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Welcome to the Postmodern World
In recent decades we have passed, like Alice slipping through the looking glass, into a new world. This postmodern world looks and feels in many ways like the modern world that preceded it: we still have the belief systems that gave form to the modern world, and indeed we also have remnants of many of the belief systems of premodern societies. If there is anything we have plenty of, it is belief systems. But we also have something else: a growing suspicion that all belief systems all ideas about human reality are social constructions. This is a story about stories, a belief about beliefs, and in time probably a very short time it will become a central part of the worldview of most people. It will be the core of the first global civilization.
But it is not yet a core. It is more a seed of discontent. It fills our daily lives with uncertainty and anxiety, renders us vulnerable to tyrants and cults, shakes religious faith, and divides societies into groups contending with one another in a strange and unfamiliar kind of ideological conflict: not merely conflict between beliefs, but conflict about belief itself.
Politics has always rested on the construction and maintenance of social reality, but until recently we didn't talk much about that. The deep issues concerning the nature of human truth were left to the philosophers. Most of the conflicts that tore the now-ending modern era were between different belief systems, each of which professed to have the truth: this faith against that one,capitalism against communism, science against religion. On all sides the assumption was that somebody possessed the real item, a truth fixed and beyond mere human conjecture. The modern era brought us into a world with multiple and conflicting belief systems. Now the postmodern era is revealing a world in which different groups have different beliefs about belief itself. A postmodern culture based on a different sense of social reality is coming into being and it is a painful birth.
In small towns all across America, modern and postmodern culture do battle: neighbor turns against neighbor in bitter disputes about whether children should be taught skills of "moral reasoning a very postmodern concept or should instead be taught to accept unquestioningly some rock-solid American values and beliefs. In the circles of higher education, the case is stated by books such as Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, which hammer at the postmodern relativism that (Professor Bloom says) abandons fundamental political principles in favor of a wishy-washy flexibility and recognizes "no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything." Bloom recognizes and is alarmed by the extent to which the old view of reality has eroded: "Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."
Bloom's indictment is quite correct, in a way: most people in, Western society today do hold a much more relativistic view of reality. And he is also justified in charging that few of them understand the full implications of this profoundly radical epistemology and instead wander around in a muddled good-guy liberalism that has no clear concept of truth and think all the world's problems would melt away if we just had a tad more tolerance. A postmodern worldview is present among us, yet unformed: it knows neither its own strengths, nor its own weaknesses. We do not know how to live in a world of socially constructed realities, yet we find it increasingly difficult to live in anything else.
The conservative indictment is correct, and yet the strategy that logically follows from it to rebuild consensus, to get a core of standard values and beliefs in place in every American mind is doomed to fail. To see that, you only need to look at the variety of things being offered by people who are in favor of some such consensus building: Professor Bloom offers a restoration of classical Western civilization, and his idea of culture leans strongly to the right. Frances Moore Lappé in her book Rediscovering America's Values pleads for a similar return to cultural roots, but her version leans equally to the left. Robert Bellah and his coauthors of Habits of the Heart want Americans to become less individualistic, more settled and community based, to stop wandering around. James Fallows in More Like Us argues for restoring the old American "sense of possibility and openness," our tradition of mobility, our willingness to head for a new job or a new town and start all over. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in Cultural Literacy proposed a list of things we all ought to know about, from Hank Aaron to Zurich, in order to be "culturally literate," Other writers criticize Hirsch's list for being too white- and European-oriented and propose other lists of items from non-European traditions. Still others counsel us to create and unite around new values based on feminism or ecology. All of these proposals make sense, in a way. Each of them looks good to certain groups of people, particularly those whose values and beliefs are the ones being proposed for the national culture. And I am sure the great majority of Americans have never heard of any of these people, or their books.
Humpty-Dumpty is not going to be put back together again. Efforts to do so are ultimately self-defeating, because campaigns to make people choose any particular system of value and belief tend to have the subversive effect of informing people that they are free to choose systems of value and belief. All too often, indoctrinations even indoctrinations into traditional principles turn out to be de facto courses in postmodernism.
The metaconflict about beliefs has become a central theme in American politics, and it also echoes around the globe: we can see it in the travails of the Catholic church as it struggles to hold the line against radically new ways of looking at revealed truth, in the reluctant and explosive deflation of doctrine of Marxist nations, in the worldwide proliferation of spiritual and psychological cults that offer new certainties to people who have abandoned or been abandoned by the old ones.Reality Isn't What It Used to Be copyright © by Walter Truet Anderson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.