necessary and need no apology — especially when one's identity group has been consistently fucked over for the last half millennium or so (American Indians, Blacks) or for pretty much all of recorded history (women). Identity politics are inevitable and necessary politics, but effective politics are almost always coalitional, and the practice of effective politics requires never losing sight of that essence of politics, the question Who’s getting what, and from whom?

            Radical cultural feminists changed the focus from the Liberal project of getting an Equal Rights Amendment to issues of rape and cultural/social oppression of women by men. Fair enough, except when the logic of such social/cultural analysis precluded alliances of men and women — it being problematic to be literally or figuratively sleeping with the enemy — and undercut feminist solidarity between White and African-American women, or at least African-American women who remembered when charges of rape, and lynchings for rape, were used to keep in line African-American men.

            The mantra was "Class, Gender, Race" and soon enough "Class, Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation": except that class issues, nitty-gritty money issues tended to get lost among hot-button cultural issues.

            Side-bar, sort of: I recently attended WisCon, the feminist science fiction conference and found myself in a conference room in Madison, WI, around the corner from the Wisconsin Capitol building where union activists and their allies demonstrated against the attempted and partially successful roll-back of New Deal/Progressive Era protections for workers. And at the WisCon session we were discussing a matter I'd written on: gendering pronouns in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Pronoun usage has its political importance, as do other technical matters of how we speak and write: those constantly-repeated little things underlie our approach to the world. Still, this was a reminder that while a fair number on the academic Left were debating such issues of gender and race and all, ageing Young Americans for Freedom and rich Right-wing donors were working on winning school board elections and raising up a generation of political candidates and policy wonks. We on the Left were dealing with division of house work and sports team nicknames and such — worthy efforts in themselves — while the Right was quietly working on school curriculums, regulatory law, and the various state and federal tax codes.

            For the feminist projects — where much of the action was on the Left in the late 20th century — the switch of emphasis from politics, rights, and money to social and cultural issues allowed too much opportunity for the Right, opportunities they took.

            So today we are getting gay marriage, which is a good thing, and will make a number of nice people happy. But as Andrew Sullivan kept reminding readers, gay marriage is basically a conservative issue. In pushing gay marriage (etc.) much of the Left lost sight of looking at marriage and family encouragement in the tax code period, and from there looking at that larger issue of how taxes were being quietly manipulated to reward some and punish others — primarily determined by who can afford lobbyists to write tax law.

            More abstractly, we get to the issue indicated in my headnote quotations.

            Significant portions of the attack on empiricism and scientific method — indeed, the entire belief in facts — has come from the Left. The totalitarian state of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is most directly a reflection of Stalinist Russia and the "Orwellian" Party in 1984 is a perversion of tendencies on the Left, including at least twice now, Leftist attacks on the idea of reality external to the human mind. Orwell's O'Brien tells Winston Smith a central "fact" for Winston's re-education, that there are no facts:

"You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. [….]" (3.2.51, O’Brien)

And damn, if some of my colleagues didn't go over to the O'Brien position, not just attacking the idea of objective facts, totally independent data — "The observer is part of the system," that is indeed always and necessarily a fact — but attacking the whole idea of facts in any sense. Moreover, placing this attack in a larger radical critique of Science and scientific method.

            Indeed, there have been some real problems with the world of the post-Enlightenment, and "scientism," and the worship of "hard facts" vs. feelings — especially compassion — is a very bad idea.

            Still, the world is a better place because of the Enlightenment and the various sciences and technology, and wholesale attack on reason and facts and science and the post-Enlightenment worldview paved the way for attacks on Reason from the Right.

            Indeed, recycling the O'Brien philosophy paved the way for Karl Rove and the dismissal of "the reality-based community."

            America and the world are owed a bit of an apology from the Left, but I'll expect it to come about the same time the mea culpa arrives from the Right.

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