by Victor Davis Hanson
This series written for Private Papers will appear in four parts.
The wages of postmodernism, or when facts do not exist,
we can invent our own reality
Remember the preexisting landscape of postmodern thinking of the last two decades that has dominated the intelligentsia, specifically the Foucauldian notion that there is no real absolute standard of good or bad, right or wrong, but simply interpretations and views, whose ‘correctness’ is predicated on the nature of power.Those who have “privilege”—in the case of America, stereotypically most white male Republicans—capriciously adjudicate rules and standards for their victims, mostly the poor, women, gays, and people of color. Power is what determines how reality is gauged and victims marginalized—and thus power alone is what promises justice and thus should be pursued at all costs without regard for bothersome constructs like consistency or truth that have no independent verity anyway.
Thus there are a number of logical consequences in the wider political arena that follow from such relativism and they may help us fathom why we are witnessing a new sort of incomprehensible and often illogical Leftist rage. In a world where text and speech, like everything else, are constructs, we see the emergence of a new crop of Leftist leaders who, first of all, are liberated by feeling no need to reconcile their progressive rhetoric with their own privileged material circumstances. The hypocrisy is startling, but has the practical effect of encouraging the rich and advantaged, a prominence that has evolved beyond the coffeehouse or foundation boardroom. The disconnect makes Americans scratch their heads in disbelief when they try to square what comes out of the raucous mouth of a Madonna or Ted Kennedy with the actual circumstances in which such folk live.
The subtext of a group like MoveOn.org is the pernicious influence of the corporate imperialist. Yet the current heartthrob and multimillion-dollar benefactor of such activists is none other than George Soros, who made a fortune hedging on currency fluctuations, often during wartime and to the detriment of small investors and deposit holders in leveraged banks. An Arianna Huffington runs for governor of California, grandstanding about the gas-guzzling SUV—even as she lives in a natural-gas gobbling mansion. Unapologetic privilege and criticism of just that wealth in others is a logic extension of postmodernism, where discourse is reality and not predicated by the bothersome facts of the material world.
The common cultural tie that binds the screeching Howard Dean, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, or John Kerry is not personal knowledge of the cruelty and misery inflicted by Dick Cheney’s corporate America, but precisely its dividends of prep school and lots of family money. The attack dog of Enron Terry McAuliffe is $20 million richer only as a result of questionable mega-stock transactions during the eleventh-hour collapse of Global Crossing. The epitomes of American hypercapitalism—a Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates—are welcomed into the Democratic crusade against George Bush’s betrayal of average America.
Limousine liberals are not new. But the hyper-rich’s support for candidates who decry the unfairness of corporate capitalism is. Equally strange are the angry liberals at the forefront of the Democratic Party who are the elite beneficiates of capitalism—whether we see the Kerrys flying on a private Gulfstream to environmental conferences, a Barbra Streisand faxing position papers to the Democratic leadership from Malibu, or the Heinz corporation’s multinational wealth subsidizing lectures on the evils of outsourcing jobs abroad.
Consequently, the new anger over what Gore Vidal has called from his villa in Italy the “Bush-Cheney Junta” emanates not from bankrupt farmers, ghetto-activists, out-of-work coal miners, or non-union waitresses. No, it is a sort of smugness that often breaks out in Al Gore’s vein-busting sputtering, and is voiced by the privileged who feel that their populist rhetoric and boilerplate attacks on Halliburton and Enron need not have any relationship to their own awkward and often hypocritical existences.
Thus while there are still concrete demands for universal health-care, low-cost prescription drugs, and assured jobs, much of the real venom is packaged in the sarcasm and cynicism of a self-absorbed, out-of-power elite, not the masses—specifically the worry among American intellectuals, professors, artists, and journalists over how George Bush’s America is now portrayed abroad where they so often visit or have homes. Mooreism and Chomskyism are attuned to European slurs of stupid, Texas-like Americans, who fear that they are no longer to be welcomed or liked in Paris or Berlin. “Not in My Name” is the rallying cry of those really worried that an American President, who cannot say nuclear or once forgot the name of the President of Pakistan, has tarred them with his “smoke ‘em out” and “dead—or alive” yokelish brush.
Just as elite truth is grounded in rhetoric and intent rather than the reality of how one lives and works, so too without recognized absolute standards or bothersome facts, everyone can manufacture their own reality, one that is powered largely on the fuel of race, class, gender, or perceived oppressions. A New Jersey Governor, who must resign because he sought sexual favors from an aide, promoted an unqualified associate on the basis of lust, and was forced to come clean only hours ahead of blackmail-inspired revelations, grandly expounds on his own “truth.” So Governor James McGreevey proclaims, “My truth is that I am a gay American”—and thus, presto, he cannot be blamed so much for malfeasance as praised for “coming out.”
In the same manner Al Sharpton is hugged by Hillary Clinton and later invited to address the nation at the Democratic Convention, where he talks “truth to power” of his victimization due to white racism, not the reality of a convicted libeler of New York city public officials, the promulgator of the Tawana Brawley hoax, or the inciter of riot and mayhem that in the past has led to the deaths of innocents. The forged CBS documents can be both “fake” and “accurate”: by the arbitrary and unfair standards of paleo-journalism, yes, they fail muster; but by the ends-justifying-the-means logic of the true relativist such “facts” are merely bothersome annoyances that do not impugn the higher “truth” that a reactionary imperialist can be brought down on rumors of laxity in his Guard service some thirty years ago.
John Kerry has finally embraced a sort of ‘I’m against it and for it’ policy about Iraq, but his handlers are still worried that most Americans are uneasy about strident former anti-war activists now back in the national arena opposing another ongoing war. Thus Kerry’s “truth” is not that after four months in Vietnam he once returned home to characterize the American soldiers’ fighting experience as one of “atrocity” reminiscent of “Genghis Khan.” Rather, he too can be reconstructed as a victim himself, who was illegally ordered into Cambodia—a non-event “seared” into his memory. Ditto Kerry’s other creations, like owning assault rifles or SUVs—again bothersome “facts” that reactionary journalists wish to cite as inconsistencies, since they fail to appreciate that such noble white lies are necessary to placate middle America for the greater good of being elected to enact an agenda that really is in its interest.
Throwing someone else’s medals away, distorting his own combat experience, or fabricating mythical missions into Cambodia; these are all merely the bothersome dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the Kerry truth that brave resolute fighters like himself are used as pawns in places like Cambodia and Iraq, then and now, by uncaring grandees like a Nixon or Bush.
Tomorrow we ask, ‘How does this new hatred for Bush and our own disdain for truth affect our current war?’ And answer, “Ask Bin Laden.”
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson