Friday, October 01, 2004


Decision 2004: "postmodernism" vs. neo-modernism; what do Americans really think about certainty?

Watching the debate last night reminded me of some larger issues that are being collectively decided with this election. While the last 25 years or so have seen elections being a choice between two characters or personalities, this election is, in many ways, a selection between two worldviews. While this has been falsely identified by some as being a campaign that gets back to 'policy' or 'the issues', this cannot be the case sense both camps have failed to articulate their policies and differences in regards to central issues like peace in Iraq.

Before delving right into the debate, I want to point you all to a rare moment of insight from someone who I'm sure most readers of this blog will no doubt reject outright. In the December issues of conservative Christian magazine Christianity Today, Charles Colson suggested that postmodernism was on 'life support'. Appealing to what he considers an accurate gauge of American sentiment, Colson points out that 'Soccer Moms' and high-school students are rejecting positions like pro-choice and gay rights as a sign of the crumbling of "the philosophy that claims there is no transcendent truth". What is the source of this destruction? The power of God? The Truth of the Gospel?

Try 9-11. 9-11 forced PM individuals to reject the concept that there is no moral absolute, instead they must accept the presence of evil (read: Al-Queda) and good (read: American worldview). While Colson seems to suggest that objectivity is back in the light of 9-11, I think he actually reinforces the belief that he claims is central to PM; "that all you can do is try to impose your preferences on others before they impose theirs on you." Indeed, the post 9-11 American is less concerned about issues, positions, etc. as Colson quotes one "soccer mom" saying; "All I want in a President is a person who is strong." I think it is fair to interpret this quote and Colson's article as suggesting that what people are looking for after 9-11 is not objective good and evil but rather a force that will win the 'worldview war', instituting our team in a position of power. If Colson's suggestion was correct, and Americans post 9-11 were rejecting Postmodernism and were again seeking objective truth, the process would necessarily begin with an examination of one's own presuppositions (see Descartes). Instead, what we have is a reinforcement of our own principles and a gathering resolve of the American worldview.

As the election approaches, it appears that these issues are still at the front of people's minds. What we have are two contestants who are presenting (mildly) different worldviews. First, there is Bush who represents Colson's perspective perfectly. If prior to 9-11 Bush ever considered the possibility that there is no objective good (America) and evil (everyone else?), after 9-11 this became impossible to accept. The debate last night displayed this attitude from Bush. His continuous criticism of 'sending mixed messages' and the need to be steadfast, resolute, and strong. What does America (and the world) need? It is to be solidified in the American worldview. How does one respond to 'bad evidence'? By holding to your core values and principles, not allowing anything to shake them. Because this is what the terrorists want, after all. For Americans to even consider that there may be some aspects of the American worldview that are incorrect is for American's to give into the 'evilones'.

The other option in the election is what could be considered a mainstream form of postmodernism. This came out of Kerry most clear when the two contestants began discussing the topic of certainty. Bush defined this character trait of Kerry as sending mixed messages and wilting, Kerry embraces as a doing credit to the evidence and allowing our positions to change. Kerry said; "It's one thing to be certain and be wrong. It's another to be certain and be right, or be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right."

Bush understands any lack of certainty as a weakness. He accuses Kerry of "change[ing] his positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts is right in Iraq." This sort of uncertainty does not work in running the world. While Kerry proposes a higher intellectual nobility in allowing one's beliefs to be shaped by new evidence, sort of having a 'loose hold' on one's worldview, Bush understands any shifting as a weakness and based on political pressure. Kerry offers a different option, emphasizing 'consistence' instead of certainty, but none the less agreeing that at times one's positions must be open to change.

Colson is the preface to this post because if the polls are any indication, he is right. Americans are not looking for someone who is open to criticism, willing to re-evaluate their position based on 'new evidence'. Instead, they are looking for people who will hold strong to their beliefs and convictions, central among them that America is good and all opponents to America are evil. If Colson was wrong and a critical-realist position is the common trait amongst Americans, then they would have run Bush into the ground and out of office when the issues of bad intelligence and later the detailed prison abuse evidence were raised. Instead, Americans have rejected the critical-realist position for some other, possibly fidiest position, where one's beliefs are held to, no matter what.

It must be clear that Colson is wrong for suggesting that America has returned to a pre-post-modern worldview where certainty is derived from basic principles like the enlightenment philosophy suggested. Instead of classical certainty, a sense of consistency and resolve are what is meant by certainty (which is confusing sense Kerry describes himself as consistent and not certain). Ultimately, Colson's position and the current status of key PM presuppositions amongst Americans will be determined by the results of the election. If America elects Kerry then it will show a desire amongst Americans to embrace self-criticism, even if only to a very very small degree and reject the notion that America is always absolutely right. If American's re-elect Bush (which it appears they will), then Colson's analysis of what Americans actually believe is accurate. They are not interested in self criticism but rather self-preservation. In the wake of 9-11 Americans abandoned 'gray areas' for the sake of embracing security. And in an intellectual situation, security is what Bush and his version of certainty offer. You know what Bush is going to say before he says it. He repeated himself constantly in the debate. Certainty is predictability, is resolve, is security, is attractive to the American majority.

William Saletan rightly identifies this certainty as the interpretive motif in which Bush examines evidence. It doesn't matter if something comes out to the contrary, what matters is resolve because this is what keeps America strong. America is not strong based on being rightly related to truth, but rather because of the strength of will. Saletan goes on to criticize Kerry for basically having the same resolve and openly being inconsistent in his use of evidence for the sake of believing what he wants to believe. While this is true, the average American will not be concerned with this. Instead, what will be cast as the choice from now until November will be this difference in character, as Bush described it. One contestant will stick to his guns, choosing to be certain. The other contestant will be 'consistent' while not certain, because he ultimately doesn't believe in certainty. Who America chooses will reflect what America believes about certainty, and the polls show that Bush is winning on this issue, perhaps the fundamental difference between the contestants.