- On history, truth, and postmodernism
It is interesting to observe the author of this article, “You Have Your History, I Have Mine.” He recognizes the validity of postmodern critiques of modernist approaches to history, but also the problems of (some forms of) postmodernist approaches. So far, so good. But his solution isn’t one at all. He simply wants to set up fences and say to the postmodern critique, “Thus far you may come, but no farther.” That won’t do at all. His “national parks” of historical fact would only be those areas where a given social group—a nation, for example—agreed not to question the traditional narrative. It’s a rearguard action, trying to preserve some modernist “truth” against postmodernism’s “relativistic” “opinion.” It is doomed to fail because there is no discernible rationale to determine where those fences and borders should be drawn. The author actually acknowledges the hopelessness of his idea at the end of the article, but he can see no better alternative and no way forward. This is because his thinking is still thoroughly modern. The way he uses terms shows, for example, that he thinks of facts as the “most true truth”—an idiosyncratically modern notion, akin to suggesting that a pile of lumber and nails is a house—and that he thinks postmodernism is essentially synonymous with relativism. It is true that there is such a thing as postmodern relativism, just as there is such a thing as modern relativism, but that doesn’t make postmodernism relativistic in general any more than modern relativism makes modernism relativistic in general. Moderns tend to think of postmodernism as inherently relativistic because it undermines key assumptions that modernism uses to guard itself against relativism, but they don’t usually appreciate that postmodernism also undermines those other key assumptions that that impel modernism toward relativism to begin with. And so is the case here. If the author of this article understood more of what postmodernism posits, and not just what it critiques, he would be able to see that there are ways forward, and they are good. It would (will?) take me a book to explain what I see as the positive resources (both in the sense of positing something and the sense of being good and encouraging) of postmodernism and how they can be used to embark upon a better way, and this is already ridiculously long for a Facebook comment. I’ll just say that it involves a deep rethinking of our ideas about what truth is, but the results are epistemic humility, a recognition that our ideas are only ever approximations of reality, which leads to an open-handed stance toward the ideas we hold, and a newfound appreciation that wisdom is where the “most true truth” resides (even as the Book of Proverbs told us millennia ago). It is a big shift, but it is a good one. So far from this author’s dystopian vision of relativistic chaos and destruction raging around park-like sanctuaries of modernist historical fact, the future of second generation postmoderns and beyond may well look like the epistemological equivalent of re-greening our neighbourhoods where modernism paved everything over to put up carbon-copy condos and shopping centres. Never mind “national parks” to preserve valued historical narratives from threat; let’s get on with planting the trees of truth, in all their different kinds and wild diversity, in our backyards and streets and cities so that our children can grow up in that ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-breathing forest.
- “Aid” for “developing” nations and Western ideological imposition(published )
In reply to this post by Michael Raburn regarding international aid to Africa: Very interesting. One of the points the author makes, regarding the debilitating effects of governmental corruption, gets close to what appears to be the heart of all this problem, but doesn’t quite state it. It is this: most everything that is “wrong” in the “developing world” is the result of the imposition of culturally alien standards and structures onto these people and their societies. At the most abstract level, the very notion that they are “developing” is a (patronizing) imposition of Western values onto other cultures; their societies and economies don’t work like our industrialized and urbanized ones do, so they are “behind” us on The One, True, Universal Scale of Human Development. But what if we were to think of these cultures and their corresponding socioeconomic structures as simply “different” rather than “developing”? What if living in a hut with a tatched roof, or being a nomadic herder were recognized as the perfectly valid ways of living that they really are? It is only when we show up and over centuries of forcible domination tell them again and again that their own ways of life are deficient and they should aspire to emulate our civilization (as opposed to pursuing the organic, ongoing development of their own) that they then come to think of themselves that way. But once the notion that the Western way is the better way has taken root in other cultures, the problems become entrenched. Several concrete examples of how this works out come to mind: 1) Famines in the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Famines are not natural phenomena, but rather culturally created ones. *Droughts* are natural phenomena, but when a society of nomadic herders faces a drought in one area, they just take their flocks and herds to another area. For a famine to occur, people have to be tied down to a particular plot of land and unable to cross borders into non-drought-stricken areas when a drought comes. The imposition of the idea of land ownership, territorial borders, and other such concepts derived from agricultural societies, is what has caused famines in these traditionally nomadic civilizations. 2) Urban slums. These happen because people think they can find a “better life” in the city. Why? Because the definition of “better” is derived from Western ideals. But Western urbanization took shape naturally over time as a result of the ongoing cultural changes in our societies. We developed the cultural, social, economic, and physical structures necessary for this way of life in an ongoing “feedback loop” between those four different levels, such that the cultural values, social and economic systems, and physical infrastructure all worked (more or less) together. In “developing” countries, on the other hand, the physical and economic structures of Western civilization are being grafted onto cultural and social structures that are fundamantally different. The mismatch means that the system doesn’t work as expected; there aren’t jobs available for all these people because the demand for their labour isn’t there because the demand for the kind of economic goods and services that Western-style urban economies are suited to create isn’t sufficient. 3) Political corruption. The imposition of democracy, which arose out of centuries of cultural development in Western civilization, onto other cultures has usually resulted in rampant corruption for a fairly simple reason: the power structures of democracy don’t fit with the indigenous social structures and cultural values of these societies. When your culture has always been a tribal one, for example, where gaining leadership was a matter of seniority and demonstrated wisdom and relations with others outside the tribe was conducted in terms of clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them” as the primary social reality (i.e. you are a member of your tribe, not an individual, and you act in solidarity with your tribe and for the collective benefit of your tribe), democracy and its attendant power structures don’t fit. Voting for someone who is not part of one’s own tribe is *betrayal*, not thoughtful political engagement. It is culturally expected that a person with power or wealth will use that to the advantage of his or her tribesmen; to not do so is morally dubious. But when a democratic system is put in place that grants the election winners power and access to the wealth of an entire country, the combination of these cultural values and norms with such power structures virtually inevitably results in state-wide power and wealth imbalances, selective enforcement of policies, and exploitation of those who are not part of one’s own tribe in favour of those who are. If we really want to help, we should mostly focus on helping people set aside our foreign systems and ideas that we have previously imposed on them, and encourage them to develop new systems of their own, based on their own cultural values, history, and social and environmental contexts. “Aid” won’t be the issue any more; engagement with a respected and self-sufficient Other will be.