Pondering the Premiere of the Post-Modern Presidency

To a few of you, the following sentence will be like saying “Elvis has left the building”, i.e., old news. But to many others, it will be very much in the vein of “Main bites dog,” i.e., novel to the point of being revolutionary. Anyway, here goes … the European Enlightenment is now officially over.  “Over” as in “dead as last week’s oatmeal” or “as passé as disco fever and bell-bottom pants” or "As useless as invitations to Hillary Clinton's inaugural ball". (Yeah, I know ... still too soon for me, too ... sorry ... apologies!)  Probably many fewer of you are aware of the likely – not strictly certain, but this is the way to bet – replacement ideology:  (some form of) postmodernism.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the operative word in the third sentence (beginning “Anyway, here goes … “) above is officially.  In academe, of course, the European Enlightenment has been over for some time, supplanted by some species of postmodernism. Rather, what makes the end of the Enlightenment “officially official” is that, for the first time, it has actually determined the outcome of the election, at the level of retail popular politics, of senior executives in the very nations that originated and sustained the Enlightenment, and whose political and constitutional systems would be unimaginable without it.  You know … nations like the United States. We (meaning "all such nations") are now not only post-industrial and post-Christian, both of which have been true for some time, but now in addition post-modern.

M. C. Escher, "Waterfall"

In many ways, making sense of post-modernism is like trying to make sense of an M. C. Escher drawing, most of which are "post-perspectival". So the following will of necessity be only a superficial, hasty thumbnail sketch of three of the more important parameters that distinguish what I believe to be the coming post-Enlightenment / post-modern culture, because the following three were especially crucial to the election of Donald Trump as the Nation’s first post-Enlightenment / post-modern President. In future columns, I will describe the historical and ideological roots in more detail.  But for now …

Collatz fractal

o Fact as a datum supported and confirmed by actual evidence vs. “fact” as an expression of what a community needs to be true in order to function

There is no evidence whatsoever that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey stood and cheered upon receiving news of the World Trade Center collapsing, nor is there any evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the Kennedy assassination. Facts – as in quantifiable data corroborated by statistics – indicate that, contrary to Trump’s assertion, the United States -- local exceptions like Chicago notwithstanding -- is experiencing an almost unprecedented period of law-compliance, not lawlessness.  Despite being corroborated by no fewer than sixteen agencies in the US intelligence community, Trump persists in manufacturing his own “fact” that Russia was not involved in the “cyber-jimmying” of his recent election to the Presidency.  Nor is there any indication – based on actual facts, in the “pre-post-modernist” sense – that immigrants to the US are exceptionally crime prone, and some evidence indicating the opposite.

What runs as a common thread through all these allegations is that all such assertions involve, basically, articles of faith that Trump supporters, as a community, need to affirm in order to be a community. To be a Trump supporter is to be a member of what is, in all essentials, a fundamentalist religious cult. Affirming that thousands of Muslims cheered the fall of the Twin Towers is in no way essentially different from an observant Roman Catholic affirming that, with the priest’s Words of Institution, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Both are about equally contrary to empirical experience, yet both are required for membership in the community.  Ditto the Virgin Birth. Ditto the Resurrection. Ditto three million fraudulent votes. Ditto 47% unemployment. Religious sects have actually been practicing most of the principles of post-modernism for several centuries. (More about this in the future, too.) Mass politics in established classical democracies is just now belatedly getting the hang of it.

o Morality as an “infinitely fungible” and indefinitely negotiable parameter of a community

I mean fungible in the sense of “one is just as good as another, depending on the end-in-view, hence interchangeable”. For example, I have owned several houses and pieces of real estate in my life, and while I liked all of them for various reasons, all were “fungible” in the sense of being subject to sale or exchange, given the exigencies of the moment.  My wife and I liked our house in Wichita, KS, but when we decided to move to Boston so I could go to graduate school, we sold it because the house was less important than the end-in-view (going to grad school). The house / real estate was fungible as a token of exchange.

Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Franklin Graham

Trump’s sexual and commercial escapades have conclusively proven just how similarly fungible conservative Christian, especially evangelical, moral codes are.  No doubt under many circumstances, self-proclaimed arbiters of public morals like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., would condemn men who grabbed women by their genitals and defrauded middle-aged people out of their savings. But when the end-in-view is renewed access to the Oval Office, their version of Christian morality proved eminently fungible, and they were eager to trade in their morality for political leverage. Evangelical morality turned out to be just a rather more genteel form of harlotry. The only difference turned out to be that evangelical-Christian bordellos displayed a Cross out front.

Again, as with virtually all things post-modern, the needs of the community are paramount, even in terms of right and wrong.  I find this especially troubling.  If the needs of the community – what the community perceives that it needs in order to be a community – is the supreme defining parameter of permissible vs. impermissible conduct, then, if a given Muslim community decides that, in order to be a community, it must practice, say, female genital mutilation or allow husbands to beat their wives (neither of which is a teaching of qur'anic Islam as I understand it) ... well … I leave the rest to your imagination.  By contrast, the Enlightenment idea was that even the needs of the community must often be held as secondary to certain human rights at the individual level, e.g., the community’s felt need for segregated schools vs. “equal protection” of the law, the community’s revulsion at certain religious beliefs vs. the individual’s right of “free exercise”, the community’s disagreement with certain unpopular opinions vs. an individual’s right to free speech, etc., etc., etc.  (Mr. Spock's Star Trek maxim that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" is pristinely, quintessentially post-modern. James Madison would have turned over in his grave!) The post-modernist “needs of the community” criterion basically amounts to underwriting mob rule.  What renders this principle acceptable to conservative Christians is that, with Donald Trump in the White House, evangelical Christians may reasonably hope to be the mob. With that change, the moral calculus changes accordingly from one that is recognizably Christian to one that is explicitly post-modern.

o Science as merely one more "meta-narrative" among many others

This is one we should have -- and could have -- seen coming, at least those of us who have read, say, the late Jean-Francois Lyotard, who did the most to popularize the term, and the late Michel Foucault.  In a nutshell, a "meta-narrative"  is a "story about stories", i.e., an overarching story that validates a given culture's "sub-stories" that, collectively, lend coherence and some kind of unity to a culture. The Christian meta-narrative unified and made rational the political hierarchy of the Middle Ages whereby the liege lord, like God, was at the top of the pyramid. The Christian meta-narrative even rationalized the horror of the Black Death in the middle 1300s:  God was punishing the human race for its history of infidelity and immorality. Etc., etc.., etc. Under the umbrella of the Christian meta-narrative, history, politics, and morality -- and even deviations from those norms -- all made sense.

The Christian meta-narrative gave way in the 1500s to the science meta-narrative -- the world as a system governed by natural laws discoverable by reason and empirical investigation, and even useful in improving the physical circumstances of life -- that has been dominant ever since, at least up until the advent of the post-modernist world-view. I say we should have seen this coming because we saw early symptoms, even in the popular culture, of the breakdown of the strictly scientific meta-narrative, followed by its replacement among many people by what can only be termed some form of "magical thinking". (That, in a nutshell, is a good hip-pocket description of New Age culture. Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan's widow, had some trenchant comments about magical thinking when she appeared on Bill Maher's Real Time a few years ago.) Perhaps the most recent example is all the kerfuffle about the implications of the Mayan "Long Count" Calendar predicting a dire alignment of planets and the sun with the center of the Milky Way Galaxy that, for all manner of half-baked and misunderstood pseudo-scientific reasons, portended some kind of apocalyptic, perhaps even physical, upheaval on a cosmic scale. Which never happened, of course. But never mind. People still believe Jesus could return a week from next Thursday ... and have been saying so for 2000 years.

Michel Foucault
Jean-Francois Lyotard

The difference is that now the post-modernist critique of meta-narratives, hitherto restricted to academic debates in classrooms and proseminar courses, has escaped from the lamp and become a genie that may render impossible meaningful action to mitigate the exhaustively corroborated reality of climate change, to name just the most obvious example. The rational response would seem to be that, you are quite welcome to your New Age superstitions, as long as they don't leave Miami underwater. But that's just me, still benighted by being caught in the "pre-post-modern" Enlightenment Weltanschauung.

The much more contemporary attitude would seem to be the belief, on the part of Trump and his devotees, that the gradual increase in the mean ambient global temperature, even supposing it to be real, is due to China indiscriminately dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere ... which, to fit the data, would have to have been happening since, at the very least, quite early in the 19th century. But there I go again. And that is just one example. If you don't like that one, pick another. A good alternative might be the imaginary link between vaccinations and autism. But again, the question should be "What does the community need?" Certainly not a belief, however well-grounded, in anthropogenic climate change! As the mandarins of Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry often told me back in "The Day","There goes Jim again, being too left-brained!"

This is one of those rare occasions when academic philosophy -- e.g., Lyotard and Foucault -- bids fair to destroy one of the cornerstones of Western civilization. (The last such occasion was Marx / Engels and Marxism.) So, in terms of practical consequences, if a given community -- never mind which one -- needs to believe that vaccinations cause autism, should that community be allowed to forego vaccinating its kids -- who presumably don't have a choice -- thereby penalizing the pro-vaccination community by turning the non-vaccinated kids into tiny biological weapons of mass destruction? Good post-modernist practice, sustained by Lyotard, Foucault, and their arguments of "meta-narrative as instrumentality of oppression," would argue "Not only 'Yes', but 'Hell yes'." Thus the suicide of Western civilization proceeds apace.

Well ... is there nothing we can do? Is there no longer a place for the values, beliefs, and principles of the European Enlightenment? My answer is "Yes but ... " During the early 1940s, there was also a place for the population of London during German bombing raids:  the tunnels and caverns of the London Underground. If we propose to remain a technological civilization, there must be a place -- and not just in "science proper" -- for the principles of the Enlightenment. But, at least for a while, that place will not be above ground. The Enlightenment must henceforth be practiced sub rosa, in a clandestine discursive space of intellectual Underground tunnels where it will be safe.

Where might that be?  Keep watching this space ...

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Jean-Francois Lyotard ... Bracha L. Ettinger ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic
"The Painter Prince" ... Paul Ricken ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Michel Foucault ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Collatz fractal ... Originator unknown ... Public domain
"Metanarrative" quote ... David Bentley Hart ... Public domain
Franklin Graham ... "Cornstalker" ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Jerry Falwell, Jr. ... Liberty University ... Public domain
Escher waterfall ... M. C. Escher ... Fair use


  1. Profile photo of Thurneysen
    Thurneysen said on March 9, 2017
    Jim, have you been following the Jordan Peterson (U of Toronto Prof) story regarding the Ontario law requiring use of dozens of new pronouns? I would urge you on your next car trip or plane ride, to listen to the Joe Rogan podcast interview with Jordan Peterson. I don’t like it much when Mr Rogan calls all his listeners Fs or MFers. But thankfully that’s just at the very beginning and the very end. Peterson’s articulation of his stance (as telling the truth, in opposition to the project of Marxist Post-modernism) is quite an eye opener. And at his suggestion, I’ve decided I must read Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” Peterson’s elucidation of the attractiveness of Marxism to liberal intellectuals is very interesting. I was very excited reading “Capital” myself. But Peterson’s spotlight on the “Gulag” as the end-game of the idea that ‘all Western structures are oppressive’ is . . . well . . . I can’t find the words yet. One bone to pic with you. I always try to have ONE. When you lump religious miracle-story language together with dangerous lies, you lose me. What relevance to humanity does your notion of “no way essentially different” have at that point. The Enlightenment I know would say that even if the six year old George Washington never said "I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree," it's a story we can learn from. It's a GOOD story. And not at all similar to Trump stating the fact that "1,000s of Muslims stood and cheered." Which is a BAD story. You disagree as an atheist perhaps, but the Kerygma, proclamation of such, of the bread and the cup being a sacrament, an sign of the efficacious reconciliation between God and humanity, is a GOOD story too. Fellow I talked to today gave his life to Jesus because of that Kerygma, and quit drugs, got out of sleeping in his car and has been clean for 20 years or more. He says, “because Jesus saved me.” That’s also a GOOD story.
    1. Profile photo of jrcowles
      jrcowles said on March 9, 2017
      I would agree, and have argued in the past, that stories like the young Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Jesus walking on the water are to be taken seriously but not literally. Same as the Resurrection, Transubstantiation, etc. But Trump intended for Muslims rejoicing at 9/11 and 47% unemployment to be taken BOTH seriously AND literally. E.g., Transubstantiation is an archetype of transformation, something like what happened to Buddha under the bo tree -- which is itself an archetypal account of an experience of "cosmic consciousness". Taken literally, the Christian myths require blind, "fact-free" faith, a belief that the map IS the territory ... and, for that reason, require anesthetizing the critical faculty and replacing it with blind faith. Ditto Trump's allegations. Blind, literal faith in both cases -- and therefore dangerous. Myths / Archetypes, taken literally, are usually dangerous. I'm tempted to say "always".
    2. Profile photo of jrcowles
      jrcowles said on March 10, 2017
      Thanks! I did get briefly into the Harris podcast, but I want to give it a fair listen early next week. Will reply / respond shortly thereafter.
  2. Profile photo of Thurneysen
    Thurneysen said on March 10, 2017
    Jim, this appears akin to the conversation Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson recently had, which Harris' podcast labeled, "What is Truth?" The two hours makes my head hurt, but you might find it highly follow-able and even helpful. If I'm right, I see myself more sympathetic to Peterson, and you perhaps more sympathetic to Harris. https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/what-is-true

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