Monday, April 17, 2017

Politics and theory

In The New York Times, Casey Williams, a graduate student in English, writes about “theory” and Donald Trump:

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.
I’m not sure that there is much difference between the two versions: if making truth is an exercise in power, then “anything goes” — or anything we say goes — would seem to be an exercise in absolute power. It’s what I call postmodernism with a vengeance.

Williams loses me when he argues not for an insistence on fact but for the continuing usefulness of “critique”:
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward.

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.
Notice how Williams frames the argument: an insistence on fact is turned into mere “blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone.” (With no appeal to values?) And that blind faith, Williams asserts, “has not proven to be a promising way forward.” Not proven how? By whom? By what standards can we agree or disagree about that?

And if I doubt the reality of Donald Trump’s lost “great” America, it’s not because of “critique.” It’s because I’m aware of too many elements in our history — call them facts — that contradict any simple claim to greatness.

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