POSTMODERNISM, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, AND THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11
University of Waterloo
Panel presentation at the Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) , University of Western Ontario, London, 4 May 2002. Published on the web, 15 September 2002.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, I met my class of a hundred students in introductory sociology. I invited them to stand with me in a moment of silence for those who died. Then I ventured to comment on the attacks. Unsure of what to say, I nonetheless felt a duty, as many professors did, to try to help students make sense of the news.
Part of what I said was this: “Hey, students, there is a real world. It’s not all social construction. Yesterday, the World Trade Center’s twin towers were really there in New York. You could see them on the skyline. Today, they are gone, really gone. And some thousands of people who yesterday were alive and going about their business just as we are now–today they are dead, really dead, burned up or squashed. It’s not a matter of point of view. It’s a fact.”
Strange comments! Banal in any other time, not in ours. The key attribute of the cultural wave that has engulfed universities these past thirty years, the wave against which SAFS tries to be a seawall, is aversion to facts in favour of rightminded dreaming, the utopianism captured in John Lennon’s song, “Imagine all the people, living for today, ... and the world will live as one.”
Imagining how things might or ought to be is an essential human ability. Affirming it is half of the secret of success of Western civilization, especially in its modern period. The other half is subjecting imagination to the discipline of how things are. Previous generations have brought us to present affluence not just by dreaming but by the hard, dialectical work of trying to reconcile dreams and realites–is what reason, science, and industry are about.
In the postmodern movement of recent decades, imagination escaped the requisite discipline, as if empirical facts–natural, physical ones and social, historical ones–could be wished away. “Perspective,” so the TV ad for the Globe & Mail insists, “is everything”–as if, seen from the right angle, those planes did not really crash into the World Trade Center after all.
Orwell identified the postmodern, deconstructive, destructive cultural wave well before it washed over North America. O’Brien, the torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four, lectures the man he is torturing: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. ... But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.” (p. 261)
We today honour Doreen Kimura for what the postmodern party has condemned her and other psychologists here at Western: for fidelity to the ethic of modernity in the face of sanctimonious dreaming about an absolutely egalitarian utopia, for insistence upon empirical realities–about individual differences, for instance, and collective differences by sex and race, in aptitude for various kinds of learning.
The September 11 attacks were a dramatic intrusion of the real world on postmodern goofiness. To assess their effect on the dominant cultural wave that SAFS has set itself against, it helps to recall what gave rise to the wave in the first place.
Modernity, in a way, fell victim to its own success. Science and industry enabled creation of a bubble of comfort in North America during the last third of the twentieth century, wherein intellectual and cultural elites (the so-called “new class”) have been unusually protected from objective realities.
1. Basic means of subsistence–food, clothing, shelter, things that preoccupied nearly all humans all of the time in past centuries–have been assured for this class, taken for granted for practical purposes. Supermarket shelves have been perennially well stocked. Not since the 1930s has physical privation been widespread.
2. Mortality has declined and longevity increased to the point that death need not, and does not, weigh upon human consciousness nearly as much as it used to.
3. On account of low death rates, effective contraception, legalized abortion, and the eagerness of people in premodern countries to immigrate to ours, the need to reproduce our species is but lightly felt in this new class, and the natural connection between sexual activity and parenthood is to a great extent broken.
4. Notwithstanding U.S. military campaigns in faraway places, the prospect of us being conquered and subjugated by a foreign enemy has not loomed in a serious way since the defeat of the Axis powers, an event which only senior citizens today can remember.
5. City life isolates most members of the new class not just from the elements and seasons, but from primary and secondary industry, which is increasingly even offshore. People eat beef their whole lives without seeing a calf slaughtered, much less butchering one themselves.
6. Layers upon layers of bureaucracy in universities, professions, granting agencies, and government ministries insulate academic departments and disciplines from the publics that ultimately foot the higher-education bill.
These are the main material conditions, the main separations of today’s intelligentsia from facts of life, that have permitted many scholarly groups to lose touch: to apologize for what our civilization has achieved, to sneer at scientific and technological advance, to treat risk as inimical to life, to accord equal value to societies where the infant mortality rate exceeds the literacy rate as to our own, to condemn dissenters from androgynous fantasies, and otherwise to undermine the society that accords them privilege. On the liberal-arts side of our campuses, where “progressive” thinking has reached its apogee, life often seems surreal, as if what Kors and Silverglate call the shadow university has displaced the real thing.
Today’s intellectual elites are like the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, who rose sleepless and bruised from a night’s repose on a bed piled with twenty duvets on top of twenty mattresses, beneath which there was a single dried pea. A peasant girl, having worked all day in field and kitchen, could sleep soundly on a board. So could a girl exhausted by the embraces of a boy she loved and hoped would father in her a child. Andersen’s princess, marvelously self-absorbed in her bubble of emancipation from earthy realities, instead wailed that this single pea had caused her injury: “I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible.” The prince, in a display of equal lunacy, married her.
In universities, as in law and the media, where postmodern lunacies have most completely washed good sense away, the attacks of September 11 have had on the whole a salutary effect. They have sobered intellectual discourse, compelled attention to natural and social realities that can be ignored only at peril to our lives and the lives of our children.
Before the attacks, Sunera Thobani’s denunciation of America would have been little challenged in the press, probably little noticed, it being an oft-heard refrain. Instead Thobani herself was denounced in the media, even in Parliament. Al Qaeda’s war on America and America’s war on it, along with the war between Islamic terrorist organizations and Israel, have provoked the most vigorous debate about our civilization–what it means, which of its elements deserve defense and which ones not–at least since the Vietnam War. For the first time in decades, questions of good and evil are seriously raised, albeit more by journalists than academics.
Our challenge is to keep this debate going, freely and reasonably, and see it through to a revitalized Western culture. That will not be easy.
If large-scale terrorist attacks continue, if the Western world is further threatened by foreign enemies, we are likely to slip into the siege mentality reflected in President Bush’s statement that if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists. In a state of siege, dissent tends to be suppressed and debate stifled, social criticism of any kind being seen as disloyalty.
On the other hand, if the United States and its allies successfully neutralize our foreign enemies, the lively, healthy questioning of recent months may peter out in favour of return to the bubble, what Galbraith has called the culture of contentment.
So far as I can tell, incursions on the work of professors faithful to the modern project have abated not just since last September but over the past half dozen years. By my review of the data, witch hunts in the name of combatting sexism and racism peaked about 1994. Administrators since then have become less responsive to postmodern fanaticism, thanks in part to the threat of adverse publicity by organizations like SAFS, NAS, and FIRE. Administrators have become more responsive to business elites, which have little use for postmodernism, though not much more for the liberal arts.
The recent brand of political correctness is not yet a spent force, but like the NDP, its main party instrument in Canada, it is on the wane. It has been to some extent a generational phenomenon, a hobbyhorse of intellectuals now in their fifties and sixties. With luck, the coming generation can pick up the pieces out of the ruins of our arts faculties, and start rebuilding.
As I look at this younger generation, undergraduates in particular, I see fewer hang-ups over sex and race, an encouragingly realistic attitude toward life, and much readiness to work and learn about the natural and social realities from which their earlier education has in some cases shielded them. Best of all, in my efforts to teach these undergrads, I have observed a quality that might yet save us: a sense of irony and humour about this magnificent life we share.