Postmodernism and the Narrative Wars
From word magic to the Democratic primary to the Horowitz report.
Dear Reader [including Boris Johnson’s dog],
I’m going to be unfair to a writer because of a tweet. I know this sort of thing never happens, and since it’s such a violation of norms, I wanted to be upfront with my readers.
I loved this formulation: We’ve been talking about something for a long time, so it should be real by now.
I know the feeling. I’ve been talking about how the pope should have a squad of ninjas for decades, and yet we don’t seem any closer. My Dad liked to talk about how if we just shrunk every human being on the planet down to the size of a G.I. Joe (preferably with the kung fu grip), we’d never worry about scarce resources ever again. And yet, we’re no closer to UHM (universal human miniaturization).
Jetpacks, a sequel to Logan’s Run, good flan, space elevators … the list goes on and on. We talk about all sorts of things for ages and yet they fail to materialize. It’s almost like word magic—as opposed to blood magic—doesn’t really work.
Now, I understand the example I started with is a good case of toxic pedantry preying upon innocent idiom in service of authorial desperation. The actual article about the four-day workweek is pretty good. And the formulation, “We’ve been talking about doing X for Y time” is a perfectly acceptable colloquialism. A major answer, by the way, for why we don’t have a four-day work week is another perfectly acceptable colloquialism: Some things are easier said than done.
Moreover, because I’m a defender of words and labels, I should point out that talking about doing something is almost always a necessary precursor to do doing it. We only go to war after talking about it first (whether we talk enough is a legitimate question). Americans talked about freeing the slaves for a very long time before we did it. The only really important exceptions to this rule are monumental and accidental discoveries. Columbus didn’t talk about finding America. Microwave ovens came about because while Percy Spencer, a researcher at Raytheon, was working on a radar doohickey, he discovered a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He hadn’t been talking about discovering a way to heat up leftover pizza; he just stumbled into it. (I also hope he had his fertility tested given that microwaves don’t just seek out chocolate.)
I mentioned “word magic” earlier mostly as a nod to a favorite scene from the TV series Angel, but the truth is that word magic is kind of a thing. I don’t mean if I say “abracadabra” or “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha” I can make a plate of nachos appear or a Kardashian disappear (alas). But you can understand why words could seem magical to people.
There’s a great scene in Game of Thrones in which Sam is recounting all sorts of facts he learned from reading books. His illiterate wilding common-law bride, Gilly, is amazed:
Gilly: "You know all that from staring at marks on a paper?"
Gilly: “You're like, a wizard.”
Earnest Gellner and Yuval Hariri have written about how writing seemed like magic for early societies for precisely this reason. Information for how to do stuff could be transported across comparatively vast distances—and times. It’s difficult for our brains today to conceive how magical this might have seemed to a society with no conception of writing. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or as Heinlein put it, “One man’s “magic' is another man’s engineering. ‘Supernatural’ is a null word.”
Okay. Like the bird dog that spent too much time licking his nethers rather than working said to himself, I better get to a point.
Perhaps because I was drenched in postmodernism, hermeneutics, and all that stuff in college— and hated it—I’ve always had a thin skin about people trying to argue that words could do more than the factory specs allow (see, for example, this fun G-File from 17 years ago). Words can move people. They shape culture. They can change history. But words can’t change the boiling point of water. In other words, words can’t make certain untruths into truths. Some smarter postmodernist types don’t really dispute this. Rather, they fall back on the more defensible claim that we can never really know the truth of something. Postmodernism, Stanley Fish explained, “maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one.”
A decade ago, I was convinced that Barack Obama was a postmodernist. I wrote a piece for USA Today (but findable here) making the case. Ten years later, I’m undecided on whether he was actually a postmodernist or simply an adept politician who mastered the ability to pretend things were true if he said them. But what comes through powerfully is how similar Obama and Trump are in this regard. Some excerpts:
•Obama sometimes literally gets exasperated with people who think his words can mean anything other than what he thinks they should mean.
•On the troop surge, Obama's position has changed countless times, but he says it's unchanged. Worse, he has this grating habit of prefacing his new positions with something like "as I said at the time." But he didn't say "it" at the time, he said the opposite of "it." But saying that he said "it" is, to him, the same as having said "it."[
•The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the singular ideal of movement-ness. Obama's followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff — another American hugely popular in Germany—hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.
The mind floods with examples of how all of this could apply to Trump and Trumpism. If you can’t think of any, you might be as blind to Trump’s relationship to the truth as Obama’s followers were to his. At Trump rallies, he touts policies and accomplishments, many I agree with. But the people aren’t cheering for that stuff; they’re cheering for him—and, in a very real sense, themselves. Whether you call it MAGA, KAGA, nationalism, or Trumpism, the same feeling of “we are the ones we have been waiting for” suffuses the whole spectacle.
I used to make great hay out of Obama’s statement that “You know, I actually believe my own bullshit.” Credit Obama for at least allowing the clever ironic distance of calling it bullshit. But is there a more apt epigram for Trump’s attitude? The fact that he comes to his bullshittery through marketing, sales, and reality shows rather than an Ivy League law school seminar is interesting. But it doesn’t reflect on the sophistication of Trump’s flimflam. It illuminates the flimflammery of post-modern “sophistication.”
The narrative wars.
Whatever label you want to put on it—magic, B.S.. postmodernism, your better idea here—our political life overflows with people using words to shape a perception of reality that is way ahead of the facts.
Nearly the entirety of the Democratic primary field seems to think they possess some kind of magic wand, in the words of Jim Geraghty. Elizabeth Warren thinks saying she will do something is tantamount to getting it done, despite the fact that vast swaths of what she proposes are illegal, unconstitutional, or both. And even if you think the law and Constitution are trivialities, there’s still the more basic fact that much of what Warren and others want to do is impossible. She recently said she wants to be the last president elected by the Electoral College. That’s nice. Why not add that you want to be the last president bound by the second law of thermodynamics?
For my latest column, I spent Thursday going through all of the complaints from leftists that the Democratic primary field is becoming too white. It was fascinating. To listen to Democratic activists (and the journalists who love them), the most diverse field in history is the product of structural racism because Kamala Harris—an awful candidate—dropped out. The fact that Democratic voters tell pollsters they don’t care about the race of their nominee and are happy with their choices (which still includes a gay guy, several women, two black guys, one Hispanic guy, and two Jews) is a moral outrage. If you described this situation to liberal Democrats in 1969, they would be gobsmacked by the idea that we’d make this much social progress in just a half-century. This hits on a point I and many other conservatives have been making for years: Much of what passes for social justice and political correctness is really just a way of weaponizing principles of tolerance and equality for partisan or cultural advantage.
No doubt many people sincerely believe America is structurally racist and drenched in white supremacy, despite the fact that America is among the least racist countries in the world and has been getting less racist for decades. And when they aim this rhetoric at Stephen Miller, or Trump, or the alt-right, you may be inclined to forgive their rhetorical overreach (or you might not). But when they start taking out the same weapons and turning on each other, it shows you how much of this is simply a reflection of the fact that they don’t know how to make other arguments. When all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail; when all you have is “Racism!!!!!,” every problem looks like white supremacy.
Whatever you think of the Horowitz report, it’s not a total vindication of the Trumpists or the anti-Trumpists, but a mixed bag that offers facts and conclusions inconvenient to everyone who claimed their outsized story of the Russian investigation was gospel. Rather than respond with a little humility, the combatants in the narrative wars are holding up whichever facts support some sliver of their preferred storyline and holding it up like a trophy of total victory. I was never deeply invested in either narrative, but going by the report, I was wrong about the propriety of the Carter Page FISA warrant. I was right that the grand Deep State conspiracy theories were wrong. I have no problem admitting I was wrong in light of new facts. I’m in a distinct minority in this regard.
Similarly, the impeachment debates are increasingly disconnected from the facts we know—and the facts we know are damning enough. Nancy Pelosi seems desperate to prove that Trump’s Ukraine skullduggery proves the Russia collusion narrative. House Republicans are even more openly desperate to claim that facts are lies because they don’t conform to the story they’re telling.
Talk to some Republican politicians— away from a microphone—and they’ll tell you this is what the base wants, as if that alone is a defense. To be fair, it is what big chunks of the base wants to hear. But, telling the base the story it wants to hear—while a good business strategy for some pundits—has a cost. Because if you feed people just the broth of narrative with a few chunks of the most convenient facts to fill out the stew, the people who don’t like the dish will not be persuaded by new facts. The groups that are most likely to say they are better off since Trump was elected—college-educated whites, young people, and Hispanics—are among the groups where Trump performs the worst.
If you’re going to put all your political chips in a story, you should probably make sure it’s a story that a majority of people want to hear, with a protagonist they like.
Various & Sundry
Last week, I offered a table of contents thingamabob at the top of the “news”letter. A bunch of readers said they didn’t like it because it detracted from the sense that this “news”letter is written as stream of consciousness. I take the point and I have banished the device. But, just for the record, I wrote that G-File the same way I write nearly all of them: I took a can opener to my forehead and dumped the contents into my laptop (most of it was written in my car with the top down, the heat on, and a cigar in hand). The last thing I wrote was the table of contents, because sort of like Obamacare, I had to write it to know what was in it. Because it’s raining, I wrote this “news”letter in my cigar shop in about three hours (“It shows.” – the Couch).
Canine update: So Pippa keeps getting a recurring limp. We will probably take her to the vet soon, but we’re pretty confident it’s simply the result of her lack of respect for her physical limits. This means we need to do a better job restricting her activity. But it is hard. Very hard. Particularly if the crows start talking smack. Regardless, we’re taking the best care of her we can. Zoë too.
In other exciting news, Kirsten, our dog-walker, has added a new member to the weekday pack: an adorable puppy named Warren. We were concerned that Zoë might not be altogether welcoming of the whippersnapper. But she’s been a great girl. Listening to all those Marianne Williamson audiobooks has really contributed to Zoë’s spiritual growth. Or maybe it’s because Zoë and her best friend, Sammie, have been seeing each other a lot lately. Here they are playing tag or hide-and-seek.
And now, the weird stuff.
Photograph of Boris Johnson casting his vote with his dog Dilyn, on December 12, 2019 in London, England, by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.