Postmodern Stress Disorder

It's a strategy that has for the most part gone unpenalized by a media which seems resigned to playing sportscaster when its real duty is referee, having manacled itself with the irrelevance that comes in the service of "balance."
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"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." -- Orwell, 'Politics and the English Language'

Mitt Romney's dominance over the president's inexcusable nap during the first debate was certainly one of conduct, but his win was also reliant on a litany of untruths and whiplashing reversals. He denied that his plan to slash cross-bracket tax rates by 20 percent would indeed be the 4.8 trillion dollar cut which the independent Tax Policy Center calculated based on the former governor's own unwillingness to name closeable expenditures. With many words of little substance, Romney re-morphed into a seeming advocate for government regulation of the financial sector after two years campaigning on the opposite. Perhaps most jarring was the facility with which Romney lied that his health care plan would cover those with pre-existing conditions. Aside from the fact that there has been no specific health care plan to come out of the campaign, such a guarantee is made practically impossible without the broadening of the insurance pool accomplished by the individual mandate provision within the Affordable Care Act, legislation Romney vows to repeal as a first order of business. The following day the campaign corrected their own candidate to admit that, in fact, only those continuously insured would be so protected under the Romney "plan." Of course those who are already insured, are already insured.

Deceit is of course unsurprising to anyone following Republican campaign strategy this year, what with race-laced untruths that a foreign-born, "food stamp" president has done away with welfare work requirements in what time he managed to spare from sympathizing with terrorists on his global apology tour. But this decade has seen Republican political discourse game its way past the zone of "post-truth" politics and into something worse, something more like postmodern politics. It's a strategy that has for the most part gone unpenalized by a media which seems resigned to playing sportscaster when its real duty is referee, having manacled itself with the irrelevance that comes in the service of "balance."

Since I've used the term, I should explain postmodernism as an effort by mostly discardable French Marxists to counter the hegemony of Western culture, and the modern privileging of the scientific method and objective truth. Defining the term too rigorously is difficult and possibly undoable -- a blur for which it has only itself to blame. So here I use the term in reference to postmodern politics, which borrow from academic postmodernism its three most common faults: a startling ability to obscure language and its meaning, a rejection of objective truth, and the delegitimization of established institutions.

Consider the following assault on conceivable reality, committed by the overgrown child who the Republican party considers its intellectual head:

"I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

So Newt Gingrich campaigned on an invented threat from an unspecified other, threatening a logically strained, atheistic nation somehow dominated by Islamists, not because he is stupid per se, but because the allowances of the Republican party are now so postmodern that it doesn't matter whether his statements track with the universe. Gingrich knowingly fused discrepant fears in order to fuel hatred of an allegedly alien president, because he could. Once a party can manufacture and swallow statements like the one above, in course with the likes of death panels, brownshirt analogies, racial dog-whistles, preternatural shapeshifting and crimes against history, it might be fairly accused of having read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a manual instead of a warning. Indeed the party has nearly perfected a language of doublespeak and historical manipulation.

It hasn't been easy fitting into this dress. Traditional Republican deference to authority and the legitimacy of institution does not fit effortlessly under a philosophy that is somewhat anarchic and radically skeptical of institutions in principle. But utility trumped fidelity, and Republicans have, in fact, abandoned a number of moral/political convictions.

Fiscal balance, due process, proscriptions against torture, cautious use of the military and defense against the state's penchant to over-police, are traditionally conservative principles which have surrendered to the Bush tax cuts, careless war-mindedness, the normativity of torture, and the Patriot Act.

In May 2012, House Republicans defeated a bill affirming the Due Process Clause and ending indefinite military detentions without trial with a 219 Republican majority against 189 Democrats supporting. That neither party has well defended American values as they pertain to civil liberties is incontrovertible, and the Obama Administration deserves condemnation for signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (its having issued a waiver abrogating the most egregious Fifth Amendment infringements is small consolation), but the difference is one of scale and severity.

The GOP's delegitimization of governmental institutions is more aggressive than ever. The standing filibuster on the most routine functions of the Senate has fixed the body in a broken state.

In an utterly irrational tantrum which cost the U.S. one of its triple-A credit ratings, House Republicans wantonly kidnapped and threatened to flush the full faith and credit of the United States, went their demands unmet. And in a sort of self-serving feedback, the resulting gridlock infects voters with a hatred of government to which Republicans kindly offer the cure of its dismantling.

More comically, during the hissy fit otherwise known as his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich suggested, in what would be a radical fusing of powers, that justices with whose rulings he disagreed should be subpoenaed before Congress and jailed if they failed to report. Mercifully, Gingrich will never be in a position to try this, though if he ever were he'd be rudely sobered by the neutering that congressional subpoena power underwent during the Bush presidency. Oh, and when it comes to the office of the presidency, you must have heard by now: A black man holds it illegitimately.

Everybody knows that the French only exist to be mocked, so it may seem ironic that the right has adopted a baby conceived by mid-century French philosophes and trained it to speak in a way that would, did afterlives exist, wake Orwell from the grave. But perhaps it shouldn't come as a great shock that the right has taken so long to see the benefits of a postmodern approach. For half a century, postmodernism was rightly seen as the domain of an academic left having long availed itself of "contextualizing" cultural practices, and hungering for any Luddism that could hysterically permute the words rape, earth, capitalism and industry into some sort of lament over the virus of Western culture. Not anymore. The un-empirical wind typically blown by the arugula-gorged high priests of the humanities has a stronger countervail on the right, where broad scale rejection of fact is default, as reconfirmed last week with the outright dismissals of polling data, and likewise with the outrageous libeling of the BLS statistics showing unemployment down to 7.8 percent.

So as not to leave them unpunished, the left also convinces itself with un-evidenced scaremongering over the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods. But these sorts of wrong are neither as widespread nor as dangerous as the broad scale denials of fact by the right pertaining to anthropogenic climate change and the rejection of knowledge hard won by science. There is simply no intellectually honest way to equate the strength and consequence of mainstream support for denialism between the two parties. And it is not disqualifyingly biased to point out that the dysfunction of one party's relationship with reality objectively eclipses another's.

Sometimes, nonsense can make sense. Empirical immunity and doublespeak can work as indispensable armor for a party that manages at once to be both rigidly and not ideological. Unembarrassed by reality, political language can be freed entirely for utility to power. It's how one can with a straight face claim to "protect the vote" by suppressing the vote and support "family values" by promoting bigotry. It's how one can in the age of the Higgs field and the human genome, deny scientific consensus and maintain that both climate change and evolution are liberal hoaxes, while preserving their social views in the permafrost they deny is melting.

This is dangerous, but unsustainable. Take for instance the venom with which ever more powerful minority blocs are treated, alienating demographics that will decide electoral outcomes in the near to foreseeable future. Republicans seem content to march themselves blindfolded to the gallows of harsh reality for one last taste of the power of white fright. Among the inner party, there must either be a resignation to this fate or, more probably, a plan to expediently change color, the model for which could be, rather conveniently, the chameleon candidate himself.

Perhaps the best nose to detect the first whiffs of a decaying modernism belonged to George Orwell, who urged that the preservation of objectivity and reason was dependent on sincerity in language. I think it would even be right to say that the control of politics through the erasure of fact, manipulation of history, and distortion of language is the true antagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Throughout the book, a list of slogans doublespeaking the party line reappears:


That same decay can be smelled today, with Romney its mere simulacrum:

  • Freedom is warrantless wiretaps.
  • Freedom is indefinite detention.
  • Equal rights are only for those that are more equal than others.
  • Religious freedom is absolute unless invoked by Muslims or the godless.
  • The fact of anthropogenic climate change is fiction.
  • The American innovation of the separation of church and state is un-American.
  • Spending doesn't create jobs. Defense spending does.
  • It is racist to suggest that someone or some view might be understood as racist.
  • The fact of evolution is fiction.
  • Torturing is our right to protect ourselves from those who hate human rights.
  • Family values is denying families to others.

(Note: "Post-truth politics" is a term originally coined by Dave Roberts of Grist.)

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