Just read an article by Pat Buchanan that really got me thinking. It didn’t convey much that isn’t already apparent but it presented it in such a way that it really hit me and made me think about how it relates to our epistemological cultural transition from a modernistic to a postmodern worldview.
It seems the so called “balkanization” of our society is continuing despite the desires of president Obama to unify. I don’t want to be partisan in these observations. I think no matter how you divide the palette of opinion in the USA at the moment all sides are exhibiting a similar behavior. To the political left the right are compared to Nazi’s and to the right the left are compared to communists. The right is accused of taking away rights and the left is accused of taking away freedoms. There are greedy capitalists and inane socialists. One could go on and on. The mudslinging seems to be increasing.
This may be a distorted view on my part due to the media coverage but I do think these are symptoms of something that is taking place below the surface. Namely, a transition of worldviews and an indication of a negative side of postmodernism.
As I see it three things are at work:
- A mixture of modern and postmodern elements:As I described in part one a postmodern view lacks the ability to provide order and consensus since it cannot claim any epistemological certainty about the knowledge claims that it makes. Yet at the same time it appears to me that we are still acting from the modern mind set that such certainty is possible. We have the goals of modernism but now lack the means to achieve them. This results in the next observation.
- Argumentation based on character and not on facts:When factual arguments are absent all that is left is the tactic of demonizing the opposing view. Instead of discussing the issues now we see that the character and motivation of the proponent of opposing views are called into question. Yes, this has likely always been a part of American culture and politics (think of the scopes trial or the civil war just to name a few) but my sense is that we again are witnessing an intensification of this phenomenon. Were we not able in previous generations to go about things in a more civil manner? Perhaps one of you historians could fill us in.
- An incomplete picture of our true anthropological nature:The popular articulation of the postmodern paradigm as I know it assumes a positive anthropology. If we all just live and let live, do not attempt to take power by declaring things right or wrong, then everyone will get along just fine. This, of course, runs contrary to a Christian view of anthropology, which has a unique view of how human beings tick. Namely, there is the positive side capable of love, harmony, courage, beauty and a host of other things. But the Christian view also posits that humans have a depraved side which produces war, greed, hatred and selfishness etc. If the negative side is truly present in our nature, then we have major problems if we ignore it. I am of the opinion that most of the evil in the world is not solely the result of political or religious systems but an outworking of the true nature of mankind. This I believe is missing in the popular worldview.
Maybe I’m overreacting. This is not the first crisis that the USA has had to deal with and not yet the most serious. I hope that we can successfully overcome this one like in time past but that is not guaranteed. Maybe with some effort we can return to a degree of unity and civility which is sorely missing at the moment.
In the course of my life I have been fortunate to witness many profound happenings. One thing that has intrigued me is the societal transition from a predominantly modern (in the epistemological sense) to a postmodern culture. In this series of posts I want to ponder some of the consequences of this transition.
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In my understanding one of the main differences between modernism and postmodernism on the epistemological level is that modernism believes one can obtain objective and certain knowledge. Postmodernism disagrees and holds that one cannot know with certainty and that objectivity is a pipe dream.
One implication of a modernist epistemology is that its practitioners assume a warrant to impose their understanding upon the less enlightened. After all they posses a certain and objective truth (so it is assumed).
Postmodernism brings a moral dimension into the epistemological debate. It is assumed that practices stemming from a modernist epistemology come from impure motives and generally are an attempt at maintaining (even misusing) power.
For all the criticism waged against modernism there is one thing that it can do well. It can maintain order and unity. Postmodernism cannot do this. In fact it encourages the opposite. Unity or disunity, order or chaos can take place at all levels of a society depending on the predominant epistemological modal. In politics, in the judicial system, in ethical questions even in the church.
Although I agree with much of the postmodern criticism against modernity I see a naive and fatal flaw in its argumentation that could prove disastrous. In my understanding postmoderns assume that mankind left on its own without the evil domination of moderns would live in peace, happiness and generally be better off. I disagree, my contention is that the evil in the world propagated by mankind is normal and to be expected. This is a Christian anthropology, which asserts the depravity of mankind. When people live in peace and justice reigns this is not the normal and expected state of affairs but rather an exception.
A Societal Consequence
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I think the driving force behind the implementation of societal practices and norms, which are based upon a postmodern epistemology, is the hope that the removal of modern dominance will release society from bondage and peace, prosperity and happiness will ensue.
This, however, assumes a much more optimistic anthropology. If this assumption is incorrect and an anthropology of depravity is closer to reality, than the removal of modern dominance will not result in prosperity but in catastrophe. The developments in post cold war Yugoslavia provide a possible analogy. During the cold war an oppressive regime was able to maintain order among the differing ethnicities. With the removal of this regime society became worse and not better.
In the western world we may experience something similar in the long term. Instead of returning to Eden we may end up in Belgrad.
I’m not proposing a return to modernism. I too see many of its faults. At the same time I do not view postmodernism as an epistemological improvement. A moral improvement yes to a degree, but epistemologically it is a step backward. Thus my position is neither full fledged modernism nor full fledged postmodernism. There are positive aspects to both. In our zeal to do penance for the sins of modernism let us not be naive and forget some of the positive aspects.