The Postmodern Presidency

whitehousePresident Obama is our first postmodern president, and his first year in office has been a test case for several key tenets of his politicized brand of postmodernism.

The primary tenet of postmodernism is that people cannot know truth objectively. Rather, what we think of as truth is a social construct, that is, it is determined by what society thinks is reality. Truth is also subjective: what is “true” for us may not be true for anyone else. Language also has no connection to objective reality, but plays a critical role in shaping how we think about the world. The implication of these assumptions is that if you want to change society—and thus change “reality”—you must control language. For example, if we stop people from using racial epithets, we change what they can think about race and thus change racial attitudes.

A second tenet of President Obama’s politicized postmodernism is that society is built around disparities of power, and therefore the only useful way of understanding culture is through politics: who has power and who doesn’t. Power is a zero sum game. Those with power can only get it through taking it from others, dividing society between the oppressors and the oppressed. And in another zero sum game, the oppressors are corrupt (postmodernists don’t use the word “evil”), and thus the oppressed are virtuous. Since everything is ultimately political, the only solution to social problems is the state, which oddly enough is not seen as intrinsically corrupt despite its monopoly on power; the state is corrupt only when it is in the hands of “special interests,” that is, those who do not agree with the postmodernist agenda.

A third tenet of politicized postmodernism builds on the second. Western civilization has been the dominant force on the planet militarily, economically and culturally; since power is a zero sum game, the West could only have achieved this position by oppressing other countries, and thus Western society is corrupt and non-Western cultures virtuous. Similarly capitalism is also corrupt: in another zero sum game, the rich must get wealthy on the backs of the poor. Non-capitalist systems are therefore virtuous.

There is a grain of truth in these ideas. Western civilization has hardly been a sterling example of virtue in many ways. But the unasked question is, “compared to what?” None of the problems of the Western world are unique to the West; every other civilization has greed, discrimination, slavery, war, human rights abuses, sexism, and so on.

Conversely, only the West gave us universal human rights, abolished slavery, restored dignity to work, harnessed technology to make life easier for common laborers, developed modern science, set up schools and hospitals around the world, recognized and fixed environmental problems, among other things.

Similarly, capitalism has winners and losers and problems with corruption, but so has every other economic system. And more than any other system, capitalism has increased production, improved quality, lifted people out of poverty, raised standards of living, and improved working conditions. A balanced view would recognize the successes and failures of both Western and non-Western systems.

Postmodern truths
The primary tenet of postmodernism is also correct up to a point: society determines to a large extent how we think—in other words, it shapes our worldview. That worldview may or may not align very closely with how the world really works, but it will frame what we see as “reality.”

Some elements of the postmodernist philosophy of language also are undoubtedly correct, though not to the extreme that they have been taken. Language does influence culture, and to some extent you can shape what is considered acceptable by enforcing linguistic taboos. That is precisely what makes the ideas so believable and compelling. It also makes the application of these ideas Orwellian: it amounts to an attempt at thought control through language.

Further, there is little evidence that it works. Has eliminating the “n” word from American English eliminated racism?

Our postmodern president
What does all this have to do with President Obama? These ideas have shaped his approach to politics and his agenda from the campaign trail to the present. To take the most obvious examples, the President’s speeches in visits to other countries have leaned heavily toward apologizing for America’s wrongdoings while generally de-emphasizing the positive things the country has done. He snubs traditional (Western) allies—on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit to the US, President Obama gave him gifts more suited to a teenager than a head of state, and he even turned down an invitation from German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to attend the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the grounds that he was too busy—yet he regularly praises other (non-Western) countries and cultures, even bowing to their leaders in violation of diplomatic protocol.

The list can be continued, but all of this suggests a fundamental orientation away from the Western world, an explicit rejection of American Exceptionalism, and an unprecedented deference for countries outside the traditional Western orbit in keeping with postmodern values.

Beyond these foreign policy issues, the President seems to believe that he can remake reality with his words. His soaring rhetoric on the campaign trail certainly changed the reality of American politics and not only catapulted him into the White House but secured huge majorities in the House and Senate. “Yes we can” became a self-fulfilling prophecy at the ballot box.

Once in the White House, President Obama gave a record number of speeches. Some people see this as transparency, others as narcissism. It is actually an outgrowth of his worldview—if you control the discourse, you control reality.

Thus in his first State of the Union speech, he said that the reason the public opposed health care reform is that he did not explain it adequately to the American people. And that despite his ubiquitous presence in the media.

To some extent, the basic premise makes sense: if you convince people that the economy is getting better, for example, consumer confidence increases and economic activity picks up. That is why President Obama regularly cites undocumented numbers of jobs “created or saved,” even though some of the jobs “saved” were actually pay raises, and some of the jobs “created” didn’t exist. He is banking on the idea that perception is reality: control the discourse, create the results.

But the question is whether people believe him more than the unemployment numbers. If they do not believe him, he loses his ability to shape reality by language. So the solution is to blame President Bush—“things may look bad now, but the problem I inherited was so bad they’d be a lot worse if I didn’t do what I did”—and thus attempt to preserve his own credibility despite the evident lack of success of his programs.

The recent healthcare summit is a prime example of President Obama’s attempts to change political reality by controlling discourse. Despite the preponderance of time given to the Democrats, however, the Republicans managed to hold their own, much to the President’s evident annoyance. When he couldn’t get agreement he resorted to delivering an ultimatum to the Republicans either to “compromise” (meaning give up their fundamental beliefs and adopt his program) or the Democrats would proceed without them. In view of his inability to control the discourse, this naked assertion of power makes sense, given the assumptions that the fundamental reality in society is disparities of power and that governmental power is good when used for the right causes.

President Obama’s faith in the power of his words to remake reality is nowhere more evident or more dangerous than in his foreign policy initiatives, particularly with respect to Iran. Candidate Obama’s offer to meet with Iran without any preconditions and his later charm offensive aimed at the Muslim world seem designed to create a new reality in the Middle East on the strength of his rhetoric, charisma, and personal story.

Unfortunately, his words have not had the desired effect. His diplomatic overtures have been no more successful than the more hard line approach taken by President Bush. The situation in the Middle East is if anything getting worse, with Iran ever closer to developing nuclear weapons and joining Syria in predicting the immanent demise of Israel.

President Obama is thus facing the limitations of his words to create new political realities, both at home and abroad. His many speeches have not changed the political landscape in America, and his apologies for American misbehavior and his conciliation of, for example, Russia at the expense of our Polish and Czech allies have not produced any tangible results. They have also contributed to a perception in many parts of the world of American decline.

The President’s dilemma is that postmodernism fails when it collides with the real world. The question is, whether he will give up that worldview and move toward more pragmatic political positions, or hang onto the worldview as reality runs it over and crushes it.

Of the two, the latter seems more likely.

For more insight to this topic, get the book
Postmodern Times, by Gene Edward Veith, at our online bookstore. Or read the article, “A Clan of One’s Own,” by Charles Colson.


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