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Works and Days

A Postmodern Presidency

April 4th, 2010 - 2:24 pm

A Pretentious Word for a World Without Rules

Given thirty years of postmodern relativism in our universities, we were bound to get a postmodern president at some point.

Postmodernism is a fancy word — in terms of culture, nihilist; in terms of politics, an equality of result and the ends justifying the means — that a lot of people throw around to describe the present world of presumed wisdom that evolved in the last part of the 20th century.

“After modernism” or “beyond modernism” can mean almost anything — nihilistic art that goes well beyond modern art (think a crucifix in urine rather than the splashes of modernist Jackson Pollock). Or think of the current English Department doggerel that is declared “poetry” (no transcendent references, echoes of classicism, no cadence, rhyme, meter, particular poetic language, theme, structure, etc.) versus Eliot’s or Pound’s non-traditional modern poetry of the 1920s and 1930. In politics, there is something of the absurd. The modern age saw life and death civil rights marches and the commemoration of resistance to venomous racial oppression; the postmodern civil rights marches are staged events at the DC tea party rally, as elites troll in search of a slur, or Prof. Gates’s offer to donate his “cuffs” to the Smithsonian as proof of his racial “ordeal.”

Genres, rules, and protocols in art, music, or in much of anything vanish as the unnecessary obstructions they are deemed to be — constructed by those with privilege to perpetuate their own entrenched received authority and power.  The courage, sacrifice, and suffering of past American generations that account for our present bounty are simply constructs, significant only to the degree that we use the past to deconstruct the race, class, and gender power machinations that pervade contemporary American exploitive society. History is melodrama, a morality tale, not tragedy.

Relativism Everywhere

But the chief characteristic of postmodern thinking is the notion of relativism and the primacy of language over reality. What we signify and brand as “real,” in essence, is no more valid than another’s “truth,” even if we retreat to specious claims of “evidence”— especially if our aim is to perpetuate the nation state, or the primacy of the white male capitalist Westerner who long ago manufactured norms in his own interests.

“Alternate” realities instead reflect those without power speaking a “truth,” one just as valid as the so-called empirical tradition that hinged on inherited privilege.

The New National Creed

OK, so how does this affect Obama?

He was schooled in the postmodern university and operates on hand-me-down principles from postmodernism. One does not need to read Foucault or Derrida, or to be acquainted with Heidegger, to see how relativism enhances contemporary multiculturalism. Keep that in mind and everything else makes sense.

Try health care. By traditional standards, Obama prevaricates on most of the main issues revolving health care reform — from the fundamental about its costs and effects, to the more superficial such as airing the entire process on C-SPAN or promising not to push through a major bill like this on narrow majoritism. And recall the blatant bribes for votes to politicians from Nebraska to Louisiana. Look also at the enormous borrowing and cuts from Medicare that will be involved.

Well, those were not misstatements or misdeeds at all. You, children of privilege, only think they are, since you use antiquated norms like “abstract” truth to adjudicate the discomforting efforts of a progressive president.

He, on the other hand, is trying to force the privileged at last to account for their past oppressions (insurance companies that gouge, surgeons that lop off legs or tear out tonsils for profit, investors who private jet to the Super Bowl, or the lesser but equally selfish Joe the Plumber types who do not wish to “spread the wealth”) by extending care to the underprivileged. Your “Truth” about his past statements is something reactionaries evoke to thwart such progressive change; in fact, the constructed truth of Obama’s is that a child will now have regular check-ups. All the other “gotcha” games about abstract truth and falsehood are just semantics.

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