I must apologize — I thought I’d written my last political commentary. But when I read Casey William’s April 17 New York Times think piece, “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?”, my first impression was, “This is either very subtle satire or the most blatant exposition of cognitive dissonance ever.” The problem: Williams desperately wants to call Pres. Donald Trump a liar.
We’re used to this pattern by now: The president dresses up useful lies as “alternative facts” and decries uncomfortable realities as “fake news.” Stoking conservative passion and liberal fury, Trump stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.
Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.
However, the very critical tools upon which the academic left has become dependent for intellectual life-support forbids appealing to objective reality to back the claim that Trump lies. After all, if there is such a thing as an objective reality, we can’t know it for certain. The left has their facts, and Trump has his. Under postmodern critique, pace Daniel P. Moynihan,[*] the right to one’s own opinion is the right to one’s own facts.
If You Can't Dazzle ’Em with Brilliance ...Concludes Williams:
Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed. [Besides, those grapes are probably sour.]
For this very reason, these strategies remain useful, however much something like them may be misused, and however carelessly some critical theorists and philosophers have deployed them. Even in a “post-truth era,” a critical attitude allows us to question dominant systems of thought, whether they derive authority from an appearance of neutrality, objectivity or inevitability or from a more Trumpian appeal to alternative facts that dispense with empirical evidence. In a world where lawmakers still appeal to common sense to promote regressive policies, critique remains an important tool for anyone seeking to move past the status quo. [Bold font mine.—ASL]
Let’s take a moment to fully grasp Williams’ contention:
Although there is no such thing as “truth” (nice scare quotes, Williams), we must continue to falsify the opposition’s arguments so we can “move past the status quo” — although, by critique’s own basis, we can’t really know what the “status quo” is. Oh, wait a sec; it is whatever we say it is, isn’t it? No, wait — it’s whatever the evidence says it is … but what is the evidence measuring, reality or our perception of it? Is there a reality to measure? In the end, isn’t “empirical evidence” simply a device for rubber-stamping socially constructed truths? Isn’t reality itself a social construct? In the absence of truth, how can anything be “false”?
Never mind; in any event, critique is useful, if only because it baffles the hell out of the opposition.
“BS in the Service of the Cause”Conservatives, particularly Catholic thinkers of the Aristotelian/Thomist school, have been pointing out for decades that postmodern critique is internally inconsistent and self-referentially incoherent. Philosophy qua philosophy has been sliding into blithering, prolix irrationality and voluntarism ever since Descartes’ Cogito; it’s hard to blame scientists for calling it “a waste of time.” That Williams cites Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jacques Derrida as his philosophical authorities is hardly impressive since these authors are simply a few of those who have contributed to postmodern philosophy’s intellectual bankruptcy.
All of which criticisms the postmodern left airily dismisses with a wave of their subjectivist hand. The reason the progressive loves postmodern critique is that it allows them to use or discard empirical evidence, to adopt or discard arguments, and to use or abuse the rules of logic according to any criteria they decide is relevant, so long as the agenda triumphs. “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me,” the postmodern leftist says with no hint of irony, “but what’s true for me had better damn well be true for you as well.” Short and sweet: postmodern critique is the leftists’ license to bullshit in the service of the Cause.
Moreover, so long as the right was dominated by Buckley-style conservatives, the left could hoist the Religious Right on their own moral and philosophical petards. To point out the obvious (to which Rush Limbaugh and Jack Davis at Western Journalism are oblivious), the left has held Christian conservatives to a higher standard precisely because Christian conservatives themselves demand that higher standard from others. “If the standard can’t be 100% achieved,” the left shouts, “it shouldn’t be attempted, let alone imposed.” (Yes, this is a perfect-solution fallacy. However, as Gloria Steinem smugly opined, “Logic is in the eye of the logician.”)
Now I Have a Machine Gun, Ho Ho HoBut note my qualifier: so long as the right was dominated by Buckley-style conservatives. The right wing is now post-Christian and post-conservative. The Republican Party is now dominated by right-wing libertarians, populists, and ethno-nationalists, many of them secularists or at best cultural (that is, nominal) Christians. Such thinkers as the alt-right has also sat at the metaphorical feet of Kant and Nietzsche rather than Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas; to them, natural law is more akin to the law of the jungle than St. Paul’s “law written on the heart” (cf. Romans 2:12-16). Some are convinced that traditional Christian sexual morality is as utopian as anything the left asserts, and are quite willing to leave it behind for the sake of other agenda points.
Likewise, while alt-right thinkers may never have studied the deconstructionists, they managed to deconstruct critical social theory and adopt its essence, which Williams himself stated: “Fact is fiction, and anything goes.” What’s more, they managed to get at it without the necessity of writing insanely long and impenetrable journal articles to justify their bullshit. The ends are the only justification they need for the means.
Does that make them racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, or speciesists? So what? It’s just name-calling; you might as well call them big, fat poopyheads. Some are even proud of being “deplorables”. “Grow up, snowflakes,” they say; “we’re done with your emotional manipulation.”
Postmodern criticism has been weaponized for several decades. The left simply didn’t expect anyone to turn the weapon on them. Academic leftists have a curious, almost charming naïveté: for all their certainty that right-wingers are evil, unscrupulous bastards, they somehow assume the right is still moral enough to stop short of using their own tactics against them, and are shocked and dismayed when that assumption is proved wrong. For some reason, they think they’re exempt from the law of unintended consequences, and that nothing they do will ever come back to haunt them.
For example, judicial activism was meant to be a liberal ratchet, and so it was — until the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts came into full power. Only with the Hobby Lobby decision did the left stop praising the Court as a countermajoritarian force and start damning it as a threat to democracy. Liberals and atheists were perfectly content to chip away at the Judeo-Christian status quo little by little. It wasn’t until conservatives and Christians began winning small victories that incrementalism became foul play.
No One Has to Believe the LeftIf Clausewitz’s dictum “War is politics carried out by other means” is true, then (being an identity) the reverse is also true: Politics is war by other means. And in a war, the one thing you don’t want is a level playing field; you want it tilted in your favor. The postmodern left especially fears a level playing field because, according to their dogma, the victim classes will always lose when the fight is on even terms. And that’s why they hate neutral principles and neutral definitions: nothing must threaten the simplistic one-sidedness of identity politics. Nevertheless, as the right becomes impervious to postmodern critique, the playing field will level naturally.
Why? Stated bluntly, no one has to believe anything the left says. Not now; not ever; not on any subject; not with any amount of evidence. You can’t simultaneously declare truth subjective and demand everyone recognize it; what’s by definition personal can’t by that same definition be general. Once you declare all truths to be socially constructed, you can’t prevent an opposition group from constructing truths you don’t like. You can only bullshit people for so long before they realize you’re bullshitting them and stop paying attention to you. You cannot wreck the temple of Objective Truth on Monday and expect us to still worship at the altar of Empirical Evidence on Tuesday.
The left doesn’t want to bring back objective truth, not because “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” but because there would be no way to shield the left’s dogma and agenda from its harsh, uncompromising light. Williams may insist that “critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility.” However, the postmodern left isn’t humble enough to admit that they could be wrong, even wrong-headed, about anything — especially not about postmodern critique. But now the right doesn’t have to admit they’re wrong about anything, either. Objective truth is dead, and intellectual honesty is buried with it.
[*] The ascription to Pat Moynihan of the dictum, “You have a right to your own opinion, but you don’t have a right to your own facts,” is apocryphal. Too bad; I like to think he would have said it, and he probably agreed with it. Bernard Baruch did say something similar: “You have a right to your own opinion, but you do not have the right to be wrong in your facts.”