America's First Postmodern President, Supreme Court Justice, Treasury Secretary...
One of the chief tenets of postmodernism is relativism -- the notion that neither morality nor wisdom is absolute and definable, but instead simply predicated on what those with power and advantage say they are.
In response, the postmodernist sees "competing truths" and "rival moralities" that are of at least roughly equal merit. Indeed, those marginalized often have a higher claim on truth and knowledge by the very fact of their prior exploitation that becomes a force multiplier of their more authentic ideas and empathetic beliefs. Those who disagree, and "privilege" a timeless, abstract truth or morality, can easily be "deconstructed" or "unpacked" to reveal a particular selfish agenda that involves the perpetuation of power and privilege.
Back to Protagoras and the Sophists
These canards are as old as the sophistic movement in ancient Athens, but they became popular again in the 1980s and 1990s in the academic world. And now we are beginning to see their emergence into the highest levels of government -- which in the age of Obama is almost entirely comprised of those who learned their technocracy in our nation's elite universities.
Sotomayor is no Socrates
Take Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a postmodernist par excellence. In her now infamous 2001 speech, presented at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law (and later appearing in a volume of the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, [Spring 2002]) she outlined the chief tenets of postmodern relativism. For Sotomayor, race, class, and gender adjudicate wisdom, not a timeless truth that transcends particular details of the moment:
I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life...
Sotomayor seems to think the traditionalist who believes in absolute truth and justice throughout the ages is naïve and improperly schooled in the realities of race, class, and gender postmodernist thought:
Although I agree with and attempt to work toward Judge Cedarbaum's aspiration, I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases. And I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.
Empathy Trumps Knowledge
In its essence, postmodernism destroys traditional criteria of excellence that for centuries have been recognized as prerequisites of knowledge -- formal inductive thought, logic, numerical skill, recall of the past, all the elements of classical education.
Instead empathy (as President Obama noted) and good intentions, based on "personal experience" should be considered of equal, or indeed superior worth, allowing the underrepresented, or those without access to privileged resources, to be considered educated and astute in their own right. In the words of Justice Sotomayor:
Whatever the reasons why we may have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning, are in many respects a small part of a larger practical question we as women and minority judges in society in general must address ... Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives -- no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.
We all have prejudices, but some are worse than others...
Characteristic of the postmodern relativism is the attack on the notion of impartiality, which again is a myth given that those who advance such a concept are themselves insidiously trying to promote their own race, class, and gender under the pretext of "truth." Or as Sotomayor put it:
The aspiration to impartiality is just that -- it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging.
The postmodernist can never concede that a woman, a poor person, a black man -- or a white elite -- might in fact come to the same conclusions about an issue based on shared education, shared logic, shared knowledge of history and shared past precedent. To do so would mean that one's race, gender, and class, ipsis factis, cannot substitute for classical training, and rigor of thought and logic. Again, here are the words of Justice Sotomayor:
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases ... I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise.