Musings on Postmodern Politics
[From HUMANITAS, Volume VIII, No. 1, 1995 ©
Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]
I have for some time been vaguely aware that in the higher levels of
culture--art, music, poetry, etc.--we have been moving out of the age of
"modernism" into a new age or era, labelled "postmodernism."
The term gave me some trouble. "Modernism," to me, had always indicated
the "now," and could never be "post," unless the word was to be fixed,
as having no future use. There could never be a "post modernism." The line
has been broken. We may look forward to "new-modernism," or "neo-modernism,"
possibly "neo-neo modernism," or possibly indicate new eras and ages, as
we do Stallone movies, as "Modernism" No. I, No. II, etc.
Then, I learned that we in the United States are in a postmodern political
era. This took me somewhat by surprise. The politics of most of the "modern"
era had been a mixed bag of democracy, communism, fascism, and colonialism
with a polarization into two camps, communism and capitalistic democracy,
following the end of World War II. With the breakup of the Soviet Union
and the general abandonment of communism, some political observers said
we were back to the end of World War II, others back to the beginning of
World War II. None of these early analysts identified the beginning of
a postmodern age of politics that now is upon us or that we are in.
Since I can find no orderly or systematic exposition of postmodern politics,
even from those who say they are practicing it, I have been trying to define
it by noting differences between current and past politics, hoping that,
as in the method of music-minus-one, a melody may emerge. Assuming that
the Marxist theory of thesis and antithesis, leading to synthesis, no longer
applies, we are left with an open-ended society and politics. This predicament
is not altogether reassuring as it may lead us to a state of "entropy,"
i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism
as to what may result, beyond that which may be drawn from the finding
of the computer genius who sought to create chaos in an advanced computer,
only to be frustrated when, just as he thought he was to accomplish his
goal, signs and patterns of order began to emerge.
What will emerge is not clear. It is not even clear whether we will
be able to identify or describe the new order even after it has emerged.
The logic of "postmodernism" is not, I have learned, traditional or Aristotelian.
It is what computer experts call "fuzzy logic," the logic of the computer
which, under some circumstances, is said to be more reliable, at least
in the short run, than classical, rational logic.
The strength of the new logic lies in the fact that it uses, or manipulates,
imprecise facts (non-facts), or what may or may not be a fact but an impression
(a word once used by a Reagan aide to explain a presidential misstatement),
an act which, although unnoted, may have marked the historical beginning
of "postmodern" politics. Everything in the new logic is approached as
a matter of degree. Key words are not absolutes, like black and white,
or hot or cold, but gray, or cool, and the like.
Consistent with this use of language, President Carter described what
some called a failure in the attempted rescue of the American hostages
held in Iran (they were not rescued) as an "incomplete success." It might
as well have been described as a "partial failure." These early indications
of unrecognized "postmodernism" in both the Reagan and Carter administrations,
obscured by the deconstructionism (linguistic and political) of the Bush
administration, should have forewarned us of a new politics, which is becoming
more clearly manifest in the Clinton administration.
Postmodern politics has several distinguishing marks. It is indifferent
to tradition. Persons in the new politics are unlikely to have had the
experience of participating in satisfying and sustaining history. They
missed the days of high patriotism and sacrifice of World War II and came
to political awareness during the years of the Vietnam War, many experiencing
the distressing and difficult test of patriotism, as in the case of President
Postmodern politics discounts loyalty and personal relationships. Appointment
to office, and also elections, which used to reflect cultural and personal
differences such as religion and nationality, are more likely to depend
on physical or physiological or biological differences, such as race, sex,
or accident of time of birth (a generation). When Zoë Baird looked
for help in her difficulty after being nominated to be attorney general
by President Clinton, she found no personal support even from the president,
but only the depersonalized support of generation and the female sex. Her
situation moved one political writer with historical memory to report a
pre-postmodern rule of Chicago Democratic politics (a rule probably still
in effect in Chicago) which said, "Don't send us nobody that nobody sent."
Postmodern politicians and persons are not lonely. They have not known
community, many of them--not the community of family, not family loyalty,
or loyalty to place,, to city or town, or to employers, or corporations,
or even loyalty to baseball teams. They are isolated. There are more exiles
and refugees than there are retirees. Many are like the child in the airport,
smiling too readily, too soon or too long, bearing a name tag with both
a return and a forwarding address.
Postmoderns are not greedy as charged. They are insecure, seeking security
in making "more," and in using "more," rather than having "more." Their
music is rap, instant in composition and in performance, impromptu, produced
and consumed in one disposable presentation. Postmodern persons are more
likely to say, "I represent," or "I am a client," than "I am." They spend
a lot of time redefining themselves, and looking for new meaning. They
have many friends who seem to be, without graduation, not just "friends"
but all Best Friends. There seem to be no casual friends or former friends,
and all are "mutual," shared with others like investments in a mutual fund.
They are advocates and practitioners of zero-based thinking. I tried
it once and passed right through the zero mark into the range of sub-zero
thinking. The climb back was too difficult. I now try to start thinking
not only above zero but well above the freezing point.
Postmoderns believe that life and politics, both, can be reduced to
"problems" and "solutions." They say things like, "If you do not know what
the problem is, you are part of it." They are not only "problem solvers"
but "problem finders." Political campaigns and offices have "issues persons."
Meetings are advanced by the use of "facilitators," and proposals are challenged
not by the traditional "devil's advocate" but by "contrarians."
Postmoderns are quite free with language. They make nouns into verbs,
like "expense," and then, for general use, into gerunds. Men used to "father"
a child and then become a father and also a parent. Women would have a
child and then become a mother and mother the child. Husbands and wives
now "parent" their children. Books on "parenting" are popular.
Postmoderns quantify and extrapolate, and, without history but with
fuzzy logic, are the power in "postmodern" politics. As David Gergen said
on his joining the Clinton administration, he himself became more "centered."
He "intersected" with members of the administration, and "bonded" with
them, and experienced a "psychic return."
And, as Leon Weiseltier wrote in The New Republic (July 1993),
the postmodern politician, as demonstrated in President Clinton, is not
marked by nonbelief but by belief in everything, a belief which eliminates
the rule of contradiction and leaves one with only one working principle--belief
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