Essay by Martha Quillen
Modern Culture – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
THERE IS NO SUCH THING as objective reality. The “real world” as we know it is merely a social construction. What we believe to be true is determined by our culture, our religion, our myths, our class, our language, our traditions — and the creative and deductive capacity of our brains.
Or at least that’s what various postmodernists would have us believe.
Postmodernists, of course, run the gamut from far-out theoretical physicists and quirky cosmologists who believe that there are actually an infinity of realities that have created an infinity of parallel universes (and their soul mates, the constructivist philosophers who genuinely believe that there is no real world out there and that only our made-up versions of reality exist) to those postmodernists who believe that there is an authentic, physical universe, but that it’s one that we all see, define, and understand in different ways.
Naturally, numerous people reject postmodernist “relativism,” and cleave to the idea that there is definitely a true reality in an actual cosmos where humans can discern not only what is real, but also what is right, wrong, good, bad, reasonable or asinine.
But in truth, I don’t care whether you’re a postmodernist or an absolutist — or whether you just don’t look at life in those terms. Whether you believe in postmodernist concepts or not, however, postmodernism is becoming a political “reality.”
Lately, conservatives have railed against wishy-washy liberals, Secular Humanists, constructivists, deconstructionists, ’60s hippies, Punk Rockers, de gen erate Democrats, feminists, ecologists, leftists, Marxists, socialists, activists, New Agers, et al — until at times, I’ve wondered what all of these people have in common.
And the answer seems to be postmodernism.
Although those people — old hippies, socialists, New Agers and all — don’t necessarily believe in postmodernism, what conservatives are really railing against is what they see as a turn away from traditional values.
Whereas postmodernists see this same phenomenon as the birth of a postmodernist age in which “realities” are being constructed at an unprecedented rate.
(Supposedly, all this reality production is due to electronics and globalism. Apparently it happens because when you throw two cultures together you don’t get one culture, but instead you get things like English-speaking Eskimos with boomboxes or Americans who worship seals while hanging out in Ute sweat lodges. In other words, cultural exchange leads to an infinite variety of “realities.”)
A lot of conservatives believe this departure from tradition is messing everything up. And curiously enough, some postmodernists agree. In a book called Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be,” postmodernist Walter Truett Anderson even blames postmodernism for today’s unrest.
“The collapse of old ways of belief and the coming into being of a new worldview threaten all existing constructions of reality and all power structures attached to them — a lot of people aren’t going to like it. We must understand — and the kindly hordes of liberals, New Agers, and one-worlders who think globalism is the end to all our troubles need to understand — that it is one of the most psychologically and politically threatening events in all of human history,” Anderson maintains.
On the whole, Anderson thinks the proliferation of modern “realities” creates confusion, polarization and even reactionary repression, but he doesn’t think “constructivism” can be stopped — or that it should be.
Instead he says, “Humpty Dumpty is not going to be put back together again. Efforts to do so are ultimately self-defeating because campaigns to make people choose any particular system of value and belief tend to have the subversive effect of informing people that they are free to choose systems of value and belief. All too often, indoctrinations — even indoctrinations into traditional principles — turn out to be de facto courses in postmodernism.”
OBVIOUSLY, IF REALITY is merely a construction now, it was always merely a construction. Yet even so, Anderson traces the beginning of this postmodernist age from modern art, to the theories of Freud, Marx and Einstein, and he places its flowering in the counterculture ’60s.
In much the same way, a lot of conservatives blame the ’60s for the ruination of America.
Of course, postmodernists also believe that conservatives, fundamentalists, and Republicans are constructing realities, and Anderson discusses some of their changing realities.
“The Southern Baptist church — a denomination that was once a model of old-style American individualism — has been having a tumultuous battle born of the crusade of some of its members to impose upon all Baptists a single tightly defined set of religious doctrines.
“Old-time Baptists are amazed to see such a battle going on within their church. For centuries the Baptist denomination championed freedom of religion, and practiced it. Its congregations were independent democratic organizations, its members guided by the old freethinking tenet of the `priesthood of the believer.’ Put two Baptists in the same room, a saying went, and you would get three opinions.”
Anderson goes on to detail the Baptists’ progress toward implementing a doctrine of literal truth in the Bible and embracing a new position on political activism.
So while the conservatives believe that postmodernism was invented in the 1960s to turn us away from traditional values and religion, the postmodernists believe that sometime in the ’60s we finally started to realize that our convictions were merely cultural constructions.
But this is where I’ve got to depart, because I pretty much think all of this agonizing about the sixties is a lot of bunk. All in all, I figure the sixties were just another post-war era.
In the aftermath of World War II, parents were inclined to be conservative, authoritative, and to believe that America was perfect just the way it was. But the kids didn’t agree (which was certainly nothing new).
In much the same way, by the mid-twenties, flappers were trimming two feet off their skirts, bobbing their hair, and dancing till dawn with young men who were flagrantly defying the Eighteenth Amendment. If the depression hadn’t come along to blunt their youthful ardor, who knows what would have happened.
But whatever it was, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as astounding as the aftermath of the Civil War. What could be a bigger departure from tradition than to leave it all behind and head west?
And out west an alarming number of young people turned to outlawry and prostitution. But even so, eventually most everybody settled down, acquired a house, and had a couple of kids — just as the young people of the ’60s eventually would.
And as for all these new realities… What new realities are we talking about?
NEW IDEAS are always being generated. The late nineteenth century generated the entire western mythos, including concepts of wilderness, freedom, and progress that are still with us today.
As for religion, that’s another story. New religious views flow as freely as the Arkansas. Long before the sixties, the U.S. had Shakers, Millerites, spiritualists, new thinkers, theosophists, Latter Day Saints, pantheists, panentheists, occultists, and a host of celestial philosophers and prophets. Most of these novel religions are still around today, and of course they’re changing and melding to accommodate new happenings — just as the postmodernists would expect.
But if I’m right and new ideas are nothing new, then my question is: Why do so many people today feel threatened by new ideas? And why are we in such a crisis?
Personally, I’d vote for panic, politics, and intolerance.
Recently, The Learning Channel broadcast a three-part series on the Roman Empire, and various professors commented on Rome’s great diversity. After conquering Greece, Egypt and Turkey in an age when almost every village had its own god, Rome boasted more religious “realities” than most of us could imagine.
But Rome fell, you say.
Well, yes, after a thousand years the empire fell, but not until after the Romans started practicing religious persecution rather than religious inclusion.
And not until after the generals started fighting with each other all of the time to determine who would rule Rome.
As I see it, the number of our ideas (or even how weird they are) isn’t nearly as alarming as our insistence that we must impose them on each other.
In a recent newspaper poll, respondents indicated that they feared tolerance more than they feared intolerance. Those polled felt that if our government couldn’t do more to inhibit divorce, immorality and criminality we were in serious trouble.
But in a February issue of The New Republic author Peter Beinart laments recent intrusions into what he considers private matters. He blames feminists and fundamentalists for making the personal lives of politicians an issue. (Whereas a good friend of ours blames the media for leading us into what he calls “this bimbo explosion.”)
But it isn’t that simple, because the politicians are just as interested in our sex lives as we our in theirs, and they rant about our family values, immorality and divorce rates, too — which of course makes those things a political issue.
And to complicate matters, everybody is worried about everybody else’s ability to raise children. So people keep insisting on putting condoms and prayers and whatever else they believe to be right and good into the schools.
Obviously, even though most of us say we want a smaller government, we also want a government that provides moral instructions and decisions, and that supplies laws to compel our neighbors to live by our moral codes. And many of us want our legislators to get sex off TV, safeguard our kids from the internet, and do something about all those violent Hollywood movies.
But as for those many, many, many new ideas inflicted by our new global worldview that are now threatening to overthrow our most cherished traditions — who are we kidding?
THE UNITED STATES has two parties that can’t even come up with two different platforms. At the national level, they both run on reducing the deficit by balancing the budget, reducing crime by employing more police officers, and encouraging self-sufficiency by eliminating welfare. In recent campaigns both parties have deplored internet smut, teen pregnancy, and modern movies, and supported NAFTA, free trade, and campaign finance reform. At official dinners, both Republicans and Democrats wax poetic about living in a nation where the poor presumably have an opportunity to become rich, and they both avoid talking about living in a nation where the poor have a good chance of becoming homeless.
Today, very few of our politicians are getting into office by proposing good, solid policy.
Instead they’re getting there by offering their constituency more benefits — while simultaneously promising to punish those who are perceived to be lazy, immoral, unworthy and wicked. Our politicians are getting into office by decrying our values, our families, our marriages, and our entertainment industry — along with our welfare mothers, wayward teens and ’60s hippies.
Before the turn of this century, the U.S. had no FBI, no CIA, and no DEA. But now we’ve got undercover investigators in every small town. We’ve got security cameras in our stores and on our streets.
TODAY, WE LIVE IN AN AGE of paranoid distrust. But it definitely didn’t start in the 1960s. It has been growing and escalating throughout this century — with the incomprehensible phenomenon of a modern nation wielding a Holocaust against its own citizens, with lynchings in the American south, with the invention of the A Bomb, with McCarthyism, riots, the Cold War, a presidential assassination, ethnic-cleansing, carnage in the Middle East, and tales of terrorism and spies and counterspies.
In such a climate of distrust, we resist reform. Teachers’ unions rail against accountability. Medical boards protect incompetent doctors. Doctors accept the rule of greedy HMOs. Police departments protect reckless officers. Journalists run with the pack, afraid to stand out amidst the crowd.
Well, obviously they don’t expect anyone to come up with fair and workable standards (standards that could in the long run not only strengthen their professions but might even make their working lives easier).
But maybe that’s because the American instinct right now is not to impose justice, but to vanquish villains. Take our justice system for example. Instead of trying to impose the law equally and impartially, our courts often make examples of the accused with little regard for fairness or even guilt.
In the United States, we have convicted day-care workers for sexual abuse, ritualistic torture, and even murder, upon the testimony of preschoolers — even when there was not a drop of blood or a shred of physical evidence supporting a guilty verdict.
Recently, several dozen men were released from death row after serving an average of eight years each — because as it turns out, DNA evidence proved they were innocent.
In the last few decades, we have established mandatory twenty-year sentences for youthful drug offenders, even though that means we have to release rapists, murderers and other violent offenders to furnish the required prison space.
At this point, we can tolerate homelessness, medical mismanagement, greedy HMOs, sweat shops, declining wages, police brutality, and malicious prosecution — but we cannot and will not let anyone get away with anything.
We spend fortunes on investigations: the Simpson trial, the Ramsey case, the Starr report. And when we find that there is simply not enough evidence to condemn, we try again.
At this point, it’s all gotten more than a little crazy. At the local level we fight about covenants, wind chimes, and housepaint colors. In small towns we employ more police officers than ever before — mostly to protect us from inconsiderate parking, noisy children, and barking dogs.
Yet the more we rely on laws, fines and government to restrain our neighbors, the less the neighbors care whether we’re disturbed by their unruly children and dogs. We seem to have created a vicious cycle.
Yes, something is happening here. But I don’t think it’s the dawning of a great postmodernist age of multiple realities.
But even though I quibble on the cause, I do think Anderson is right about confusion, polarization and reactionary repression. And we do seem to be in a world-wide crisis.
And everywhere terrorists are imposing their own moral directives.
Recently, the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe lamented the murder of a missionary in India who was supported by the local Rotary Club. The man and his two young sons were burned to death by Hindu extremists who feared his Christian influence. Afterwards, demonstrators gathered in New Delhi to protest this outrage, and over a thousand mourners attended the funeral — which included a procession led by the lepers this man tried to serve.
In Africa, a group of American and British tourists viewing gorillas were murdered by Hutu tribesmen angered by American intervention into their affairs. In Columbia, three Amnesty International workers were kidnapped and executed.
In Pakistan, Moslem fundamentalists are embracing a return to purdah. Honor killings rock the villages. Men kill their young wives for looking at other men, or being seen without a veil. Parents kill their daughters for marrying without permission.
Everywhere, humans seem determined to curb all of this immorality, to stop their neighbor’s degeneracy, and to finally put an end to adultery, divorce, disloyalty and sin. In short, everyone seems to want to return to a perfect time that never was and never will be.
Certainly, there are a million ways of looking at the world, and I don’t know whether our viewpoints construct realities or merely reflect our fears.
But in my reality, America is a place where the Republican and Democratic generals are fighting over power, where the emperor is clinging to his throne even though he’s lost all credibility and authority, and where the citizens are being encouraged by their leaders to fight with one another.
In spite of the rise of a powerful priesthood, most Americans have lost their faith, and very few of them trust in God to be the ultimate judge. So the citizenry demands that the government dispense morals and disburse retribution.
But if we keep on going in this direction, soon we won’t be one nation under God; we will be one nation under 270 million gods. For right about now it seems as if every American feels he has a right to personally judge his fellows.
So what can we do about that?
Well, we could quit worrying so much about being tolerant and worry more about being intolerant.
Or on the other hand, we could entirely confine our worries to our excessive tolerance — in which case we will have nothing to worry about at all.