OK, so, this might be a long one. Bear with me.
I was an undergraduate in 1999 when Richard Evans’ In Defence of History came out. Indeed, I may have been genning up for the Historical Method and Theory paper. I wound up writing about the use of archaeological evidence, which was prescient of me, but at the time Evans’ book was the latest thing, the more so since he then came to Cambridge, an event celebrated by a very public debate with Quentin Skinner and … er … someone else. It was a long time ago. In the book, Evans argued against what he saw as a postmodernist disregard for truth and further argued that this kind of thing gave aid and comfort to those with no regard for truth — creationists, holocaust deniers and so on.
I am far from being an expert on postmodernism, but I recall thinking as I read the book that I suspected that Evans was cherrypicking extreme and possibly unrepresentative examples of postmodern history to beat on, which I believe was a common complaint at the time. I’m also not 100% convinced that when Evans and the people he attacked talk about “facts” they’re really talking about the same thing at all, a criticism which I believe has been made better elsewhere. If you’re interested in the debate, there’s a good chunk of it here, as Evans and his critics battle back and forth in honour of the release of a new edition of E. H. Carr’s classic What Is History. (That’s not the exact edition, so if you want to get the one with Evans’ foreword you’ll have to look for the one with a big blue eye on the cover.)
But I’m not really interested in talking about Evans’ full-throated defence of good ol’ “common sense” empiricism, not least since I suspect that even the most radical deconstructionist still shares 90% of their historical DNA with a commonsense empiricist. It’s the other point that I wanted to talk about today, since it turns out that Richard Evans has a Twitter account.
Post-truth and alternative facts: today’s leaders in the USA all imbibed postmodernist relativism at university in the late 1980s and 1990s.
— Sir Richard Evans (@RichardEvans36) January 23, 2017
If you missed this, which I suppose is possible, it’s about the recent inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Trump got a moderate-to-small-sized crowd for his inauguration, which is understandable given that a) he’s very unpopular, b) he’s especially unpopular in Washington, and c) it was a rainy Friday afternoon. But this wasn’t good enough for Trump, who is a) a dipshit manchild and b) the President of the United States, and he sent his hapless press secretary Sean Spicer out to give the media a tongue lashing for believing their lyin’ eyes instead of the Real Truth. He got raked over the coals for this by the unsympathetic papers, as well he might. As the totally unnecessary controversy persisted, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press and wound up making an even bigger arse of herself, claiming that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts.”
Cue outrage from everyone you might expect: there’s no such thing as “alternative facts!” Post-truth era! To what has our society come! People were quick to blame the Internet, Fox News, partisanship, whatever. And Evans jumped in to blame … postmodernism. And, in the same way that I don’t think holocaust denial and postmodernism have a lot to do with each other, I’m not wholly convinced the connection is as strong as it might be in this case.
Let’s get the two obvious objections out of the way. First, Conway probably misspoke. When she said “alternative facts,” she seems to have meant something like “facts that support another interpretation” not “there’s no such thing as truth, ha ha ha.” People who care about truth seized on this because it was the perfect two-word encapsulation of Trump’s shameless, unrestrained mendacity, not because they actually think Kellyanne Conway doesn’t believe in facts.
Secondly, the historical idea that Donald Trump is somehow steeped in postmodernist discourse is absurd. For one thing, he’s 70 years old and went to university in the 60s. For another, he was an economics major. And for yet another, he’s … I mean, he’s not a big reader. People in a position to know have speculated that he has not read a book from beginning to end in fifty years. The idea that he himself is a product of the postmodern university environment is so goddamn dumb it can’t possibly be what Evans intended.
Indeed, Evans clarified later that he was referring to people like Conway and Spicer, who graduated from university in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kellyanne Conway went to a Catholic university, Trinity Washington (it was called Trinity College back then) and studied political science. I don’t know if it was a hotbed of postmodernism, but superficially it seems unlikely. Spicer, perhaps, is a more likely candidate — he went to a small private liberal arts college in Connecticut, so maybe it was nothing but dope-smoking Derrida freaks, I don’t know.
But it’s not like Spicer came out and told the press corps that relative crowd size was a story inscribed on the past by the media and that they should be open to a multivocal inaugural narrative. He came out and shouted at them that they were misrepresenting what he presented as the real truth, bolstered by mock-evidence in the form of misleading photographs and made-up statistics. He didn’t act like a postmodernist, he acted like a conspiracy freak, or if you prefer, a hoaxer.
So we can rule out the idea, I think, that Conway, Spicer or Trump subscribe personally to postmodern theories of, I don’t know, incredulity toward hegemonic narratives. Did I say I wasn’t an expert on postmodernism? Conway and Spicer are the usual combination of cynical opportunism and partisan blindness, while Trump is a combination of a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense and a goofy old dope who only knows what he sees on television. You don’t need to have “imbibed relativism” to be a powerful man’s cringing toady or a self-involved fantasist. So what does this have to do with postmodernism?
As it happens, Evans thinks that postmodernism has created an academic environment in which conspiracy freaks who might otherwise be laughed to scorn now get an equal hearing. And there’s … a leetle bit of evidence to support that. I was once at an archaeological confidence where goofball fantasist Michael Cremo (who is a very nice and affable man in person) was invited to speak. And while everyone at the conference knew that this was some kind of weird academic performance/joke/provocation by organiser Cornelius Holtorf in which young defenders of archaeological orthodoxy were tested by their exposure to a pseudo-archaeologist in person, it’s just possible that someone was persuaded by Cremo who wouldn’t otherwise have been because he was able to put “invited to speak at the 2007 conference of the European Association of Archaeologists.” I don’t think it’s likely, but I won’t rule it out.
So perhaps post-modernism has made people more willing to be tolerant of goofuses. But, and assuming this is directed at the media and the left generally, I have not noticed that kind of tolerance being extended to groups like, say, the Tea Party, who most people are happy to point out were a bunch of conspiracy fabulists. The US media’s ludicrous refusal to call a lie a lie until recently, so decried by the left during the Bush years, actually stems from the opposite of postmodern concepts — a strict insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality.” As I understand postmodern thought — and again, not an expert — postmodernists don’t believe in those things. And not like “don’t believe in slavery” don’t believe, but like “don’t believe in unicorns” don’t believe.
So I think it’s very hard to identify the roots of either Trump’s lying or people’s responses to it in relativist indoctriation.
One of the things that people always say about Trump is “this is not normal.” And within the confines of 20th-century American politics, it’s not. But within the sweep of global history, outrageous political lying is hardly unusual. Hitler accused the Jewish community of all kinds of shenanigans, French revolutionaries saw counter-revolutionary conspiracies where there were none (and sometimes where there were), medieval preachers accused Muslims of horrible atrocities, blah blah blah. People often propound, and almost as often believe, what they need to be true. Obviously, this is a historical phenomenon that predates Trump or American politics generally.
The specific form this takes is one that’s bolstered by a world in which there is no longer a single, authoritative voice to heed. There’s no longer someone you can just rely on, whether a Pope, a king, or an expert. Authority hasn’t spoken with a single voice in a long time, not since printing presses became cheap enough that there was one per political party. And with the growth of cable news, the internet, social media, well … you know the story. Your friend shows you a link from realobviousnews.com and you think well, maybe. But the way in which these different truths are contested isn’t the postmodern one; it’s the conspiratorial one. The real facts are these — the man / big business / SJWs / whoever don’t want you to know them!
You could argue, I suppose, that postmodernism as a way of thinking about knowledge had to result from a society in which this diversity of opinion existed — and furthermore, perhaps, from a society in which some sort of more-or-less, rough-and-ready sense of empiricism was the force that was supposed to counteract that. But it seems to me anyway that opportunistic political liars and/or cranks would use the proliferation of partisan and conspiratorial viewpoints as cover, with or without postmodernism. In fact, surely you can see that exact phenomenon in fields that have never had any real dealings with postmodernism? If you look at medicine, for instance, it’s not like there aren’t snake-oil salesmen, quacks, well-meaning but wrong mystics, “alternative” medicine advocates and whatever other kind of pseudoscientist you can think of, all peddling their wares and increasing their power in a field that you can hardly say has been corrupted by the creeping relativism of the Continent. But the same media and technological trends exist for doctors as for everyone else.
(Medicine, in fact, provides a fine example of the idea that the certainty of truth claims and the, er, truth of them aren’t correlated. In the Middle Ages everyone was pretty much on the same page in terms of the value of truth and falsehood, but they didn’t know shit about anything. But that’s a separate issue.)
Anyway, I thought wild generalisation unsupported by evidence was what we objected to about the French.