Bloom Briefing 26: Postmodernism on the Right; Infighting on the Left
Welcome to the 26th edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. I’ve noticed an uptick in subscribers the past few weeks, so for newer subscribers, you can review the half-year of posts here if you are so inclined. This week, the focus is on the surprising flourishing of postmodernism on the right and the in-fighting of the political left. Links to additional writing worth your time are down below.
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A Short History of Postmodernism, Truth, and the News
In first half of the 20th century, breakthroughs in particle physics disrupted our collective understanding of the universe. The Heisenberg Principle in particular – the notion that the act of observation changes the nature of the thing being observed – had knock-on effects all over the academy, but particularly in the social sciences.
How could the anthropologist, living among a native tribe, hope to understand the tribe if his act of observation changed the behavior of the members of the tribe? How could a psychologist hope to understand the human mind? As the social sciences and humanities adapted to breakthroughs in the natural sciences, a suite of theories took shape that is broadly understood as postmodernism.
The crux of postmodernism is that truth is subjective. That basic premise leads to a series of logical conclusions about the limits of what any individual – or the totality of humanity – can know. At its best, the realization of different subjective experiences brings greater empathy for alternative points of view. At its worst, it leads to a belief that there is simply no truth, no reality, independent of any one person’s beliefs or perspectives.
Naturally, the postmodern turn in the humanities and social sciences influenced other aspects of culture, like art and politics and journalism. Fox News is, in a way, the ironic and ultimate testament to this influence. After all, Fox News pioneered the idea that a news source should have a take, a perspective. (A charitable history of Fox News is here.) In their case, it was that the rest of the media had a liberal bias so a conservative news source would balance things out.
This shift from unbiased journalism to journalism – news – with an explicit perspective can’t be understated. Whereas before, news represented the experts’ assessment of what had happened and what was true, now, one’s perspectives determine what kind of news she wishes to watch. If I want a progressive news source, I can tune in to MSNBC; if I want a conservative one, I can watch Fox or read Breitbart.
Importantly, what agenda-based news did was untether viewers from any kind of shared objective reality. This poses an epistemological question: how can we come to know anything new if we pre-select the process for coming to know because it aligns with what we already know? How do we test what we believe against alternative viewpoints? Truth that doesn’t align with our worldview is often distressing, so even if we tell ourselves we want to be open-minded, we often subconsciously avoid information that contradicts what we already believe.
This has reached such an extreme that basic science is a point of dispute. There’s a certain irony in science bringing about the downfall of science, but these are two different kinds of science. Where there is room for debate about particle physics or string theory, that the earth is warming is not up for debate. And while we may not know exactly what the consequences will be, we can be reasonably confident that they will be somewhere in a range from immensely costly to apocalyptic.
A broad consensus of scientists arguing that these effects are real does little to dissuade the viewers of Fox News, who long ago traded unbiased news – which would have covered the science – for news that aligned with their perspective (which doesn’t).
But it wasn’t just science that Fox News jettisoned. As the pioneer of postmodern news, Fox jettisoned the entire concept of expertise. Postmodernism had already made a dent in the concept of expertise (if truth is subjective, who needs an expert?), but Fox made a point of dispensing with the need for expertise by branding it as liberal urban elitist snobbery.
To be honest, this is a subject about which I remain heavily cynical. I’m not sure what people committed to facts can do to make people not committed to the facts accept them. How do we convince the 52% of Republicans who think that Trump won the popular vote, that he didn’t? How do we convince folks that climate change is real, that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta aren’t running a child sex ring from the basement of a D.C. pizzeria, and that there is no link between vaccines and autism?
As long as the news people watch continues to treat these as serious possibilities, there is nothing to make people disbelieve the wildest most outrageous claims about people they are predisposed to distrust. (Schrödinger’s) cat is out of bag on this perverse understanding of what the subjective nature of truth means, and I’m afraid there may not be any means of putting it back in.
In-Fighting on the Political Left
This week, two prominent center-left Democrats penned an op-ed in the New York Times encouraging the Democratic Party to move to the center. To be clear, this isn’t an, “I think these policies are better than those policies” kind of argument. It’s a “You, the far left, are the reason we lost,” kind of argument.
“The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is unquestionably to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party.”
This kind of thinking – that some part of the left is at fault for the lack of success of the left – is more pernicious than any actual policy proposed by either the far left or the center left. The only part of the left about which there’s a modicum of truth in this assessment is the Jill Stein left, but that’s such a small portion of the left that it’s not worth the attention (though it should be remembered that Stein covered the Trump-Clinton spread in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania).
These center-left authors have cause and effect inside out. It’s not the policies of the far left or the policies of the center-left that are tearing the party apart – it’s the belief that some other part of the left is the root cause problem that is responsible for the left’s current impotence.
As someone who shares “of the left” views with both the center left and far left, depending on the issue, I am all too familiar with the frustration/disbelief of both groups who believe that their world-view is irreproachable. How, the far left wonders, could I possibly be against free public university and still consider myself of the left? Why, the center left wonders, do I spend so much time focusing on issues of race, issues which alienate white working class voters the left needs to court?
Pluralism as an Orientation toward Politics
But more than the fact that I hold some center left and some far left views, my orientation towards the political world is one of pluralism. Pluralism, in short, is four tenets: 1) values are plural; there are many objective values in the world. 2) These values conflict; at times they are incompatible with each other. 3) These values are incommensurable; we cannot always evaluate them and determine which is better or place them into a structure of hierarchy. The result of the plurality, incompatibility, and incommensurability of values is that 4) choices replete with sacrifice must be made.
This isn’t to say that we don’t believe things to be true and have good reasons for believing them. Of course we do. But it is an appeal to the more humble aspects of our nature. Pluralism emanates from an understanding that those who believe in one definitive answer to political questions have often been those who have caused the most damage to society. As Isaiah Berlin, one of pluralism’s most prominent theorists, wrote:
“One belief, more than any other is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals… This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.”
How, you might be wondering, does pluralism have anything to do with some center-left Democrats writing an op-ed in the New York Times? The attitude displayed towards even the middle-left by the authors is not merely one of dismissiveness, it is one of derision. It belies a belief that the only way to move the country back to the left is for the left to move back to the center. The authors are monistic (the opposite of pluralist): it’s their way or the highway.
What I find foolish is how many people who are “of the left” seem to spend more energy criticizing the people who are trying to accomplish the same ends with different means than they do criticizing the people who are actively working against both groups. This approach, it should be said, is not unique to the center left. Plenty of folks on the far left spend more time criticizing the center left than the right.
While many of these criticisms from both sides of the left aren’t without their merits, we need to quarantine them to the realm of tactical discussion. What kinds of arguments will help build a coalition capable of achieving the kinds of policies we want? Beware the constant danger of the belief that others on the left are the problem. We must find a way to work together.
But who is the ‘we’ that Must Work Together?
On some issues, however, it’s not clear that the center left and the far left are actually interested in the same kinds of policies. The authors of this piece tout reasonable centrist (Bill) Clintonite policies like welfare reform and public safety spending. The authors also rail against free trade, arguing that Democrats should be the protectionist party and get serious about keeping manufacturing jobs in the “heartland.”
The problem is that I know few young people of either the center or far left who support such policies.
The young people I know broadly accept that automation rather than outsourcing is at the root of the decline of manufacturing, and that the benefits of cheaper goods and services through free trade outweigh the loss of some jobs that would be gone in a few years anyway.
And on the subject of welfare reform and public safety, these allegedly center left policies are not actually left at all. They’re policies of the right. Welfare reform in the early 90s was code language for limiting the flow of benefits to people of color and getting “tough on crime” was code for putting a million or more (this isn’t an exaggeration) black people in jail. Bill Clinton himself now thinks that his criminal justice package was misguided. (I would call it an abomination.)
So while these authors may have couched their argument in a drive towards taking back government from the clutches of unscrupulous purveyors of a hierarchy of self-interest, I have my doubts about the sincerity of this claim. It seems that their principal goal may well actually be the establishment of a centrist government.
This is now a different sort of problem. This isn’t a problem of the center left and the far left finding a way to work together; this is a problem of the center trying to persuade the left to move to the right. “You don’t really care about transgender rights, do you? Why don’t you stop focusing on that, which turns off people from the ‘heartland’ and instead give them the coded racism that helps get them onboard?” Something tells me even the center left isn’t going to go for that.
My point is simply that while I do think the center left and the far left need to be more collaborative, there is a line about how large the tent can be. I don’t think our tent needs people who laud 25-year-old racist policies, believe manufacturing jobs are going to be saved by protectionist trade policy, and are openly hostile to working with anyone with a whiff of leftism about them.
Kathleen Flynn and Josh Katz wrote about the enduring appeal of Jane Austen for the New York Times’s Upshot blog. Yes, the one that does quantitative analysis. Enjoy!
Conservative Trump critic David Frum has written a piece on “The Sunset of American Exceptionalism” for The Atlantic.
And in my “if you read one thing this week read this,” I recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s long read in the Guardian on what Obama signifies about racism in America. “Uplift, as a strategy for racial progress, has failed.”