What Rough Beast?

By August 11, 1998 No Comments
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, but the myth – persistant, persuasive, and realistic. “
— John F. Kennedy, 1962 Speech.
The great American essayist and teacher, Norman Cantor has another book out on the shelves. The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times is an excellent review of the literature, philosophy and art of this Century. Culture and thought are, as Cantor often points out, potent forces. We agree, and the dissonance of Postmodernism is becoming a very dangerous element.
There is always a relationship between the spirit of a time and politics. The art, philosophy and literature of any particular epoch represent the perspective and thought that comes to predominate in the following decades. This always has a political fallout. Of course, changes in political philosophy and ethics generate their own stresses which get discharged in turmoil and violence. When this intellectual/spiritual climate changes, trouble is coming – often within a generation.
The great ages or trains of thought in the last 500 years can be roughly confined to the Reformation; the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, and the current infestation of Post- Modernism. (Some schools of history find that the border between the Renaissance and the Reformation is vague. Cantor doesn’t mention the Renaissance, and this writer defers to the view that the Reformation was well begun by the 1490s.) It is a mistake to view each period as separate in itself for there are dozens of sub- currents, and the shift is almost always gradual. Each period barring Post-Modernism has left a wealth of ali and literature, but each also has a political heritage.
The Reformation paved the way for the rise of the modern nation state – a neutral development. On the positive side, it left us with a legacy of individual choice and conscience. On the negative side, European politics took on religion as a way of identifying sides in a complex political struggle that left millions dead. (The Thirty Years War is perhaps the fifth most lethal conflict in history). Rulers ranging from Henry VIII to Philip II also exercised their new powers in very autocratic ways with shOlt shrift for dissenters.
The Enlightenment’s political legacy is classical liberalism, which arises from the idea that the proper experience, education and environment can free every individual. Its best political gifts to posterity were the American Constitution and the British Parliamentary system – both of which have functioned remarkably well over the centuries. Indeed, in many respects, the US still perpetuates the ideals of the Enlightenment. Its worst legacy is perhaps illustrated by Robespierre who used terrorism in the Jacobean attempt to construct an ideal society based on “civic virtue.”
The other legacy of the failed French Revolution was the rapid transition to Romanticism. The early Romantics (WoodswOlth and Goethe for example) were entranced by Napoleon – a walking depiction of enhanced individual grandeur through submergence in an ideal. Like the other epochs, Romanticism left a mixed legacy. Its stress on individual wOlth played a positive role in recovering individual dignity and freedom from the travails of the Industrial Revolution. The other side of the Romantic legacy has been absolutely lethal in this Century.
Marxism is a Romantic doctrine – the individual submits to the inevitability of the Proletarian Revolution and the arrival of the final society. Fascism and Nazism stressed individual glorification through the surrender of the self to the State or the People. While these three “isms” (and a parcel of related ones) are now dead, it is a good idea to occasionally investigate their grave sites. Some things don’t have the decency to stay buried, and so merit precautionary stakes through the heart.
Unlike the earlier three major cultural revolutions, the political legacy of the Modernist era is difficult to capture. Norman Cantor
describes 14 tendencies. To sacrifice accuracy for brevity, these are:
• A rejection of history as an analytical tool;
• A fascination with the microcosmic;
• A preoccupation with self-referentiality;
• A penchant for the discordant; • A disinterest in predetermined pattern;
• A rejection of philosophical idealism;
• The adoption of a functionalist aesthetic;
• An antipathy for absolute polarities;
• A fondness for elitism; • A fascination with sexuality;
• The examination of technological change;
• The adoption of moral relativism;
• A belief in popular entitlement to the arts;
• A tendency to cultural despair.
Modernist art and literature are easy to recognize – think of Frank Lloyd Wright, Art Deco, and Film Noire. The high water mark for Modernist expression came with the 1930s and ’40s, and the importance of the culture has since ebbed.
Modernist government was recognizably a feature of the mid-20th Century. Franklin Roosevelt and Mackenzie King were modernists in their approach to government. The Welfare State is a modernist one: the poor are not held to be destitute for any fault of their own, nor are criminals entirely to blame for their misdeeds. Moral principals and historical examples don’t matter, as every issue mllst be considered as an isolated problem with its own solutions.
Modernistic policies are a tricky business, so things are best left up to a technocratic elite who understand how to build and operate a bureaucratic system. To the credit of North American governments in the mid-century, Modernist bureaucrats were extremely professional and had a strong code of public service. Even the architecture of new government buildings reflected the Modernist era. Civil service buildings of the 1930s-50s were clean-looking functionalist buildings for an elite functional ist government.
The creation of the Modernist state was not in violence, per se, but rather because of violence. Necessity was its mother – not revolution. The new political era was begun in the First World War. Its growth accelerated in the Depression, matured with the Second World War and took us into the Cold War.
No cultural epoch’s philosophy and theory of government can really account for the totality of human behaviour. Modernism – with its stern eye focused on its own belly button – has proven to be even less adequate than most. The Modernist state developed severe flaws because of its unreal expectations of human behaviour. It also didn’t help that the Modernist intellectual climate was poisoned by many internal critics – particularly by resurgent Marxists in the 1960s.
Modernism has given way to Post-Modernism Again, for a definition, it is best to turn to Cantor: “Postmodernist culture comprises a world integrated by identification and manipulation of the universal genetic code, computer programs, communications satellites and multinational corporations, and the absence of major wars. It is, however, a world fragmented culturally and aesthetically, a world of sub-cultures, small-group choices on aesthetic principles and idiosyncratic, nostalgic recapitulations of the past, but one in which a comprehensive, integrating cultural theory is lacking.
A century or so from now, there will no doubt be arguments as to whether Postmodernism is a secondary phase of modernism, or a separate cultural epoch in its own right. Regardless, it already appears to be having some major political effects.
The impact of new discoveries often leads directly to the new styie of thinking associated with a cultural era. Postmodernism is driven by the new fields of genetics, international business, computer science and behavioural theories. These have helped generate the notion that everything can be manipulated or controlled to achieve a certain end.
It seems hard not to notice that this new thinking has been enthusiastically embraced by many Modernist governments – look at contemporary Washington and Ottawa. Look at the way communications are now “massaged” and “spun”. Clarity and directness are an enemy.
Postmodernist ethics are corrosive, particularly in the civil service, academic and (often) the corporate sectors. Additionally, the tradition of an elite has remained in government, but the need to be bound by public service – or any service but to one’s own self – has become much weakened. In short, the Modernist elite has become much corrupted and entirely self- serving.
A related major element of Postmodernism is the concept of “deconstruction ism” wherein every statement can be dissected for a hidden meaning. Invariably, this hidden meaning is interpreted by the deconstructionist as being directly opposite to the visible or obvious statement. A better device for carping critics and sour second-string academics could never be imagined. Originally a tool of psychoanalysis and then of academic dissection, it has become a weapon with which to attack everything, for those who would seek to uncouple society from its past. Defenders of deconstruction ism say it is only an intellectual tool: So it is – whether in the hands of an at1isan or, much more commonly, a moronic vandal.
With every intellectual tradition or new idea, the chickens always come home to roost. Deconstructionism has been a common intellectual trend for some 30 years. In that time, we have abandoned our history, our legal traditions and our morality and attempted to construct some flimsy replacements based on passing constructs such as “tolerance” or “anti- racism”. While these are fine ideals in themselves, they are an inadequate substitute for an entire moral structure.
The more popular side of deconstruction appears to be the common preference for conspiracy theories. Thanks to deconstuction, denial becomes confirmation and fact is reworked to buttress fantasy. This may become one of the most troubling elements of Postmodernist public life. It no longer matters what the “truth” is in any affair, as too many people will only believe in one of their own manufacture. The “truth” may be out there, and it is often comfortably isolated from reality.
Modernism did a lot to weaken traditional moral constructs, but it didn’t destroy them.
Postmodernist notions such as moral relativity and deconstruction ism have damaged them even further. There is still an inate decency in much of society, but often this based on pragmatism over altruism (which may be healthier anyway), and moral or principled behaviour seems to be an endangered commodity in public life.
The last major effect of Postmodernism was described by Cantor – the fragmentation of society into idiosyncratic shards. We are already witnessing violence from some of these new subgroups – Patriot Militias and Animal Rights Extremists are two prominent examples. On what remains of the “Left”, a vaguely anarchistic series offactions seem to be growing in popularity. On what can equally be misdescribed as the “Right”, moral conservatives seek the recreation of a moral society while libertarian-populists vacillate between this perspective and that of the anarchists. Beyond these major groupings are dozens upon dozens of others.
Yet there is common ground emerging in this new bizarre conglomeration of sub-societies. If the negative side of Postmodernism is the corruption of governments and institutions. the positive side seems to be a powerful new individualism.
As every cultural epoch has left its mark in political struggle, the outline of Postmodernist conflict may be taking definition already. One struggle will be by the individual and the sub- society against government – an elitist and selfish government which can no longer be trusted by the individual to look after his own interests.
It remains to be seen if this struggle will be peaceful. The extreme (and ugly) ends of the new individualist struggle – the Patriot Militias and the Anarchist-inspired Animal Rights/Deep Environmentalists – have already decided that violence is inevitable. The rest of us will probably resort to the ballot box and the jury box long before reaching for the cartridge box.
Postmodernism has weakened. probably fatally, much of our unifying culture. It is destroying our faith in government and most institutions. We can’t replace or reinvent a unifying culture because it would be artificial and thereby will ultimately fail. The erosion of faith in our institutions has been precipitated by the dual assaults of contemporary ethics and conspiracy myth addiction.
The shape, method, intensity and outcome of the emerging struggle can only be guessed at. However, the Western Democracies survived the war with Fascism/Nazism and the long confrontation with Marxism. This third enemy comes from within our own society and may ultimately prove to be the hardest to beat.