Are the great American habits of directness, foursquare honesty, and a hearty handshake being undermined by fancy-pants French critical theory? You betcha! From the Obama-McCain struggle to find the proper meta-analysis of the word celebrity to the deconstruction of the mainstream media's treatment of John Edwards, from the "framing" and "repackaging" of political constructs to the rise of identity politics for white people, the trend is clear: We are all postmodernists now.
The mainstreaming of pomo thinking has been largely a stealth project, something Americans do without committing overt acts of academia. We thought we were trying to clear away the cobwebs of shoddy analysis and elite hypocrisy, but all along we were bringing the tools of critical thinking to the masses. Go into any bar in the country, and you'll find somebody unpacking the assumptions in someone else's text.
Yet the mainstreaming of critical theory hasn't necessarily been good for its original practitioners. Just as the old media were left cold as their once difficult and rarefied functions were ceded to any slob in his pajamas, so the bards of meta-analysis are struggling to survive in a world of front-porch semioticians. The brilliant Berkeley linguist George Lakoff 's most recent book, The Political Mind, purports to give new critical (but not New Critical!) tools to Democrats. Lakoff invented the popular "framing" concept, in which repellant concepts can be made attractive, and vice versa, depending on how you describe them. (We don't call them "taxes," we call them "investments.")
Yet Lakoff 's star has dimmed since the first half of this decade, when hapless Democrats found him a welcome answer to Frank Luntz, the pollster who does pretty much the same shtick for the Republicans. An excellent August 15 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed how Lakoff 's principles have been falling out of favor—not so much because of any failings by Lakoff but because the Democrats are back to winning elections. "After a heady few years when he seemed the person Democratic policy makers wanted on the other end of the telephone, Lakoff is finding that what they're asking for—and are willing to put money behind—is not always what he can provide," Evan Goldstein wrote. "Lakoff's foray into politics is a story marked by intellectual breakthroughs, the allure of influence, and a fall from great heights."
The problem may not be that Lakoff, or Luntz, faded as thinkers but that their ideas have proved so enormously popular. When the McCain campaign lashed out at Obama as a "celebrity" candidate, Obama launched a textbook pomo counterattack, cherry-picking clips to demonstrate that McCain was the real star-humper. Faced with this kind of interpretive standoff, the mainstream media usually settle for a truth-is-somewhere-in-the-middle compromise, but independent bloggers and commentators took it to the next level, charging that the McCain ad's use of the supreme xanthochroid Paris Hilton against the mixed-race Obama implied miscegenation. So who, if anybody, had the truth in all this? It all depends on how you frame it.
Except when it doesn't. This summer the National Enquirer caught former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards (to Lakoff, an anti-corporate crusader; to Luntz, an ambulance chaser) meeting with his mistress in a Beverly Hills hotel. The Los Angeles Times demonstrated a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the story in its own back yard, even putting out a notice to its bloggers to avoid mentioning it. Before long, Mickey Kaus and other prominent media critics had jumped all over the paper. As a participant in the fun (I approved the one blog post the L.A. Times had on the matter prior to the gag order; I and the author of the post were both subsequently fired, though the events were unrelated…as far as I know), I can say that while some of the principal players' roles were misinterpreted, the overall characterization was accurate. The L.A. Times desperately wanted to avoid this damaging story, dressed up its desires in media-diligence drag (we were told not to comment until the paper's reporters were through looking into the matter), and as a result was beaten and humiliated in its own backyard. Tim Rutten, the sanctimonious endomorph who leads the paper's columnist lineup, ended up admitting as much in a column written after Edwards had confessed and everybody else had stopped caring. Bias unpacking: 100 percent successful.
For many people, postmodern analysis and semiotics are dirty words, products of a rising barbarian anticulture bent on replacing Edward R. Murrow with the paparazzi. One of the bracing things about old-school postmodernism was the way it provided the tools of Enlightenment critical thinking to anti-Enlightenment folks: Islamists, post-colonial nationalists, psycho feminists, and so on. Deconstruction and anti-Orientalism were essential means for undermining what was perceived as a white male power structure.
It was only a matter of time before the white males would start getting in on the action. In the recent reaction of Hollywood conservatives against entertainment liberalism, critical and satirical tools are used to undermine consensus and elevate pre-Enlightenment ideals. David Zucker's comedy An American Carol tries to get yucks by standing up for old-fashioned patriotism, while Ben Stein's flat-earth documentary Expelled posits a conspiracy of evolutionists to keep creationism out of the academy. The message is as clear as a Pluggers cartoon: We, the salt of the earth, are being systematically undermined by the American elites whose monopoly on good thinking is just a cover for self-interest.
Interestingly, the most gifted exponent of this way of thinking is a liberal Democrat: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, whose 2004 history of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, movingly and angrily evokes a tradition of trailer-trash Americans who built the country yet have always ended up at the bottom of its society. These are identity politics, deftly transposed for white people.
Is Webb's argument true? As good poststructuralists we should not be so gauche as to ask such a question. But like all the flavors of popular postmodernism, it is invigorating. Nobody (except those with positions of authority to protect) can argue that muddying up elite opinion has been anything other than liberating. That it's used so often by people who believe in absurd or bedrock truths just sweetens the pot, because critical thinking was never about saying there's no truth out there. It's about saying no one of us has all of that truth.
Of course, that's just my opinion.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a Los Angeles-based writer.