I WANNA BE SEDATED
We Wish We'd Slept Through Yesterday
We’ll start today with a little personal anecdote. Twelve years ago today, I (Steve) was in a coma. Seriously. I had had open-heart surgery the day before (to repair a congenital valve issue) and, after an unpleasant reaction to anesthesia, I spent the next four days or so unconscious. And how, exactly, do I remember that my surgery was twelve years ago yesterday? Because I planned it that way. I figured that I had to have the surgery that week and that if I had in on the 20th (that’s January 20, 2009, for those of you scoring at home), I would not have to watch or read or write about the events of the day, historic though they may have been.
To clarify: it wasn’t really the events of the day that bothered me so much. They actually fascinated me, as they did most Americans, I suppose. What I did not want to deal with was the media sycophancy, the partisan gloating, the expressions of religious fervor over a political event, and, most especially, the ridiculous and tiresome historical ignorance and inaccuracies repeated endlessly and mindlessly as fact.
For most of the last twelve years, I’ve considered my scheduling choice rather petty and juvenile. It’s just politics, after all.
But then came yesterday, and I remembered exactly why I picked that date and began to wonder if there wasn’t something I could do to put myself back in a coma – “accidentally,” of course. I mean…I know Chris Wallace is his father’s son and all, but the best inaugural speech he’s ever seen, including Kennedy’s and both of Reagan’s? Seriously? Does Fox do temperature checks on its employees? Cuz one of them might be suffering from fever-induced delirium.
I know good and well that if anyone other than you people – friends and allies – read the following, I’d be pilloried for “bothsiderism,” which is a stupid concept invented by people who don’t want to be called to account for their thoughts, actions, and hypocrisy because somebody of the other party did something bad more recently than somebody from their party did the same thing. But since it’s just us here, and since I don’t really care anyway, I’m going to vent a bit about one of the most tedious and politically destructive themes that have dominated the post-election period and that has been on display in a dreadfully stupid way over the past couple of weeks: the idea that Republicans occupy a “post-truth” world, and that it is their flight from reality that distinguishes them from the Democrats and has caused the nation (and the world) so much trouble and pain.
Now, there is no question that much of this does, indeed, accurately describe many Republicans and especially the diehard devotees of Trump’s. They believe things that are manifestly untrue and which couldn’t be true under any circumstances. They are in denial about objective reality, and they are, as a result, a threat to themselves and others – politically, at least. All of this and more is inarguably true.
But so what? That is maybe…10% of the whole story. Maybe even less. Moreover, it’s not exactly their fault. And it’s not exactly Donald Trump’s fault either.
Consider, for a minute, the following, written by Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at The Financial Times. Much of it is inarguably true, but then, it too is maybe…10% of the whole story. Maybe even less.
In March 2016, before Mr Trump had even won the GOP nomination, I argued he was a grave threat. It was evident he lacked any of the qualities required in the leader of a great republic. But, it turned out, he had the redeeming flaw of gross incompetence.
How would you respond if told the following story about a democracy: the “big lie” about the rigged election that the incumbent clearly lost; the partisan media that spread this lie; the voters who believed it; the assault on the legislature by an insurrectionist mob; and the legislators who claimed that the election must be halted in response to doubt these lies had created? You would conclude that it was in mortal danger.
As Yale’s Timothy Snyder asserts: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president.” If truth is subjective, force must decide. There can then be no true democracy, only gangs of rival thugs or the boss’s dominant gang….
The Republican party is rotten through with sedition. As soon as I write this, I know people will start complaining about the violence and socialists on the left. But absolutely no equivalent to Mr Trump is to be found among leading Democrats. Those pre-fascists are on the right.
We have come to a hinge moment in history. The US is the world’s most powerful and influential democratic republic. For all its mistakes and flaws, it was the global model and protector of democratic values. Under Mr Trump, this vanished. He was a consistent opponent of the values and aspirations embodied in a republican ideal.
Mr Trump failed. Moreover, after his attempted coup, nobody can deny his threat was real. But this is not enough. If US politics unfolds as seems likely, there will be more Trumps. One of them, more competent and ruthless, may succeed. If that is to be prevented, US politics must now shift to respect for truth and an inclusive version of patriotism.
My instinct reaction upon reading this was much the same as Cameron’s reaction to Principal Rooney when he, pretending to be Sloane’s father, called Rooney to have his “daughter” excused for her grandmother’s funeral. Upon further reflection, however, it occurred to me that Wolf’s take on what is happening in American politics is not just wrong but embarrassingly so. I’ll admit that, unlike Wolf, I’m not a Commander of the British Empire, but at least I know that the world did not begin in 2016. Wolf, apparently, does not. He writes that “Mr Trump is not himself the disease, but a symptom.” He’s right, of course, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue what the disease might actually be, how it developed, or who was responsible for spreading it throughout the Western world.
Longtime readers will note that Mark and I spent most of the last decade explaining and ridiculing the postmodern worldview. I’ll spare you a long recitation on postmodernism today – largely because this is going to run long anyway – but anyone interested in reading my (very) long breakdown of Barack Obama’s postmodern roots, written during his reelection campaign of 2012 and titled “A Very Brady Presidency,” can email me. I’ll send you a copy.
In the meantime, I want to quote a few passages from my new book, dealing with the two other primary anti-realist worldviews, critical theory and philosophical pragmatism, which not only form the foundation for the Left’s attack on American business but are also relevant in this case.
Following Lukács’s lead, the Frankfurt School was explicitly antipositivist, which is to say that it rejected Hume’s Newtonian approach to social phenomena, Marx’s “scientific socialism,” Comte’s positivism, and the American Progressives’ scientism. Instead, the Frankfurt “critical theorists” harkened back directly to Rousseau and to his belief that man, in the state of nature, is perfect. Perhaps the most famous line Rousseau ever wrote was the first line in the first chapter of The Social Contract: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” This, then, is the rub. Man is free in nature but is chained by society, which is an artificial construct that suppresses his true nature, oppresses him, and keeps him from achieving that to which he is entitled.
To explain why the European workers did not revolt, why the very idea of revolutions seemed to them to be unwise, Horkheimer and his colleague Theodor Adorno took Lukács’s antipositivism one step further, digging down deep into the idea of men—workers, the bourgeoisie, the moneyed class, whoever—as actors in and on society, not just the passive victims of Marx’s historical trends. To do so, they incorporated the works and theories of psychoanalysis into their interpretations of history, economics, and mankind. Specifically, they looked to Freud.
In his classic tome Modern Times, the great British historian Paul Johnson argues that the three horsemen of the modern apocalypse all affected the modern world deeply and profoundly. “Marx, Freud, and Einstein,” Johnson wrote, “all conveyed the same message to the 1920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man’s behavior in society were not to be trusted.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School turned to Freud. Freud and psychoanalysis could help explain how and why the workers of the world refused to unite. And as luck would have it, Freud had already done much of their work for them, creating a worldview that explained man’s cultural and psychological dissociation from his real nature and his true interests. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents argued that civilization is a false reality, an artificially constructed edifice designed to suppress the id. To the critical theorists, capitalism was the creator of this false reality, this false consciousness, which robbed man of his creativity and spontaneity, providing him a veneer of “comfort” in their stead. Therefore, if man was ever to be truly happy, ever able to be what nature intended him to be, he would first have to shed the false consciousness of capitalism’s self-interested civilization.
Or to put it another way, the Frankfurt School and its critical theorists integrated Freud’s social psychology with Rousseau’s state of nature fetishization, Gramsci’s aggressive anti-Christianity, and Lukács’s detestation of social and sexual mores to fashion the “Cultural Marxism” that would become the dominant ideology of the New Left in America and, by extension, of the entire American system of higher education….
By conquering the American university the Critical Theorists, and especially Marcuse, managed to do precisely what Gramsci and Lukács had suggested needed doing a half-century earlier. They stripped away the veneer of false consciousness—or, more accurately, they stripped away the consciousness that had existed previously, replacing it with their own consciousness, one rooted in skepticism and alienation, which would become the overarching themes in higher education and every single endeavor subsequently undertaken by those who passed through the American system of higher education from the 1970s on. Thomas Wheaton, in the conclusion of his Frankfurt School in Exile, argues that “‘The long march through the institutions’ which Rudi Dutschke and Herbert Marcuse envisioned, was accomplished, but, surprisingly, it was by invitation.”
In general, philosophical pragmatism has the same roots as colloquial pragmatism, that is to say that it is about practicality and results. Ideology is unimportant, even damaging, and the only thing that matters is arriving at the best possible outcome. Pragmatism insists that knowledge is fallible, that experience is incredibly useful, and that absolutism is the enemy of understanding.
Sounds nice, yes?
Well . . . no. Pragmatism is also a cliché-riddled mess, as Jonah Goldberg spent an entire book documenting. Pragmatism is also the rejection of absolute truth; the dismissal of any sort of overarching metaphysical structure, including religion; and the denial of the distinction between ends and means. All that matters is results….
Although William James and Charles Sanders Pierce are generally credited with developing the idea, the American thinker most generally associated with pragmatism is John Dewey….
Dewey considered himself neither a Marxist nor a Socialist of any sort. And yet he—in conjunction with his tireless promoter Sidney Hook—probably did more to inculcate Americans with post-Enlightenment leftism than any other person. Like Mill and Kant and Hume and the rest who came before him, Dewey disdained the idea of an existing body of acquired human social and moral knowledge that could and should be passed down from generation to generation in the form of custom and tradition. He believed that knowledge was not something that could be learned but something every individual student had to discover for himself. Dewey was dogmatic about this. He denigrated the traditional practice of focusing on teaching such subjects as reading, writing, mathematics, and history, and promoted the teaching of social and “thinking” skills instead. This, he thought, would be the salvation of mankind, learning to think without preconceptions.
Dewey was obsessed with the idea of “critical thinking,” or, as he preferred to call it, “reflective thinking.” The key to Dewey’s pragmatism was the belief in the idea that man should not be taught knowledge, but, rather, should be taught how to attain knowledge on his own. “There will be almost a revolution in school education,” he wrote, “when study and learning are treated not as acquisition of what others know but as development of capital to be invested in eager alertness in observing and judging the conditions under which one lives.”
Dewey’s fixation on reflective thinking is significant in this context for two reasons. First, as noted above, Dewey’s pragmatism hinged on the notion that the existing social and moral structure was an inadequate guide to making decisions, moral decisions chief among them. The pragmatist, he believed, must discard all the knowledge and tradition of his forefathers and discover it anew, on his own and without the conditions imposed by large ideological and moral structures.
Second, while critical thinking and Critical Theory are not necessarily related, they both sprang from a common ancestor, that which the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and which the aforementioned American intellectual Roger Kimball called “the hermeneutics of contempt.” The American literary theorist Rita Felski described the hermeneutics of suspicion as a “common spirit that pervades the writings of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.” Despite their obvious differences, Felski argued, these thinkers jointly constitute a “school of suspicion.” That is to say, they share a commitment to unmasking “the lies and illusions of consciousness; they are the architects of a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths.”
This clearly describes both the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School and the critical thinkers of the Deweyan pragmatist school. And the end result of both schools, unrelated though their techniques may be, is that which Kimball noted “is not criticism but what one wit called ‘criticismism’: the ‘ism’ or ideology of being critical.”
The relevance here should be clear. For nearly an entire century now, American students have been encouraged to see themselves as the linchpin in the accumulation of knowledge. They have been taught to treat everything they absorb with disdain and to believe that their own “truth,” their own solutions, are superior to anything that anyone else may tell them. They have been encouraged to favor antagonism and deconstruction over constructive engagement, to view everything they see, read, and come into contact with critically. American students are taught—specifically and intentionally—to look for flaws and inconsistencies and to tear down rather than build up. In short, because of the “pragmatist” interpretation of “critical thinking,” all Americans are taught to be critical of everything and to presume that every existing bit of information they see is wrong, biased, or prejudiced.
Martin Wolf argues that liberal democracy in America is in grave danger, that even though “the US republic has survived the test of Trump,” the threat continues and has the potential to destroy the republic altogether. He’s right. But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that that was the plan all along, to undermine liberal capitalist democracy by convincing everyone everywhere that they could and SHOULD have their own version of reality. THAT’S the disease Wolf can’t quite identify. THAT’S the virus that was incubated 100 years ago in Frankfurt, Turi, and Vienna, and 150 years ago in Baltimore.
Over the next few months and years, the smart folks who abhor populism are going to expend a great deal of energy and resources trying to figure out what’s wrong with the Republican Party. We can save them the trouble: it’s filled with Americans.
And Americans have been programmed their entire lives to believe that everything is a grand conspiracy on the part of the cultural hegemons to subjugate objective reality and thus to disguise and hide the people’s real interests. This isn’t about a set of delusions that have taken over the minds of the adherents of a specific political ideology. If it were, it could be fixed fairly easily. But it won’t be easy, because this is about an entire society that has lost its damned mind. Precisely as was intended.
The simple truth of the matter is that Joe Biden can’t restore truth-telling and reality-based governance to the country – as so many of his fans insisted yesterday. Donald Trump may have been a symptom of this American disease, but so was Barack Obama before him and so, now, is Joe Biden after him. And as long as folks like Martin Wolf continue to believe that this is a problem that derives exclusively from Republicans’ embrace of pre-fascism, then the disease will not merely remain uncured, it will grow much, much worse.