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Challenging Postmodernism by David Detmer

Barry Seidman enjoys David Detmer’s provocative book about Postmodernism, Humanism and the Left.

To many, the antithesis of modern humanism, which was founded on Enlightenment principals, would be the philosophy of postmodernism. Postmodernism, born in France and acclaimed widely in academia in the United States, can be most simply described as relativism; according to which everyone’s perception of reality – of truth – has an equal opportunity of being legitimate due to either personal or cultural circumstances. Therefore the existence of God, if ‘true’ for you, is no less legitimate than the non-existence of that same God for me. Likewise, if certain behavior is deemed ‘torture’ by one society, but an acceptable means of military interrogation by another, cultural relativism may condemn it in the former society but not in the latter.

The political Left in America, over the past 45 years or so, has been marred by postmodernism, and the Right has taken advantage of that fact. What started out as an honest and justified consideration for the well-being of cultures ‘other than’ European and American (cultures which often have been historically the victims of European/American colonialism and hegemony), has morphed into an acceptance of double standards by some thinkers. I call this the ‘who are we to judge’ effect. The Right, as is its wont, fights back with fundamentalisms of every sort – or what I call their ‘we alone are to judge’ doctrine.

So what of Humanism? Humanism, as I’ve argued in my new anthology, Toward a New Political Humanism (Prometheus 2004), is best understood as a liberal ethical philosophy based partly on Enlightenment principals – so therefore, anti-relativist. Is there then, a way to understand and implement a progressive humanism which, while Leftist in political orientation, is still Enlightenment based? That is the question David Detmer tries to answer in his book, Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy & the Politics of Truth (Humanity Books, 2003).

Challenging Postmodernism is a philosophical treatise which examines the problems with postmodernism and its anti-humanistic implications, and tries to determine whether or not the intellectual Left is indeed guilty en masse of cultural relativism. It then explains how a progressive politic is indeed very much in step with Enlightenment humanism.

Detmer first tackles postmodern thinking up front. In doing so, he discusses Edmund Husserl’s arguments against postmodernism of the last century, as well as the works of Jean-Paul Sartre (and how Richard Rorty, who Detmer suggests “has little use of the concept of truth,” uses the work of Sartre against postmoderism.) Husserl and Sartre are the building blocks for Detmer’s own thesis.

In the opening chapters, Detmer points out the faulty logic of postmodernism by reviewing the concept of self-referential inconsistencies, and the ‘Argument from Disagreement.’ The former occurs, in Detmer’s words, because when “relativism is judged, as seems only reasonable and fair, in the light of its own explicitly stated content, it seems to contradict itself.” That is, if truth is to be regarded as merely a construct of society, rather than reflecting how things really are, then the claim that truth is socially constructed, must itself be understood as a social construct rather than a reflection of how things really are.

‘The Argument from Disagreement’ has two premises. The first asserts that there is no consensus in some area of thinking, but rather controversy and disagreement. The second premise that if there really was a way things really are, we would not have so much controversy about it. Detmer offers several explanations for how misleading this kind of argument is. One is the fact that “frequently, not all parties to a dispute have access to the same evidence. (Therefore) people confuse relativity of justified belief with relativity of truth.” This leads Detmer to implement critical thinking, and inquire as to how we gain access to evidence in the first place (we being the general public, and not scientists and philosophers).

That access, in today’s world, is gained through the media. Detmer argues that there are two main reasons for the widespread problem of “poor reasoning and ignorance in America today”: the contemporary mass media, and confusion about tolerance. Concerning the former, one example he cites is Noam Chomsky’s work on uncovering the facts behind the U.S. siege of Nicaragua in the 1980s, and how his work never made it into the mainstream press. Detmer asks, “could it be that vast amounts of information that is vital to the understanding of how the world works, and crucial for anyone who would participate knowledgeably in discussions of public policy matters, is routinely excluded from mass media journalism? Could it be, in short, that a major reason why most Americans are ignorant of their country’s history is that the U.S. mass media generally fails to report on it?” Answering the second question in the affirmative, Detmer provides the main reason for the failure of the press – “The Both Sides Model.”

As a journalist, I have heard one phrase constantly both in school and on the job: “Objectivity must be at the core of reporting, and that means we must get ‘both sides’ of the story.” One obvious problem here is that there are rarely just two sides to any story. For instance, when a political crisis occurs, the press goes first to the political party in power to get their opinion; then, for a contrasting opinion, the press goes to the other major party. So to Americans looking on, a political solution will either come from the Republican or Democratic side of the aisle, as if no other opinions may hold a better solution. Further complicating this, it is important to note that in these times, when many members of both major parties respond to every crisis in almost the same way, journalists following this simple-minded ‘rule’ have no latitude for discovering detailed (and often more plausible) information.

Also, Detmer points out that the press’s criteria for finding out who should provide the two sides to any argument, they often look for who will offer the best ‘entertainment value,’ for who is most popular, or for which opinion fits the political slant of their publication or production (as is well-known, many of these have shifted far to the Right since the merging of major mass media operations, mostly owned by the likes of Clear Channel, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney.)

Confusion about tolerance, Detmer argues, actually creates an atmosphere where truth itself is considered dangerous, arrogant, or oppressive. This is the “we must be tolerant, no matter what, of others’ feelings or cultures” argument. As an atheist who has studied religion for some time, I can argue on evidence – historical, scientific and philosophic – against the existence of God and the supernatural. However, if I dare to do so in public, no matter how pleasant I am, I am often perceived to be arrogant or close-minded. What is interesting is that this is not only the reaction I get from religionists who are sensitive about their beliefs, but from many agnostics as well. That I can argue (with strong evidence) against the existence of Moses, angels or God, seems to make others feel that I somehow think I have the monopoly on Truth ... which is, of course, impossible. I feel this is so because many people tend to be suspicious of anyone who even seems to be claiming a truth, unless they themselves agree with that truth.

Following that logic, though it is quite clear (again, with strong evidence), that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and based on lies, and this should mean that folks would be suspicious (and angry) that Bush claimed he had ‘the truth’ about Iraq. But those who, for whatever reason, actually enjoy where this country is now heading, cannot seem to see it that way.

Throughout Challenging Postmodernism, David Detmer offers clear and detailed examples of where postmodernism exists today; it might surprise some folks that it is not only found in elements of the Left (New Age spiritualists, alternative medicine advocates, and anti-establishment folks who are such for the sake of being so), but on the political Right which often has one ‘justified’ set of rules for themselves and a whole different set for ‘the other.’ Indeed, Detmer’s understanding of the ethics found on the Left are very much in line with what we humanists would recognize in our various manifestos.

Happily, Detmer also offers solutions to these problems and, by citing Noam Chomsky’s defense of rationality and science, claims (as does Chomsky) that there is no need to abandon Enlightenment conceptions of evidence while still being fair, just and culturally aware – indeed that may be the best path toward such ethical goals. Quoting Chomsky for the purpose of emphasizing an ethical framework based on Enlightenment Humanism and of the virtues of truth, Detmer records, “Why don’t our leaders tell the truth? When they’re going to destroy Iraq, why don’t they announce: ‘Look, we want to control the international oil system. We want to establish the principle that the world is ruled by force, because that’s the only thing that we’re good at. We want to prevent any independent nationalism. We’ve got nothing against Saddam Hussein. He’s a friend of ours. He’s tortured and gassed people. That was fine. But then he disobeyed orders. Therefore, he must be destroyed as a lesson to other people: Don’t disobey orders.’”

© Barry Seidman 2005

Barry Seidman lives in New Jersey, works for the Center for Inquiry, writes for a number of magazines and is the producer of ‘Equal Time for Freethought,’ a live radio program on WBAI-NY.

Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy & the Politics of Truth by David Detmer. Humanity Books 2003, 1591021014. $35.

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