“Post-trust”: origins and implications

 

The notion of “post-truth,” the relativistic assumption that reality does not exist and could be modified/”constructed” depending on perceived needs, is now related to the Kremlin. Left/Liberals, at least in the USA, are especially outraged by what they regard as Moscow’s cynicism and perfidity. In their view, the Kremlin’s manipulations of truth could explain all their recent calamities: Trump’s election, problem in NATO and the European Union, and many others. Still, the origins of post-trust” are intimately related to postmodernism, still quite fashionable in the West and especially academia.

 

Postmodernism and its possible future: the origin of non-trust

 

The assumption that no truth or reality exists as objective entity is quite old. Even those with a perfunctory knowledge of philosophy would certainly note the Sophists, who lived in ancient Greece around 2,500 years ago. Still, the origins of “non-trust” relativistic cynicism go much deeper into the past. Indeed, one could find relativistic sophism as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, where it emerged a thousand years before Greece. In the old Mesopotamian document called The Conversation Between Master and Slave, the Master asks the Slave the mutually exclusive question, and the slave immediately finds out that the master is absolutely right. When the Master wants to engage in war, the Slave immediately asserts that the Master is absolutely right and that warmongering is the only way for the real man. Soon, the Master’s proposal is absolutely different: he proclaims that he hates war. The Slave immediately changes his mind and proclaims that the master is absolutely right: the war is a dangerous enterprise and that man should never engage in war. The reason for the Slave’s absolutely opposite answers and logical constructions behind them is not the result of a sort of intellectual revelation, or even the Slave’s desire to demonstrate his sophistication and intellectual dexterity. It is due to a more pragmatic reason: the Slave, if he were to be resurrected and give an honest answer, would tell that those who provide appropriate answers, those which are expected by the Master, are treated much better than those who contradict the Master, and stubbornly believe in “truth.” This pragmatic implication of the early “postmodernism” should be noted for future reference. While relativistic ideas have a long history, they have reemerged as dominant, or at least as one of the dominant trends in France, as could easily be seen by the number of prominent French postmodernists. With all of their importance for the development of the creed, they were not those who launched it. It was Levi-Strauss, the influential anthropologist and ethnographer, who set in motion the new intellectual trend which actually challenged the entire intellectual construction prevailing in the West throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, the majority of scholars believed in the gradual development of human civilization, which had moved from more primitive to more advanced stages, represented by the modern capitalist West. Even radicals such as Marxists accepted this view, at least in its general outlines. Indeed, even they, with all their critics of the capitalist West, would agree that 19th and 20th-century Europeans had the more advanced view than the natives in Africa or Latin America, who often lived in conditions close to that of the Stone Age. Levi-Strauss challenged this assumption. The natives had not primitive views, but rather different views, and the views of tribesmen from the Amazon jungle and those of professors from the Sorbonne are equally valid. Levi-Strauss’ views became the foundation, or at least encouragement, for the birth of postmodernism, which was also originally a French phenomenon. The elements of relativism had been fully developed here to its extremes. In the process, the intellectual play had been developed to the ultimate end result: in the postmodernist narrative, reality ceased to exist. While a relativistic streak was the hallmark of the entire movement, it was Derrida who played one of the most important roles. More, possibly, than anybody else in the movement, he denied the existence of truth as objective category.  Derrida, a Jew from Algeria, became famous for his “deconstruction” theory. The point here is that, according to the philosopher, each reader could find in a text whatever he wants. It was not the assumption that a text could indeed have a meaning not cognized by the author himself, and which required the fresh eyes of the outside critic. It was not even centuries, if not thousands-of-years-old, assumption that the nature of the event became incomprehensible for us due to the limits imposed by our nature to our senses. And in this context, events became “Kantian” things in themselves. The implications of Derrida’s notion was much more profound. It plainly implied that text or, in a broader term, objective reality, does not exist.

 

In the view of the proponents of the theory, especially in the USA academia, albeit not only in it,

it does not mean that, to follow relativistic logic, many, actually infinite, “realities” exist, and each of these constructions is equally valid. This was not the case. Only one “constructed” reality was valid. It is validated only if it was “progressive” and “appropriate.”  This codification and peculiar dogmatization of relativism was due not just because of internal evolution of “discourse” but plainly because this was the way which ensured American academics – and surely not just them, to live at the expense of society and outside of its control. Postmodernism with a supposedly deeply relativistic streak became as dogmatic as the Soviets’ variation of Marxism-Leninism. Its major role was also similar: it encouraged conformity, obedience and ensured Academia absolute unaccountability to the duped hoi polloi.

 

Postmodernism in the USA: fig leaf for economic interests

 

Why did this approach prevail and exercise such influence over a considerable segment of the American elite for such a long time? One might note that some of these notions become so deeply internalized by the elite that their connection with postmodernism became rather obscured. What was the reason for such popularity? Most Western, especially American, intellectuals would probably state that “postmodernism” has been intellectually engaging. This might even be stated that Marxism, quite popular among their intellectual fathers and grandfathers, looks rather ossified, unengaging and, in a way, intellectually obsolete. Therefore, many would state that social science and humanities should move beyond Marxism. Still, the reason for the embrace of postmodernism by Academia has little to do with its intellectual attractions. As a matter of fact, postmodernism, at least in its original French version, was full of relativistic playfulness, and paradoxes, so much in tune with the long tradition in French thought. In the original French variation, one could indeed find relativistic playfulness, and sort of aesthetic immorality when crime, especially bizarre and brutal, became a peculiar artwork. Nothing of this could be found in the American variation. It  became almost immediately puritanized and dogmatized. The only acceptable “constructed” reality can and should exist. The other forms of “constructed” reality which opposed the prescribed views were purged. One should be clear here, that if one were to depart from the prescribed way of thinking, writing, etc., he would not be tortured, sent to cut wood in Alaska or worked to death in camps. Still, the chance of being published by respected presses would be miniscule. One can, of course, publish one’s own work at one’s own expense, by the so-called “vanity press.” Still, no one reads those books, buys them, or takes them seriously. Even if one is lucky enough to publish his work, to be sure it would hardly be mentioned and definitely would not help to ensure good employment. And this is certainly the most important for many American intellectuals in “constructing” the appropriate reality in their writings and presentations. To understand this mentality, and actions, one must return to the beginning of this article, to the Conversations Between Master and Slave. To external observers, the Slave’s quick change in the nature of the narrative was indeed caused by changes in the mind of the Slave. It looks as if he really thinks that war is the most glorious enterprise, and later he seems to genuinely change his mind and become really convinced that peaceful behavior is the most appropriate model. The Slave might indeed feel that he has deeply internalized the opposite dictum because he really has changed his mind. Still, it is clear from the narrative that the Slave has done this because he is a slave, dependent on his master, and wants to secure good treatment for providing the expected answers. These principles have worked in the application to academic life. Those who want to “construct” the appropriate reality – dealing with such subjects as racial minorities, gender- and women’s studies, LGBTQ, development of democracy, “multiculturalism,” and similar subjects and, of course, approaching them from a certain point of view – would state, publicly at least, that they indeed regard these subjects as the most exciting, and that this was the reason they engaged in the subject. They would also add that the study of these subjects are indeed most important for science and society, and that they believe that white racism is widespread and often violent toward helpless blacks. S/he would say that black racism is not only practically nonexistent, but, as a matter of fact, the very notion of black racism is racist. Still, the choice of the subject and the approach to the subject is predicated in many ways in the same way as that of the Slave in the Mesopotamian manuscript. And it also explains how the USA Academia – a good example as society in general works. And those who thought otherwise – and there were quite a few of them among Soviet-era naïve émigrés – were in trouble. To native, they look like “Borat” – politically incorrect simpletons from Kazakhstan and the hero of the American movie.

 

Émigrés as Borat and the search for “truth”

The Soviet émigrés, who mostly arrived in the USA in the 1970s, with no knowledge of “postmodernism” and American society, could be quite perplexed and ask politically incorrect questions. One might ask a university administration why, for example, there are numerous centers for the study of “democracy” and “civil rights,” when no center for the study of totalitarian/ authoritarian regimes exists; while there have been numerous studies and job openings for studying white racism, women/gender and LGBTQ studies, democracy, rule of law, etc., but not even one work on black racism; and why not a single monograph exists on how violent crime in urban centers is mostly related to blacks and Latinos. If you are a new arrival from the “evil empire” and the administrator, in a way, is amused with you and is ready to share his thoughts with the naïve newcomer, who looks on him as the protagonist of Borat – the movie about the (presumably) Kazakh simpleton who asks inappropriate questions and in general does not follow the rules of political correctness – he  might explain his actions. He might state that “truth” or not “truth” and the assumption that truth is a sort of objective/fixed category is rather naïve. There is “progressive” or “politically correct” truth, which promotes “progressive” values and principles, and this is the reason why we, in American universities and publishing houses hire and publish people who create “progressive” images and narratives in their books. The naïve “Borat” might still ask the questions. He might state that this looks like what he saw in the USSR, and what was regarded as cynical manipulation of the truth; it was nothing but lies promoted by the Soviet authorities, and it was the very reason he decided to emigrate. The officials, if he, of course, was still engaged in conversation, might note that the interlocutor is right in some ways in his criticism, but his barbs are misdirected.

The image of the USSR as the promised land and place of grass-roots democracy is basically right and there are quite a few books in English which show that. There are only a few problems. One of them was the treatment of women. With the advent of patriarchy, women were reduced to traditional submissive role of wife and mother. The approach to women was also not satisfactory. Those female graduate students who visited Russia informed their colleagues that Soviet men approached the females as sexual objects and consequently without respect: sexism is pervasive. This subject needs to be further researched, and there is a reason why they, the university, hires few professors; the administration, of course, would be pleased to hire black females, or at least black males. Still, they are hard to find. And while our “Borat” would look at his interlocutor with consternation, and his jaw falls while he waits to digest what he hears from his American acquaintance, and how what he said could be related to the speeches which he has listened to behind the Iron Curtain, his interlocutor realizes that he has spent too much valuable time on this Soviet idiot, and notes curtly that he needs to leave him. Indeed, he might add that he is too busy to write a report to the state legislature asking for additional funding and to convince them that the university is essential for lowering unemployment and making good and responsible citizens. The increasing funding shall be justified to the uninformed taxpayers – it should be justified by emphasizing the crucial importance of the research and teaching to the local and national economy and by the fact that the administration hired the best in their field. The particular focus on minorities/gender/democracy studies are also chosen carefully to bring greater benefit to science – and collaterally humanity – and of course the nation and state. On the way to the meeting where the plans for these important subjects shall be finalized, he might quip to other administrators or faculty members that he recently saw – and in a way was amused – a recent Soviet émigré who looked like an absolute idiot: the man cannot understand at all how the Western society works, and – he would add with a wry smile – that he would most likely end up flipping burgers or driving a taxi. He would add that not all émigrés are such idiots. He could note that he’s met some very shrewd ex-Soviets who understood the rules of the game extremely well and he believes that they had a bright future in this country. The administrator sends a clear message to the naïve “Borat” that he should “construct” appropriately if he wants to avoid driving a taxi.

Indeed, the imaginary administrator is quite a shrewd person – otherwise he would not be an administrator, and he understood quite well that certain views, hiring and promotion practices are the best way to ensure funding, good salary, and smooth relationships with faculty and the local legislature. Plenty of cash is objective and immutable “truth,” and postmodernist play, in certain interpretations, is the best way to achieve this “truth.” Thus he assures donors and the general public that what he offers them is not postmodernist relativism, but the good, solid philosophy of the Enlightenment, in which truth is unshakeable and fixed. His “theoretical” postmodernist reason is sharply demarcated from his “practical” reason, and if this were not the case he would not be an administrator. Those whom he supervises often follow the same model. If one would analyze the behavior of faculty, including those who are the most ardent proponents of postmodernism, one would also reveal that they are hardly “postmodernists” in their daily life. None of them believed that unemployment is just “constructed,” and they could easily construct the opposite reality. They are also quite realistic in their behavior. White female specialists in “gender studies” could well proclaim that the notion of black racism is itself racist, for only whites could be racist. She could state that a major threat for females is the university or college campus where rape is pervasive, conducted, of course, by white males, mostly professors, administrators and on occasion, also white students. And at that place, the law enforcement should pay utmost attention. Those who think otherwise are just racists and proponents of phallocratic philosophy, who carry the ideological germ of “white male hegemonistic discourse.” Still, the same female would enter university campuses, federal government buildings and headquarters of big corporations without fear. At the same time, she would try to avoid black neighborhoods. If she would be approached by groups of black teenagers during the night she would be quite alarmed and would be quite happy when the police arrived, even if the policeman was a white male, the carrier of “hegemonistic discourse.”

Academia is where the postmodernism game became quite entrenched. Still, it was not the only place. One might state that “constructed reality” would never have been very harmful to the American society if it weren’t spread to other societal segments, economy first of all. The captains of American business and the economists who related to them could well rally against the parasitical, good-for-nothing members of Academia who prey on good and naïve taxpayers, and pretend that they deliver “truth,” still their views and actions are essentially similar to that of Academia. All of them “constructed reality” which helped them to enjoy the good life at the expense of the increasingly impoverished population. They are similar to Academia in the same assertions to the hoi polloi that what they tell them is not “constructed reality” but good, solid truth in the context of the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, the proponents of the Enlightenment.

For a long time, the American “deplorables,” if one would remember Hillary Clinton’s statement, believed that the elite provided them with “truth.” The hoi polloi believed them and a host of “experts.” Still, the Great Recession and Trump’s victory indicated that the trust in “constructed reality” and the elite which “constructed” it is in the process of erosion and the populace started itself to ‘construct” its own “reality.” And this would have a profound implication for the future. Tom Nichols, a contributor to the extremely influential Foreign Affairs, noted with regret that people lost trust in “experts” and tried to find their own “truth” without any help from the elite. In his view, it is quite dangerous. “Unless some sort of trust and mutual respect can be restored, public discourse will be polluted by unearned respect for unfounded opinions. And in such an environment, anything and everything becomes possible, including the end of democracy and republican government itself (Tom Nichols, “How America lost faith in expertise. And why that’s a giant problem,” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2017). And this indeed could well happen if the economy tanks. At that point, the Western mass media most likely would blame “shap power” – it is only the West which uses “soft power” – of either Moscow or Beijing. Still, they were not to be the culprit. “Soft” power of “constructing” reality has a long, purely Western pedigree. The people in Moscow or Beijing will not engender it. They might plainly follow Nietzsche, one of the clear postmodernist forefathers, who stated that one shall simply “push those who are already going to fall down.”