Republicans and Post-Modernism

Since I first read about it, I have always disliked Post-Modernism, which seems to me to be a late adolescent reaction to the failure of really radical politics, and its replacement by a “one narrative is as good as any other pseudo-radical relativism” if not bloody solipsism.

Unfortunately, Post-Modernism was unconsciously inhaled by conservatives, giving us our first Post-Modernist President: George W Bush, as illustrated by the awful Karl Rove’s famous Post-Modernist credo: “The aide said that guys like me 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.” … “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 will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Now this Post Modernist credo as a sort of any-narrative-is-as-good-as-any-other is now central to the Republican Party, to its deafness to criticism (“oh that’s just the liberal narrative pay no attention”), to its delusional narratives, to its anti-science (just another narrative as per PM orthodoxy), to its hatred of rationality and so on. So thanks Post-Modernism: like most skepticism it has tipped over into gullibility, in this case the monster of conservative know nothingism.

Our first Post Modernist President, no doubt with his own narrative, as good as any other:



About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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11 Responses to Republicans and Post-Modernism

  1. Michael Walsh says:

    You have stated very well the moral relativism that is at the heart of one aspect of Republican philosophy. I would say that moral relativism is at the heart of “everyone is entitled to his own opinion.” You may not like post-modernism because it seems to justify moral relativism, but I would say it reflects the inherent philosophical conflict of our time. What is stronger–human willfulness or reality? Thomas Eagleton in his “The Meaning of Life,” defines our time as “the epoch in which we come to recognize that we are unable to agree even on the most fundamental of issues.” It’s an issue taken up by both Adam Phillips in “On Balance” and John Gray. John Gray, in “The Two Faces of Liberalism,” says that “liberalism is not a partisan claim for the universal authority of a particular morality, but the search for terms of coexistence between different moralities.” All moralities claim universal authority. Knowing that there is no universal authority, the best we can work for is some kind of co-existence.

    I would say that human beings are intrinsically willful creatures, expressed in this quotation by Jonathan Haidt: “One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe.” Human willfulness is especially strong in a culture that likes individualism because individualism puts the individual first. The individual will trumps all.

    It’s not that reality doesn’t exist (after all “a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time”), but that human beings have little common currency to determine reality. Delusion is only delusion if everybody agrees that it is so. We seem to accept that every person is entitled to his own delusion. Here’s where Adam Phillips (a psychotherapist in the Freudian tradition) comes in: “Words no longer work in the way we want them to; here we come up against the real difficulty of changing people. . . . what can we usefully say about that situation in which there is no point in talking? The talking cure turned up to show us what talking cannot cure.”

    In short, I’d say there is no answer to post-modernism. Like pain–and reality and other people–they can only be managed.

    • Michael thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t actually accept there is no answer to post-modernism. We have been in this delusional valley before in the 1930s and as George Orwell observed, eventually reality bites usually on the battlefield. The last time a delusional narrative enslaved a people it ended in the rubble of Berlin 1945. And when people talk about conflicting views of reality, I always ask how come we can drive mostly safely on freeways at 70 mph if our take on reality is individual solipsism? Delusion does not have to accepted as delusion to be delusion, if it ends dead on arrival in ER. I think Joshua Green’s Moral Tribes is a useful antidote to Jon Haidt’s Glauconian pessimism. Certainly our fast thinking brain, our tribal knee jerk reaction is self interested or worse kamikaze self destruction in many cases. But we are capable of slow reflective thinking, and so there are ways beyond this nonsense, via interest based bargaining of this blog as one small example. By contesting in the public arena. We were quite good at the latter until say the 1970s. Our sickness is recent, media driven, and reversible. And denouncing Post Modernism is a step on the round to overturning it. Managing it is not enough. And if we can’t overturn then I guess evolution will do us in for our failure to adapt to changed environment, one we indeed changed. As Marx said: philosophers have previously interpreted the world; the aim is change it but to do that you have to start with reality, not the Karl Rove delusional version of it.

  2. Michael Walsh says:

    I’ll take another stab at it.

    “Start with reality, not the Karl Rove delusion,” you say. When I think of post-modernism, I don’t see a philosophy which I accept, but a reflection of reality, the latest chapter in the history of ideas. In post-modernism we see human willfulness as the latest attempt to defy reality. The consequence of this deification of self or, as you put it, “individual solipsistic thinking,” may be the battlefield (I wouldn’t disagree), but even that conclusion does not put an end to the thinking. Everyone who is delusional thinks “This time will be different.” It is a stance which constantly renews the perceptual bias of human beings, the belief that “my will trumps all,” that “my will is impervious” to your “slow reflective thinking.” Second, post-modernism reflects the lack of any accepted arbiter—death of God, death of reason, death of science. Current anti-intellectualism is the willful refusal to accept any arbiter except that of the individual. That fact that Joshua Greene is looking for a “metamorality” is his attempt to find a common arbiter. I think Terry Eagleton has a better grasp of our situation when he admits that we live in a time in which “we are unable to agree even on the most fundamental of issues.” It is that issue that we have to deal with. And denouncing it doesn’t reduce the reality of willfulness. Denouncing the lack of an arbiter doesn’t help. I’m not sure that trying to establish one helps either. Which is why I said “managing” in a world without an arbiter is my direction.

    • @Michael Walsh. I am a Taoist to some extent and think that such extremes contain the seeds of their opposite. We have been here before in the era of the Wars of Religion of the 17th Century out of which came the Enlightenment. There are good evolutionary reasons why tribes that are cohesive if a tad loony survive some situations. But in an interconnected 7-9 billion people world with climate change, individual group survival is not enough. We will be forced to agree on the most fundamental issues by their pressing nature. You can solipsist your way just so far and the loony ideology trots along; but then counter forces grow and tsunami you to a wholly new place. I like Terry Eagleton but to be fair he has never run a production line, run a military unit, a farm or any of the other places where delusions last about five minutes. The arbiter will be the planet and indeed it will force us to manage, but also to throw over board our sixties + Ayn Rand toxic individualistic combo sandwich and adopt a more pragmatic, realistic collectivist approach driven by planetary reality. Individualistic deology will prove to be a luxury. And if you want an example: the Soviet Union was in Stalin as arbiter purge the best generals lala land in the 1930s, but then turned into the most ruthlessly practical killing-of-Nazis machine in a matter of months in 1941.

      • Michael Walsh says:

        I would like to agree with you, but I don’t like to predict the future based on what I think should happen. Human beings seem to have arrived at the point where willfulness-especially dogmatic willfulness–drives a lot of people. Individualistic, Type A, domineering, believing in a world that dogma tells them should exist. Utopians of one stripe or another. “Karma will out,” you believe. It does and then it doesn’t. The Enlightenment believed in reason, except a bunch like Hume and Voltaire (“If you want to know the extent of human stupidity, check out how mathematicians define infinity,” or some similar words.) Freud’s “Civilization and It’s Discontents” resonates more with me–there is something intrinsic in human beings that fights civilization. I call that human willfulness–the urge to never agree to anything rational–just because they can. It’s very childish–channeling temper tantrums actually. But that’s human beings for you.

      • @Michael Walsh. I tend to share some of your pessimism but actually have just read Philip Tetlocks fine book Superforecasters so feel a bit equipped to forecast. 🙂 I would say it is a probabilistic thing: forecasting if we will return to greater rationality. I guess I would say there is a 70% chance of it and a 30% chance wilfulness will remain rampant. Some of the latter is the result of a refusal to use System 2 thinking (aka slow thinking) as Keith Stanovich terms it. This whole blog is an attempt in the underlying model to teach conflict algebra and so far I have no bothered to publish my book of all this because of the very wilfulness you posit. But there is an Albert Camus streak in me that believes: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true.” The wifulness is a sort of pestilence or plague…

      • Michael Walsh says:

        I see that you have found a way to quantify hope (70%). I hope you are right. It may be a benign difference, but I’d say that the “refusal to use system 2 thinking” is one example of inherent human willfulness. I don’t think we need a branch of study call Willfulology. We already have Jonathan Haidt’s “elephant” and Freud’s “id” and Freud’s use of Rocinante, the horse, in his reading of “Don Quixote.” Wilfulness is in my reading of the Adam and Eve story and the story of Cain and Abel. I might argue that human willfulness is the source of Camus’ understanding of the myth of Sisyphus–the never-ending repeating cycle of going nowhere. I guess I’d say that people of hope want some force in the universe to be a guarantor of their hope. I don’t see it. From my point of view, willfulness is a sort of pestilence or plague, but one that is inherent. Although I would agree that delusion exists apart from whether human beings recognize it, I would also say that the recognition of delusion–on the part of Assad, Putin, ISIS, Ben Carson, or Donald Trump–will never take place. Did you ever read Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”? The character presented there is the embodiment (for me) of a willfully anti-rational human being. (Remember Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”?) It may be the embodiment of a philosophy, but from my point of view it is the embodiment of a reality that will not go away with education in Type 2 thinking.

      • @Michael Walsh. My quantification was tongue in cheek. 🙂 I think you already started to set out wilfulology….

        I share much of your perspective but wonder if mine is not simply Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light”. My hope and my fear is I suppose evolutionary. If we don’t find a new way to do all this we will go extinct, reality will bite. Now System 2 type education is one way we might proceed. Rather like Thomas Piketty pointing out that inequality has historically been overturned by war, by revolution or by tax rate changes. The latter seems preferable to me. And similarly major change in our situation may be the result of war, revolution, climate change but I would prefer System 2 thinking breaking out. Shakespeare has a lot of insight into all this especially Iago who I guess is the proto type of our sociopaths in power. I doubt many of those you list are deluded about reality so much as deluding others. But their ends seems so pointless and petty to me….

      • Michael Walsh says:

        I liked the idea of quantifying hope, by the way. I really like those industrial, assembly-line models which guarantee hope. I also like the Thomas Picketty choice–war or a tax change. I think that the U.S. model of government is close to ideal. The way I read Madison’s Federalist #10 is that his desire is to reduce the capacity of human willfulness to run rampant by reducing all differences to “factions.” The whole idea was to never let any faction be too strong. Short of “second amendment remedies” (Picketty’s war), willfulness has a difficult time getting out of hand. I noticed in the last Republican debate that both Kasich and Bush took up laughing at the idea of mass deportations. Even Bill O’Reilly told Donald Trump that deportation is an impossible feat given the nature of due process. I suppose I could argue that the very process of our democracy ensures that “reality will bite,” as you say. Even those who advocate fantasies of dogmatic willfulness get bitten.

      • @Michael Walsh. Yep maybe quantifying hope is a good idea….And checks and balances are a decent way of handling wilfulness. And it is my sincere hope that the wilful bigots get bitten by reality, if not by some just dogs.

  3. PS I think you should found a branch of study called Wilfulology 🙂

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