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The Origins of Postmodernitis

Cultural relativity: How did we get from there to here?

by
David Solway

Bio

March 25, 2011 - 12:00 am
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To summarize. Master narratives by which we seek to elucidate the history of man and civilization are spurious and must be jettisoned in favor of the parochial and insular. There is, so to speak, no Church, only an indefinite number of discrete parishes, all different from one another and all equally warranted. Additionally, the belief in the lingua franca of truth must be set aside and replaced by a multitude of humble vernaculars. As Adorno suggests, the picture of “a chair in oblique perspective” is just as valuable as, or even more valuable than, “a picture of the Battle of Leipzig.” And from these two maxims follows the travesty of the doctrine of cultural relativism (aka multiculturalism).

We may notice a peculiar paradox simmering in this therapeutic thought-world, a dialectic of sameness and difference that does not conclude in the harmony it envisions. All cultures are essentially the same in that each strives to find its optimal adaptation to the challenges of existence. They are animated by the same impulse to meet the probationary trials posed by time and nature. Yet every culture is different from every other insofar as it arrives at its own distinctive, licit response to these challenges. As German sociologist Jürgen Habermas puts it in The Theory of Communicative Action, all cultures “share certain formal properties”; where they differ is in experiential substance. Consequently, we are all brothers and sisters who should live in amity with one another by not interfering in the practices that have been adopted under unique and intransitive circumstances. The fact that our brothers and sisters may have other ideas about concord, tolerance and mutual understanding, about master narratives and truth claims, does not impact the postmodern sensibility in the slightest. It’s all good.

It is evident what this means for the once-cherished and increasingly threatened values that are intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian armature of Western civilization. The idea of universal rights and common ethical principles has gone by the board; they are re-interpreted as merely demotic convictions of no ecumenical merit whatsoever. What we call “freedom” (of conscience, of speech, of assembly, of religion) has no plenary application. The same goes for gender equality, the rule of law, habeas corpus, or traditional matrimony as pertaining to one man and one woman, which are portrayed as sub-cultural attitudes or culture-specific assumptions that do not apply to all human beings. It is this relativistic sentiment that informed President Obama’s Cairo speech. Alluding to the muddy concept of the “will of the people,” Obama deposed that “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.” Barack Obama is America’s first postmodern president.

There is nothing permanent about our culture, lectures philosopher Richard Rorty in his major work, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity; instead it is subject to constant re-invention, the critique of old stabilities, the striving for fresh tropes and the disenchantment of the past. We should try “to get to the point,” he urges, “where we no longer worship anything…where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance.” This is the philosophical re-statement of Milan Kundera’s best-selling novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which depicts a condition of transience and uncertainty we must learn to bear bravely and with spirited exuberance. Everything is in play, everything is up for grabs. We live in a world without reliable truths or transcendent possibilities, without epiphanies, without absolute values, without teleology and without durable meanings. Our allegiance is not to a culture, nation or civilization; it is to the macrocosm of the plural. Or so we have been instructed.

As a result, we in the West, battered by our ideological elites into a coma of abeyance, have no right, for example, to denounce or legislate against stoning, limb amputation for certain offenses, female genital mutilation, sartorial  confinement, wife-beating, polygamy, honor killing and other such practices prevalent in the Islamic world. These are culture-specific behaviors that should be respected or tolerated as expressions of a different approach to the problems of social life. If Boas’ Kwakiutls engage in the mass destruction of personal property in the potlatch ceremony as an act of grandiose self-glorification, who are we to find such manifestations childish? If Geertz’s Balinese revel in bloody cockfights, what right do we have to recoil? If Malinowski’s Trobriand Islanders were adepts at homicidal magic, who among us will cast the first aspersion? After all, they have come to customary arrangements that work for them and minister to their needs.

These tenets are chiefly associated with the political left for whom Western culture is just as exceptional, or rather, unexceptional as that of a jungle tribe in the fastnesses of Borneo. There are no barbarians, only different forms of civilized man. Cannibalism, gender apartheid, endemic cruelty, sorcery as opposed to medicine, institutional violence, internecine slaughter, theocratic despotism…are perfectly fine as characteristics of “offshore” independent societies. We are not to intrude with such parochial notions as our having been endowed by our Creator with a number of unalienable Rights, among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as per the American Declaration of Independence. The concept of the sanctity of the individual and the pushback against the dispensations of arbitrary authority are exclusively Western developments deriving from the Magna Carta, the British empirical philosophers and the European Enlightenment, and fostered mainly in what is known as the Anglosphere. The authority of the Collective, aka the “will of the people,” wherever else it may spring up is to be accepted as no less legitimate, a precipitate of a different nexus of social, political and cultural contingencies.

The trouble is that the left has extended its tolerance to various cultural enclaves within it own territory that live by a different code of conduct, one often at variance with and indeed hostile to the norms and usages that prevail among the heritage population. The aggressive program of these groups to infiltrate the mainstream and metastasize at their host’s expense is, for the left, how freedom and equality work. The invasion from within is to be encouraged under the rubric of “social justice.” In so doing, the left in its hortatory cluelessness is incrementally surrendering its own life, liberty and happiness to the depredations of an alien mindset and undermining the cultural foundations of its own taken-for-granted world. It has facilitated the wasting disease of deculturation, spurred in large measure by anthropological theories of so-called “critical advocacy.” (See Philip Carl Salzman’s Understanding Culture for a brief but valuable discussion of such theories.) Tolerating the intolerant, the postmodern left has, in effect, lapsed into a state of culture schlock, a condition which author Howard Rotberg in his book of that title has aptly labeled “tolerism.” “Postmodernitis” would be another name for it.

The hypocrisy is truly staggering. When a gay man is killed, a woman punished for being raped, a Christian firebombed or a Jew hunted down in some Islamic nation, the left has little or nothing to say. How will it respond when the same things begin to happen here? Western Europe has already tasted the bitter fruit of that pervasive transplantation we call multiculturalism and we are not far behind. This is why Rep. Peter King’s congressional investigation into the radicalization of American Muslims is long overdue. Writing in Hudson New York, Raymond Ibrahim sheds some much-needed clarity on the issue: “while it is important to recognize that not all Muslims are jihadists, it is equally important to recognize that all jihadists are Muslims.” Indeed, statistically speaking, it would appear the 95% of all terror attacks worldwide are carried out by Muslims. But whatever the actual ratio may be, it is indisputably disproportional. As Ron Radosh states, “All the major terrorist actions that threaten the United States and the West today come from adherents to Islam who have been radicalized.”

In America, we may be observing “isolated incidents,” writes the pseudonymous John Boot, but tomorrow? “Tomorrow we may wake up to discover we’re Birmingham or Amsterdam or Marseille.” Under the aegis of the “progressivist” left, we too have embarked upon a policy of “preemptive capitulation,” to quote the president of the Hudson Institute, Herbert London’s astute remark. This looks very much like what is happening. According to Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary, one day “the flag of Islam will fly over the White House.” (Some believe it already does.)

The issue comes down to this. What started out as a methodological discipline in the field of anthropology has mutated into an intellectual sickness that regards our own culture, with its hard-earned principles of individual dignity, freedom under the law and standards of conduct to which all are expected to adhere, as nothing more than a provisional adaptation, a cultural singularity whose dissemination must be prevented and renounced. To insist upon the universality of such ideas is condemned as a form of racist bigotry. I suspect that Franz Boas would have been appalled could he have foreseen the way in which his analytic procedures have deteriorated into the melancholy spectacle of cultural degradation from which we suffer today.

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David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012.
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