Saturday, August 4, 2018

Springtime for Snowflakes Two

Springtime for snowflakes, Part Deux

Before I continue talking about Michael Rectenwald’s Springtime for Snowflakes, I want to lay out what postmodernism is. While Rectenwald does a good job of tracing out this pseudo philosophy (and you can look at Stephen Hicks’s work for an equally fabulous job of taking apart postmodernism starting with Rousseau and the German counter-Enlightenment), let’s take a look at it on a more mundane level.

To do this work, let’s begin with the concept of the metanarrative. A metanarrative is a broad explanation of how the world works. Metanarratives include economics, religion, science, philosophy, and, to some degree, politics. Quite simply, the postmodernists don’t believe that any of these metanarratives contain any truth. There is no truth, only perspective, identity, and power. A perspective becomes dominant not because it contains any truth but because its adherents have the power to silence or destroy those proposing alternatives.

While I could talk about Foucault and the other French postmodernists, one of the easiest ways to show a postmodern attack is to look at one of the literary grand-daddies of postmodernism in the United States. Long before Quentin Tarantino gave us Pulp Fiction, Joseph Heller launched a scathing attack against metanarratives in Catch-22.

If you will recall, Heller creates an absurd world in which the bombardier Yossarian is trying to stay alive when everybody’s trying to kill him. Is he paranoid?  Not really. The Germans are shooting at him. And his own officers, Colonels Korn and Cathcart, are in fact constantly increasing the number of missions Yossarian has to fly. Thus, given the high death rates of American aircrews in World War II, the good colonels are effectively sentencing Yossarian to death.

In this very funny and very dark novel, Heller takes down all of the metanarratives. Religion—in the person of Chaplain Tapman—is completely ineffective. Politics is corrupt. The Action Board finds Clevenger guilty of anything it wants to find him guilty of. Science serves only to create killing machines such as machine guns and bombers. Medicine is totally corrupt. Doc Daneka cares ultimately only about making money. And, finally, the science of economics is, dare I say it, bankrupt. Milo Minderbinder starts a worldwide syndicate and even contracts with the Germans to bomb his own airfield because, as Milo argues, at least the Germans pay their bills on time.

Except for individual perspectives and agendas, there’s no truth in Catch-22.

Or is there?

Well, while Heller relentlessly attacks the metanarratives of our time, he does drop his clown mask for just one line in the entire novel. Yossarian argues that the war is already won. If that’s the case, he’s done his part, and why should he die for a done deal? Another character, Major Danby, is sympathetic to Yossarian but does say that World War II isn’t World War I (a bunch of imperialist countries slugging it out) and that if the Germans did win, they would make lampshades out of both Danby and Yossarian.

This moment of truth, and it is truth, might not seem significant, but in it Heller is being honest: there was a difference between the Americans and the Germans. The Americans didn’t commit genocide. By being honest, Heller for a moment drops his postmodern conceit and admits that there is truth. Genocide is morally wrong no matter how much power you have.

 And therein lies the problem with postmodernism, the central problem: if there is no truth, then there is no objective standard of right and wrong. And, ultimately, everything, as both Dostoyevsky and Albert Camus realized, is permitted. The path of postmodern thought leads to killing fields and death camps.

In postmodernism, all standards of respect for the individual are provisional and can shift with the needs of those in power and perhaps even with one’s own feelings.

This lack of right and wrong is the problem with postmodernism and its step child, Social Justice Warrior culture. As Rectenwald notes, Antifa takes the law into its own hands. Silence people? Why not? Burn them out? Why not? Beat them with pipes? Why not? 

In Antifa’s world, if you disagree with someone and think they’re vile, then they have no rights and deserve whatever you decide they deserve.

This is very, very dangerous territory.

On a more mundane level, transgenderism argues that there’s no biological truth. Our bodies simply get in the way of who we really are. My Ph.D. is from the University of Minnesota, where the Center for Sexual Health, under the direction of Eli Coleman, has been a factory promoting transgender studies. It’s ironic that in an age in which people are turned down for kidney transplants by their insurance companies, sexual reassignment surgery and hormone treatments are now routinely covered.  There seems to my mind to be something very wrong here.

Oops, I said “wrong.” How traditional and bad of me.

Rectenwald, who has drawn massive fire from NYU Liberal Studies professors, has done us all a service in critiquing postmodernism and SJW culture.

One of the few things I find curious about Rectenwald’s book and his disavowal of postmodernism is not the disavowal, but the fact that it took him a while to come to this point. He seemed to be genuinely intrigued by parts of postmodernism in graduate school.

I think that there a couple of reasons why this is the case. Part of this issue stems from Rectenwald’s background and approach to graduate school. In Springtime, Rectenwald says that he never had any real political activist experience. Most of my classmates in graduate school were similar. At the age of 18, right after high school, I worked as a door-to-door fundraiser for Pennsylvania Public Interest Coalition. I asked people for money. I solicited voter registrations. I canvassed on issues ranging from the bottle bill to Pennsylvania utility reform. During college, I also canvassed for Nader’s Raiders (the PIRGs) and Greenpeace. In graduate school, I did a little bit of fundraising for Cleanwater Action and even, on the phones, for Michael Harrington’s group, Democratic Socialists of America.

Thus, from the beginning of graduate school, I recognized that there was a huge difference between real political action (which involves outreach, lobbying, and money) and the Frankfurt School and postmodern glop that I was served up in my Ph.D. program. While I found the writings of a few Frankfurt School thinkers (Adorno, for example) interesting, they weren’t really that important to me. I think Marcuse did serve up a pretty good critique of society in One Dimensional Man, but beyond that, I was never really seduced by theory. I could speak it and did in seminar papers and articles. But I saw theory as just a technical language I had to learn to speak if I wanted publication. I went to graduate school because I liked literature and a few critical writers, such as Paul Fussell. So many of my classmates seemed to have wanted graduate school to give them a way of looking at the world. I already had that. I wasn’t looking for anything else. Rectenwald might have been. If so, he got far more than he bargained on.

I never saw theory as really connected to American politics. And I’ve known a fair number of people who have either run or worked for the Democratic Party. Most of these people really are concerned with getting concrete legislation passed. With none of these people-- including a woman who tried to take Allan Grayson’s seat in Florida two years ago—did I ever talk about Foucault. With Millennials who have been through graduate programs in the humanities and soft social sciences starting to run for office, there probably is more of an awareness of critical theory.

When I was in graduate school, I served as a paid mentor for six first-year graduate students. In our first meeting, I said, “Welcome to English, where bad ideas come to die.” When one of my charges asked me what I meant, I said, can you think of another discipline in which Freud and Marx are taken  seriously? Psychology abandoned Freud decades ago. And most economists don’t take Marx at all seriously. But welcome to the humanities, where really bad ideas really are taken seriously.

In showing us that postmodernism and social justice warrior culture are absurd at best and dangerous at worst, Rectenwald has told the truth. And in this postmodern age, that truth telling is more important than ever.