A Postmodern Presidency
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.
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.
Mean Speech for Thee, But not for Me
Look at supposed hate speech. An empiricist would ignore Obama’s recent warnings about the new wave of right-wing tough talk from Limbaugh and Beck, and determine instead whether the president remembers the novel Checkpoint, or the award-winning film about killing George Bush, or the venom of a Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann.
That is, a traditional inquirer would weigh the furor of the right against left, in ascertaining whether hate speech is at all partisan or simply politics of all stripes. And he would remind the president that it was Barack Obama himself who asked of his supporters to “get in their face”and bragged “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” and who used graphic examples in damning his opponents (cf. the taunt to Hannity (“he’ll tear him up”).
But you see, all this is not so. The postmodernist constructs a different reality. A person of color who is striving to level the playing field against oppressive interests speaks the “truth” to power. Of course, from time to time he draws on emotive language to drive home his points — quite unlike the cool, detached, and deliberate attack narratives of those seeking to protect corporate or entrenched interests.
When Obama attacks Beck, or Hannity, or calls for someone to bring a gun to a fight, or has Rahm Emanuel curse a fence-sitting representative, these protocols seem extreme only to those whose economic interests are threatened. Poor children in Detroit or in the barrios of El Paso don’t get the opportunity for tit-for-tat score-keeping, as if millionaires “think” they are entitled to the same “fair” treatment as their victims. When Limbaugh rails, it is to protect his Gulfstream 550; when Obama "distorts," it is the expediency needed to wring from the wealthy salvation for the voiceless.
Racialism — no such thing!
Race is the same. A person of color can hardly, given the history of oppression accorded to non-whites, himself be guilty of dividing people by race.
So if Obama says “typical white person,” or entitles his book from the sloganeering of a racist preacher he courted for 20 years, or stereotypes rural Pennsylvanians, or dubs police as acting “stupidly” in matters of supposed racial confrontation, or has an attorney general who damns the country as “cowards” on race, or appoints a Supreme Court judge who thinks a “wise Latina” by virtue of race and gender has superior wisdom, or recruits a Van Jones who characterizes everyone from polluters to mass murderers by race (I could go on), well, all this is not at all racial stereotyping with an intent to deprecate.
Why? Because constructs of language, expression, and reality hinge on status and class. Obama is seeking to dethrone traditional nexuses of power. So when he, from time to time, muses on real racial inequality, reactionaries retreat to “objective” “standards” of reciprocity to thwart his proposed changes.
Take-overs — what Take-overs?
And those “take-overs”? Take-over from what to what?
An outraged managerial and capital laden class feigns victimhood when working folks at last have a say in how the nation’s profits are derived and enjoyed, originating from their own labor in banking, insurance, and auto production. All these retreats to “private” income, “my property,” “liberty,” “The Founders,” and the “Constitution” simply can be deconstructed to “don’t dismantle a system that is weighted in my favor!”
No wonder “they” construct all sort of scary “narratives” about the Postal Service, Amtrak, Social Security, Medicare, and other shared collective enterprises that are branded “insolvent” and “unsustainable,” despite serving the people — the economic gobbledygook talk from those who really mean they are not willing to transfer their own unfairly obtained capital to more deserving working folks through legitimate “redistributive change.”
The Voices of the Oppressed
Finally, examine foreign policy. Now many of us are upset that we court enemies and shun friends, and seem to be reaching out to the most authoritarian regimes imaginable, whether Putin’s Russia, or Iran, or Venezuela. Well, once again, that is only because you construct reality on the norms predicated upon your own comfortable globalized privilege — that, in fact, as Obama thankfully grasps, is a result of thousands of daily oppressions, both here and abroad, of which you are not even aware.
Consider the trumped-up crisis with Iran. We hold Ahmadinejad to our artificially constructed standards of “civil” discourse and “fair” play — forgetting (but not Obama) the 1953 Western-inspired coup, the profit-mongering of the global oil companies, and the neo-imperialist role of the United States in the Gulf. We hide all that with constructs like “the mullahs,” the “theocrats,” “Islamofascism” and other demonization rooted in class, gender, race, and religion.
If Iran had been behind a past U.S. coup, if Iranian warships were off the coast of California, if an Iranian coal company were buying and selling our national energy production, then we too might sound somewhat unhinged as we sought to employ language to offset our oppressor’s ill-gotten material advantages.
In an American constructed world order, we artificially adjudicate Iran a rogue would-be nuclear menace for wishing five or six small nuclear weapons to protect its vulnerable borders (American troops now abut them); we have thousands of such devices, and have used them, and yet are deemed “responsible” and “peaceful,” we of all people, who, as the president once reminded us, have alone used them on real people.
So what Obama has done is “contextualized” the world, and “located,” as it were, the seemingly hostile anti-American rhetoric of “enemies” into a proper race/class/gender narrative.
And what he has found is that nationalism and the construct of the state have fooled us into thinking that there are “allies” and “enemies,” when, in fact, these are mere labels used by the privileged to “exaggerate” “difference” that only enhances Western entrenched economic, racial, cultural and political hegemonies.
Once, thanks to Obama, we “unpack” that “reality,” then we can see that most Americans have much in common with Venezuelans, Russians, Iranians, Syrians and others who likewise struggle against the same enemies that brought us the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and now oppose health care reform, cap and trade, amnesty, and the take over of the automobile, banking, and insurance industries.
So a postmodernist looks at the Falklands and does not rely on archaic notions of “sovereignty” or a “history” of a prior war. Instead, one sees a postcolonial power once more claiming “ownership” of a far distant island, proximate to a Latin American people, with long experience with European and American economic and political exploitation. Presto — we are now “neutral,” which means we don’t see anything intrinsically convincing in Britain’s claims to the Falklands.
Note Israel. What are we to make of the Netanyahu humiliating smack down, the seeming indifference over the Iranian nuclear program, the nominations and appointments on the Middle East front of a Freeman or Power, the reach out to Syria and Iran, the interview with al Arabiya and the Cairo speech, the bow to a Saudi royal, the ritual trashing of George Bush juxtaposed to the praise of a Saudi king, the strange past outbursts of Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski about hypothetically shooting down Israeli planes on their way to Iran, the ranting about Jews from the former spiritual advisor Wright, etc.
In short, the answer is that Israel is a construct of Western privilege — its democratic, capitalist, and Western customs hinge on the oppression of a vast “other” that is far more egalitarian, socialist, and antithetical to Western consumer-capitalism with all of its pathologies of race, class, and gender exploitation.
In that context, in archaic fashion, we struggle to damn any effort to end such hegemony and empower the voices of the oppressed. We are not, in fact, “allied” to Israel, but properly speaking instead should be to the underprivileged in the Gaza slums, to those without health care on the West Bank, and, yes, to the progressive Israelis of noble spirit who are trying to battle the reactionary Likudniks and instead do something about the tentacles of their own discriminatory state, whose capital is derived from exploited labor and resources of a silenced other.
Standards of What?
I could go on, but you get the picture of our first postmodern presidency. For 14 months we have tried to use abstract benchmarks like "did Obama contradict himself?," "did Obama break another promise?," "did Obama really think borrowing another $2 trillion won't help to bankrupt us?," "did Obama indeed think another entitlement 'saves' money?," "did Obama snub another ally and court another enemy?," "did Obama apologize again?" — when, in fact, such linear thinking, such artificially constructed "norms," such "facts" are nothing of the sort at all. To Obama, our first postmodern president, such facts and truth are mere signatures of privilege, and so he is offering us another — a postmodern — way of looking at the world.