Tuesday, April 18, 2017

If anything goes ... trump comes in then

A few years ago, ok, decades ago, I was at a seminar talk that was highly critical of the empirical approach to understanding the human condition.  I sympathize a lot with that crowd, yes.  I detest, for instance, how the GDP has come to signify the be all and end all of everything that we are.  Why do I get unhappy with this elevation of the GDP to some near godly status?  For a number of reasons.  The easiest that I can point to even without explaining at length is how the GDP does not account for the destruction of the natural environment.

So, yes, I have lots of problems with this stupid empirical approach that simultaneously takes a condescending view towards the gazillion things that have not been quantified nor can they be really quantified.  However, I have always had problems with intellectuals equating this empiricism mania with the scientific method itself.  The scientific method that is driven by logic and evidence.

Thus, I worried about the postmodernism that I was learning about in graduate school.  It challenged the very notion of "truth" and it easily slid into a common denominator of anything goes.  Challenging authority is one thing, which I always support.  But, to question the legitimacy of the truth that was being pursued?  If anything goes, then where is truth and where is the untruth?

Which brings us to trump:
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.
For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.
I know, I know ... every post somehow seems to be about trump.  Of course, that is what happens when the authoritarian looms large.  Which is why scientists and poets alike in the old Soviet Union were haunted by the oppressors in everything they did every day.  It sucks being in such a system!

Anyway, back to trump and postmodernism:
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.
The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
For people like me, who never got along with the postmodernist crowd nor with the fucking trump mob, we are now caught between the devil and the deep blue sea!

If you think that by now the critical theorists and their students have learnt a bitter lesson of reality, hmmm, think again.  A coalition of students at Pomona College (an expensive liberal arts college in Southern California) signed off on a statement against bringing ultra-conservative and right-leaning libertarian speakers to campus.  And they note in their statement:
Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of 'subjectivity vs. objectivity' as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth--'the Truth'--is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.
The pursuit of truth of an attempt to silence oppressed peoples?  No wonder trump wins with his "plain speaking" that has absolutely no relation to truth!

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