March 24th, 2005


Relativism swings right

A thread on I Love Everything entitled "Welcome to the cultural revolution" draws my attention to a news story from The Independent Florida Alligator. "Capitol bill aims to control ‘leftist’ profs," says the headline. "The law could let students sue for untolerated beliefs." These "untolerated beliefs" turn out to include the idea that God created the world in seven days and that Darwin's theory of evolution is just an opinion. "Tolerate and, in fact, teach my whacky right wing views or I'll sue you, authoritarian liberal professors!" is the gist of the bill Republican senator Dennis Baxley is trying to make law: The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights.

"While promoting the bill Tuesday," continues the newspaper, "Baxley said a university education should be more than “one biased view by the professor, who as a dictator controls the classroom,” as part of “a misuse of their platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views.” The bill sets a statewide standard that students cannot be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree. Professors would also be advised to teach alternative “serious academic theories” that may disagree with their personal views."

“Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design (a creationist theory), and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue. Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, warned of lawsuits from students enrolled in Holocaust history courses who believe the Holocaust never happened. Similar suits could be filed by students who don’t believe astronauts landed on the moon, who believe teaching birth control is a sin or even by Shands medical students who refuse to perform blood transfusions and believe prayer is the only way to heal the body, Gelber added."

Drew Daniel (yes, the one in Matmos and Soft Pink Truth) comments on the thread: "I guess this backs up that argument that rightwingers have been successfully appropriating traditionally leftist argumentative tactics -- what's so weird is that pomo leftists in the high-theory 80s used relativist arguments to destabilize the foundationalist objectivity of science to further deconstructive critical ends -- and now we have conservatives using dumbed down versions of the same moves (science isn't fact, it's just theory . . . . therefore claim X is "just as true as" claim Y)."

At the end of last year I advanced the idea that the current American right has belatedly embraced postmodernism. In The US Becomes Situated I wrote:

"A postmodern national identity happens when you see yourself as The Other. Before it saw itself as The Other, the US saw itself as The Universal. The Universal is invisible, the Other is visible. The Universal claims to be impartial, the Other admits its self-interest. The Universal is adult, the Other is childish. The Universal is level-headed, the Other impetuous, prone to tantrums and whining... It may seem strange to think of the current Republican Party as a product of the postmodern identity politics of the 60s and 70s -- the struggle for recognition by radical identity-based communities like blacks, women and gays. It makes more sense, though, when you see identity politics as a sort of narcissism, a way of seeing oneself as The Other in order not to think, any longer, of one's responsibility to others."

Drew Daniel draws an interesting historical parallel. "It's like we're living in the Anglican England of the 1630s," he says, "and there's this minority of very vocal Puritans who are denouncing all and sundry, and struggling to radicalize the country as a whole so that they can further their narrowly-understood religious views, and even as they advocate for deeply absolutist doctrines they exploit the rhetoric of persecution as they wait to get the upper hand and they're already publically licking their chops as they foresee their imminent chance to viciously persecute those who don't share their agenda... oh wait, our country was founded and created by those people."

Two of the core ideas of pomo relativism have become tools in the hands of the new right:

1. The idea that being a victim allows you to act as unreasonably as you like, and

2. The idea that having a culture (in other words, being situated) means never having to say you're sorry.

Terry Eagleton wrote an essay for the New Statesman last year entitled Big Ideas: Rediscover A Common Culture or Die in which he described how "culture has descended from the macro to the micro -- from whole societies to a range of interest groups within them. It is more about Hell's Angels than Hellenic Greece. This naturally raises the question of how micro you can get. Do the two teachers in the village school constitute a culture? What about Posh and Becks?" He went on to describe how culture is valued in a society where form and style dominate over content, where local uniqueness is a globally saleable commodity, and where something that's seen as a culture can't be questioned: "Neither a work of art nor a way of life can be said to be "right" or "wrong", as one might say of a political strategy or a code of ethics. It would be like saying that the Romanian language was a mistake".

Eagleton goes on to show just how the idea of "culture" has moved from an idea that benefits the left to one that helps the right:

"Over the past three or four decades, the most resourceful movements on the left have been ones in which culture plays a vital role. Feminism, ethnic militancy, revolutionary nationalism: for all three of these political currents, culture in the broad sense of language, identity, symbol, tradition and community are a huge part of what is politically at stake. Far from being agreeable extras, they provide the very terms of political argument. And this has an interesting implication. It means that culture has shifted before our eyes from being part of the solution to being part of the problem."

The trouble is, Eagleton concludes, that the main problems facing the world today are universal ones which require common action based on shared understandings of, and responsibilities for, shared problems:

"Most of the champions of culture today are distinctly coy of phrases such as "common humanity". When they hear them, they reach for their differences with Pavlovian precision. Yet they do so in a world in which humanity has never been so forcibly united in the face of the same military, political and ecological threats. There is nothing in the least abstract about this kind of universality. It is a curious abstraction that could blow us all to kingdom come."