by Victor Davis Hanson
One of the chief tenets of postmodernism is relativism — the notion that neither morality nor wisdom is absolute and definable, but instead simply predicated on what those with power and advantage say they are.
In response, the postmodernist sees “competing truths” and “rival moralities” that are of at least roughly equal merit. Indeed, those marginalized often have a higher claim on truth and knowledge by the very fact of their prior exploitation that becomes a force multiplier of their more authentic ideas and empathetic beliefs. Those who disagree, and “privilege” a timeless, abstract truth or morality, can easily be “deconstructed” or “unpacked” to reveal a particular selfish agenda that involves the perpetuation of power and privilege.
Back to Protagoras and the Sophists
These canards are as old as the sophistic movement in ancient Athens, but they became popular again in the 1980s and 1990s in the academic world. And now we are beginning to see their emergence into the highest levels of government — which in the age of Obama is almost entirely comprised of those who learned their technocracy in our nation’s elite universities.
Sotomayor is no Socrates
Take Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a postmodernist par excellence. In her now infamous 2001 speech, presented at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law (and later appearing in a volume of the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, [Spring 2002]) she outlined the chief tenets of postmodern relativism. For Sotomayor, race, class, and gender adjudicate wisdom, not a timeless truth that transcends particular details of the moment:
I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life…
Sotomayor seems to think the traditionalist who believes in absolute truth and justice throughout the ages is naïve and improperly schooled in the realities of race, class, and gender postmodernist thought:
Although I agree with and attempt to work toward Judge Cedarbaum’s aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases. And I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.
Empathy Trumps Knowledge
In its essence, postmodernism destroys traditional criteria of excellence that for centuries have been recognized as prerequisites of knowledge — formal inductive thought, logic, numerical skill, recall of the past, all the elements of classical education.
Instead empathy (as President Obama noted) and good intentions, based on “personal experience” should be considered of equal, or indeed superior worth, allowing the underrepresented, or those without access to privileged resources, to be considered educated and astute in their own right. In the words of Justice Sotomayor:
Whatever the reasons why we may have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning, are in many respects a small part of a larger practical question we as women and minority judges in society in general must address … Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, “to judge is an exercise of power” and because as another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives — no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging,” I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.
We all have prejudices, but some are worse than others…
Characteristic of the postmodern relativism is the attack on the notion of impartiality, which again is a myth given that those who advance such a concept are themselves insidiously trying to promote their own race, class, and gender under the pretext of “truth.” Or as Sotomayor put it:
The aspiration to impartiality is just that — it’s an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging.
The postmodernist can never concede that a woman, a poor person, a black man — or a white elite — might in fact come to the same conclusions about an issue based on shared education, shared logic, shared knowledge of history and shared past precedent. To do so would mean that one’s race, gender, and class,ipsis factis, cannot substitute for classical training, and rigor of thought and logic. Again, here are the words of Justice Sotomayor:
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases … I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise.
“Always a danger in relative morality” — Ya Think?
The more clever postmodernists grant that the result of their thinking is relative morality, but always dismiss that danger with the cheap toss off that everyone has “sympathies and prejudices,” but (a) the well-off are less honest in admitting to them, and (b) the sympathies and prejudices of the elite are not as moral or valuable as of those who are of color, female, and poor. Again, Justice Sotomayor:
There is always a danger embedded in relative morality, but since judging is a series of choices that we must make, that I am forced to make, I hope that I can make them by informing myself on the questions I must not avoid asking and continuously pondering.
The Postmodern Olympus
Sotomayor, however, is simply the most recent concrete manifestation of the reigning postmodern philosophy that is inherent in President Obama’s thinking. For Obama, there is really no bad or good, wrong or right, but simply perspectives — competing narratives, as it were.
In the Middle East we must understand where an Iran or Hamas is coming from, specifically the history of poverty and oppression that fuel their cries from the heart and sometimes lead them to counterproductive and self-destructive outbursts. That Israel is a democratic pro-Western nation, subject to the rule of law, means not so much as it once did. Its truth is merely an alternative discourse to that of the Palestinian authority or the Hamas narrative — and one we unduly privilege by its proximity to our own.
Ends and Means
Exalted ends justify most means. That Obama is a radical egalitarian means that he really cannot eat $100 a pound beef, fly in on a lark his own pizza-maker, or go out on a multi-thousand dollar evening in New York. Unlike Bush, who would do such a thing to rub elbows with New York’s capitalists, Obama would do so reluctantly, for his family, or to find needed relief so he can better help the people the morning after.
In postmodernism, facts as we know them mean little, given either that they are the domain of elites alone with the resources to pursue and master them, or, more fundamentally, are simply representations of knowledge used by the privileged for political purposes. That there are not 57 states, that the world did not save Berlin during the airlift, that Obama’s great-uncle did not help to liberate Auschwitz, that the United States is not one of the largest Muslim countries, again matter little. In each case, particular contexts and intentions — what we troglodytes might call mitigating circumstances — condition the “truth.”
That a Timothy Geithner did not pay taxes that he asks others to pay or that he must himself oversee, or the fact that a Tom Daschle insists on limousine service that he does not report as income, are simply minor distractions. Such public servants pursue a higher truth of helping the helpless, and cannot be sidetracked by constructed transgressions designed to thwart the proper cause of egalitarianism.
So without absolutes, moral equivalence triumphs. In Obama’s world, that most of the Arab world is authoritarian, plagued by gender apartheid, tribalism, religious intolerance and statism matter little. Instead, as the less powerful, their writs against us must be as valid and compelling as are ours against them.
There is no such thing as calibration, a misdemeanor of the overdog must always be equivalent to the felony of the underdog. Guantanamo is about the same as the gulags in Russia, China, or the Arab world and logically deserves as much of the world’s condemnation. In the mind of the postmodernist it matters not at all that a million Arabs live safely under the rule of law inside Israel while Jews in turn live on the West Bank in danger — in the former it is legal and right, in the latter illegal and wrong. Why? The former are without power, while the latter use it to construct a “truth.”
Words Change Their Meanings
After six months of postmodern governance in which words and values lose intrinsic meaning, we don’t know any longer whether tribunals, intercepts, wiretaps, Predator drone attacks, Guantanamo, Iraq, renditions, etc. are good or bad, or Obama’s salvations or Bush’s Hitlerisms. I have no idea now whether five soldiers tragically blown up in war in Iraq (is it a war now?) is news as in the days of Bush, or reduced to “stuff happens” in the age of Obama. Iran having a nuke will soon be merely the same thing as Israel having one first.
I have discovered that “fiscal sobriety” is running up a $2 trillion annual deficit, that Obama’s once taboo middle name Hussein is now a publicized entre to the Islamic world, that his once agnostic father is now constructed back into a devout Muslim, and on and on.
In other words, we now have our first postmodern president. Yes, everything is possible — literally.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson