Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.

We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.

.. Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it.
Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality.
.. By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable.
.. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university.
.. Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
.. Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
.. it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened.
.. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
.. It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism
.. figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
.. because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
.. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” 
.. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
.. Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.

.. Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.

.. it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes.
Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.

Krista Tippet: The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

she says, if you can’t have that inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others either because it’s part of — if you’re already divided in yourself because you’re having this conversation with yourself, and that’s the passion of your being, people who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called “the banality of evil” was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.

.. And one of the first things she pointed out is that what was exposed by the refugee crisis of the last century was how so-called human rights were actually political and national rights. So you were only — you only had as many rights as were guarded by the country in which you happened to be born.

Once that country decided to decitizenize you, once it decided that you were no longer a citizen, once it decided that it had no more responsibilities towards you, you were rightless. She said very famously, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

MS. TIPPETT: And that is where we are, and it’s interesting — interesting in a terrible way — I think that with globalization, which is not necessarily a word she would have used or predicted — but with globalization, there was this assumption, which actually didn’t rest on a very sophisticated examination of the human condition — but there was this assumption that we would just grow out of that, right?

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: But what she understood, because she was looking at the human condition, and taking that seriously, is that, as you say, that “dark background,” that this would become a crisis again.

.. But she says globalization is about the accumulation of capital. It’s expansion for expansion’s sake. It will not produce more equality. It will produce more inequality, hence the background of difference. So trying to work for a worldliness that’s genuinely worldly, as against a worldliness, which is actually about accumulation and expansion for expansion’s sake, which will increase the divides between people.

 

.. here’s her essay “Lying in Politics.” She says that “factual truths,” here’s that. “Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life. It is always in danger of being perforated by single lies, or torn to shreds. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy domain of human affairs. From this it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” Take us inside that and what that means for us now.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: For Arendt, I think why the idea of thinking and speaking as a form of action are important to her is that what she’s saying there is, you can throw enough facts, you can throw all the facts you like at people, and they will not stick. We had this, in the U.K., and I know you have, too, that it’s — “OK, against the false news we’ll have fact-finding, and we’ll tell you.

And we’ll have a team of researchers, and you just have to look on our website, and we’ll tell you which of those are lies.” And you can scream facts at people until you’re blue in the face, and a lot of colleagues and universities and journalists have been doing exactly that very hard, working tirelessly. And it’s not making any difference. And I think what she’s talking about there is the ability through thinking and communal discourse, to make truth meaningful in the world, it has to happen between people. Which is not saying we just make up our own reality. She’s not saying that. It means that this is why…

MS. TIPPETT: When she says testimony, it needs…

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Testimony.

MS. TIPPETT: It needs experience. It needs human experience around it.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah. And so I think she — that was why testimony was important to her. It’s why history and the sense of a myth were all important to her because it’s what makes truth meaningful to people together in a community. If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories.

By Separating Families at the Border, the Trump Administration Enforces the “Rule by Nobody”

  • Donald Trump said that the Democrats made him do it.
  • Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, said it was the Bible.
  • Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, said it was the law.

They all said it wasn’t them. In their unified defense of the policy of separating children from their families at the border, Administration officials have adopted a technique of deflection that renders victims and critics powerless: they have depersonalized the violence.

.. This is how violence works in the world’s most cruel and terrifying societies. The victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, mass incarceration, man-made famines, and other disasters that humans intentionally visit on the “other” are always anonymous. The perpetrators portray their victims as a mass—the “animals” of Trump’s imagination, or the enemies and criminals that Sessions and Nielsen conjure up when they talk about asylum seekers

.. it’s not only the victims who are anonymous—it is also the perpetrators.

.. when Nielsen claims, in effect, to be just following orders, the nation’s top officials are not merely lying; they are de-personifying the perpetrators. They are not merely refusing to be held accountable but are saying that no one will account for the violence.

.. Vladimir Putin, has perfected it over the years. He has denied knowledge of arrests, trials, or even people of whom he was doubtless aware. He has shrugged his shoulders and spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness while claiming that the Russian judiciary is independent from the executive branch

.. Writing about the relationship between violence and bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt said, “In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted.” She called bureaucracy the “rule by Nobody.”

.. What may be new, however, is a Presidency that explicitly cedes authority to that bureaucracy. Faced with widespread criticism of the family separations, the Administration is not exactly doubling down in defense of it. It is not trying to bring voters, journalists, or politicians around to supporting its policies.

.. one can observe “if not shame, then at least chagrin.” But I don’t think it’s chagrin that’s causing officials to shift the responsibility onto anonymous others.

.. The kind of state that Trump would like to run—and apparently the kind of state of which Sessions would like to be Attorney General and Kirstjen Nielsen would like to be Secretary of Homeland Security—is one that can subject its enemies to what Arendt called “administrative massacres.”

.. The logic of such a state demands an all-powerful bureaucratic machine; it demands the terrifying spectre of the rule by Nobody. So they are retrofitting the United States with such a bureaucracy—cruel, senseless, and accountable to no one.

 

Fifty Shades of Orange

 In a performance that would have embarrassed the most obsequious lackey of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss, who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due.

“I want to thank you, Mr. President,” Pence said. “I want to thank you for speaking on behalf of and fighting every day for the forgotten men and women of America. Because of your determination, because of your leadership, the forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more. And we are making America great again.” The president thanked him for his kind words, and Pence replied, “Thank you, Mr. President, and God bless you.”

.. Trump and establishment Republicans adopt one another’s worst qualities. Trump, who campaigned as a putative economic populist — even calling for higher taxes on the rich — will soon sign into law the tax plan of the House speaker Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian dreams. The majority of elected Republicans, in turn, are assuming a posture of slavish submission to Trump, worshiping their dear leader and collaborating in the maintenance of his alternative reality.

.. From a secular perspective, Pence, like many other Republicans, appears to be a person inclined to authoritarianism.

.. Erich Fromm, a German-Jewish psychoanalyst who fled Nazism, described authoritarian personalities as simultaneously craving power and submission. “The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom; he loves being submitted to fate,” he wrote. Fate, in his formulation, can be the laws of the market, the will of God, or the whims of a leader. According to Fromm, authoritarians might make a show of valuing freedom and independence — watchwords of the American right — but long to be ruled by a stronger force.

.. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, spoke of his “love” for the president, who he described as “one heck of a leader.” He added, “We’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen not only in generations, but maybe ever.”

.. Either Hatch really believes this, or he believes in the utility of unabashed sycophancy. Neither possibility suggests he will be an ally in preserving democracy.

.. participating in the ludicrous fiction that there was a pro-Hillary Clinton conspiracy afoot in the F.B.I., an entity led by a succession of Republicans and described by one agent during the election as “Trumpland.”

.. If Republicans were as loyal to the country as they are to the president, they’d want to know exactly what had Strzok so alarmed.

.. It is, as they say, not normal for erstwhile law-and-order Republicans to attack the F.B.I. for being overzealous in its pursuit of Russian subversion.

.. Nunes’s inquiry appears similar to Trump’s voter fraud commission

.. Hannah Arendt once wrote of this sort of policy-as-disinformation: “Totalitarianism will not be satisfied to assert, in the face of contrary facts, that unemployment does not exist; it will abolish unemployment benefits as part of its propaganda.”

.. a lot of us have assumed that Republicans are putting up with Trump out of fear of their base or lust for tax cuts. We’ve imagined that beneath our mutual partisan loathing lies some remaining shared commitment to liberal democracy.

.. But there’s another possibility, which is that a critical mass of Republicans like being in thrall to a man who seems strong enough to will his own reality, and bold enough to voice their atavistic hatreds. Maybe Trump is changing Republicans, or maybe he’s just giving men like Pence permission to be who they already were.

If This Is America

recall perhaps the words of Hannah Arendt, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist”

.. you know where militarism and nationalism and disdain for intellectuals and artists, and the cultivation of enemies and scapegoats, and contempt for a free press can lead

.. It must be itself, a certain idea of liberty and democracy and openness, or it is nothing, just a squalid, oversized, greedy place past the zenith of its greatness.

Welcome to the post-truth presidency

Oxford Dictionaries last month selected post-truth — “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” — as the international word of the year,

.. Hannah Arendt, writing in 1967, presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon: “Since the liar is free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations, of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth teller.”

.. Corey Lewandowski at Harvard University, making the astonishing assertion that the media’s failing during the campaign was not that it scorned Trump — it was that it believed him.

“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” he said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people . . . you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

.. Trump said, he saw the Carrier worker say “‘No, we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving,’ and I never thought I made that promise. Not with Carrier.”

.. Then, Trump said, “they played my statement, and I said, ‘Carrier will never leave.’ But that was a euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in.”

This was a telling moment, and not just because Trump doesn’t quite understand what euphemism means. The episode simultaneously shows Trump, confronted with Trump on tape, willing to recognize reality and Trump telling us straightforwardly that his promises are not to be taken seriously. They are truthphemisms.

..“If you tell the same story five times it’s true,” said White House press secretary Larry Speakes.