Conservative postmodernism

I was struck while reading Travels in Hyperreality a few months ago by the realization that the conservatives had appropriated the techniques of the Academic Left such as postmodernism and deconstructionism, and put them into the service of the conservative movement. I find this supremely ironic, given the utter disdain with which conservatives view postmodernism, a disdain which is almost required since the relativism inherent in postmodernism takes away the moral hierarchy which defines much of conservatism, the Christian God over Man over Woman over Child, that Lakoff details in Moral Politics.

So what do I mean when I say that the conservatives are using these techniques which are anathema to them? Let’s start by analyzing the parts of postmodernism that I find relevant to the discussion. I spent some time this evening reading the Wikipedia entries on Postmodernism and Deconstruction that I linked to above. One of the core ideas of postmodernism is that the text is not final in and of itself. The text is just a series of markings on paper. What the text means is a cooperative construction between the reader, the text, the author, and the environment in which they all interact. Therefore, as Eco points out, “The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.” You don’t have to control the media if you control the viewpoint of the reader.

The relevance to the conservative movement should be obvious. The conservatives have decried the power of the “liberal media” for so long that it has become a staple of their discourse. To fight this power, they needed to attack somewhere else along the communication chain. They attacked the context. By planting the idea of a liberal media in the minds of their believers, they have systematically undermined the authority once associated with the media and the news. By giving them a well-defined filter to view the world through, one promulgated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, they have eliminated the need to control the media; the only messages that will penetrate the filter are the ones they want.

It’s even more insidious than that. Because the idea of a liberal bias is so firmly planted, there is no way to convince people in such a context to change their minds. Any counter-arguments that might be made are seen as evidence of the deranged liberal bias they have been told about. There is no such thing as “truth” any more. There is merely one side of an argument, and the other. And you choose your side based not on reason, but on faith. This is a scary development to anyone who believes that there is truth, that there is a reality separate from perception. But it is also a development that follows inexorably from the idea of a context inseparable from meaning. The conservatives just figured out how to leverage the idea first.

To take another example, one of the articles that Wikipedia points to has this criticism of deconstruction:

“Another objection to deconstruction comes from a different perspective on language. According to Wittgenstein, rather than representing a correspondence between propositions and reality (cf. our tenth article), language is a series of games or practices that enable us to achieve whatever goals we have in a situation; thus, as we said earlier, meaning is defined by use. On these terms, deconstructionism is simply beside the point: language adapts to its use and pulling a text apart fails to take account of this.”

“…meaning is defined by use.” This essentially means that language can mean anything you want it to mean. Apparently, Derrida and the other deconstructionists are infamous for using language in a playful, almost meaningless, way to reinforce this point. It’s freeing one up from the literal definition of language, and using words however you want to use them.

This is one of the things that drives people, and especially conservatives, nuts about deconstruction. They are decidedly grounded in the literal. To them, there is no difference between the signifier and the signified, which is why they want to pass an amendment banning the burning of the flag. They believe that burning the flag is the same thing as burning America. And it’s not. It’s a signifier. To play with language, to explore alternative meanings, to construct wild symbolic pastiches, is similarly destabilizing to the conservative world view.

But let’s look at this more closely. “… language is a series of games or practices that enable us to achieve whatever goals we have in a situation.” This is an idea that Frank Luntz, among other conservatives, has taken to heart. Language is a means of achieving a goal. The conservatives have no qualms about twisting the language to mean whatever they want it to mean, as Lakoff points out:

This strategy has been adopted in how the Right talks about the “Clear Skies Act”, which increases pollution and mercury contamination, and the “Healthy Forests Act,” which permits clear cutting and the destruction of forests.

Yet again, the conservatives have taken a tool of the Academic Left, one they mock unrelentingly, and incorporated it as one of their most powerful political weapons.

I find it fascinating. It also points to a fundamental schism in the Left. There’s the Academic Left, the Left of Derrida, Marxists, post-structuralists, etc., where social relativism, postmodernism, and deconstruction rule. Then there’s the Enlightenment Left, the one that believes in reason and truth as our tools to achieve more. And the two are fundamentally incompatible. If there is no truth, no meaning, then reason is just another viewpoint. And the conservatives have zeroed in on this and used it to their political advantage, as the infamous reality-based community article indicates.

As usual, I’m torn. I like many of the ideas associated with postmodernism. I like the idea that context determines meaning. I think that framing is a very powerful tool for changing people’s minds. However, I am also a strong believer in reason. I want to believe that people can analyze situations, and look beyond the framing, to see what’s “really” going on. I want to teach people critical thinking skills so that they’re not susceptible to such techniques. And given that the conservatives have taken our tools and discovered how to use them against us, I think we all need to put our minds to developing defenses against those techniques.

The other question I’d like to toss out there is whether there is any hope of pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of the conservative movement’s use of these tools that they allegedly deplore. I don’t think so, offhand. Hypocrisy is only a relevant motivator among those who can review their viewpoints in the abstract, and it’s unclear to me that a lot of people have that capacity for self-reflection. I’d argue that this lack of self-reflection is more prevalent in the world of conservatives, but I think that’s another post.

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