I’m old enough to remember when “relativism” was the second-favourite scare word hurled by the Right (after “socialism”, of course). The truth of the matter was that leftist intellectuals had put a lot of effort into analysing the way worldviews are created by and support particular power relations. This seems like good work, in principle, and obviously useful in interrogating the making of history, economics, and social ideologies, and has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. There have been excesses — edging into denial of scientific truth or progress.
The arch-cultural reactionary Dinesh D’Souza in his heyday (before he became completely ridiculous) used the then-modish term deconstruction as a catch-all for this iconoclastic posture toward literary and (it is implied, more than actually shown) moral authorities of the past to exemplify the inconsistent application of moral relativism as a political weapon:
Marx, for instance, never seems to be deconstructed, nor does Foucault, or Lacan , or Derrida, or Barthes. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to enjoy immunity. There may be an entire gender exception for women.
I’ve never been sufficiently au fait with the humanities and social sciences — “critical theory” — to judge whether these extreme denials of objective truth were ever as central to leftist discourse as some critics would suggest. I think this has been overall very productive intellectually and scientifically. But as a political tactic it was, it seems clear now, tragically short-sighted. The Left made a serious strategic error in trying to shortcut its way out from under the dead hand of the past by promoting relativism and attacking the authority of science and rational discourse. The right wing were taking notes, and while the older generation — figures like William F. Buckley, John Silber and Allan Bloom — started by ridiculing the anti-rationalist turn, the younger generation saw it as a program to be emulated and developed. Fascists have always had an uncomfortable relationship with objective reality, that seems to be offering only stubborn opposition to the imposition of the authoritarian will.
Nietzsche — the doyen of this kind of analysis, but conflicted in this as in everything else — framed what should have been the core left-wing critique of relativism in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science]:
Ein Jude umgekehrt ist, gemäss dem Geschäftskreis und der Vergangenheit seines Volks, gerade daran — dass man ihm glaubt — am wenigsten gewöhnt: man sehe sich darauf die jüdischen Gelehrten an, — sie Alle halten grosse Stücke auf die Logik, das heisst auf das Erzwingen der Zustimmung durch Gründe; sie wissen, dass sie mit ihr siegen müssen, selbst wo Rassen- und Classen-Widerwille gegen sie vorhanden ist, wo man ihnen ungern glaubt. Nichts nämlich ist demokratischer als die Logik: sie kennt kein Ansehn der Person und nimmt auch die krummen Nasen für gerade. (Nebenbei bemerkt: Europa ist gerade in Hinsicht auf Logisirung, auf reinlichere Kopf-Gewohnheiten den Juden nicht wenig Dank schuldig; voran die Deutschen, als eine beklagenswerth deraisonnable Rasse, der man auch heute immer noch zuerst „den Kopf zu waschen“ hat. Ueberall, wo Juden zu Einfluss gekommen sind, haben sie ferner zu scheiden, schärfer zu folgern, heller und sauberer zu schreiben gelehrt: ihre Aufgabe war es immer, ein Volk „zur Raison“ zu bringen.)
On account of his people’s business relations and past, the Jew is not used to being believed. You see this in the way Jewish scholars are obsessed with logic, that is, compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed in this way, even when the prejudice of race and class tell against them, even when one would rather not believe them. Nothing is as democratic as logic: It recognises no personal distinctions, and takes even the crooked nose for straight.(Europe must be grateful to the Jews particularly with respect to logicalising — for clearer habits of thought. Above all the Germans, a pitifully irrational race. Everywhere where the Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to reason more precisely and write more clearly. It has always been their task to bring a people “to its senses”.)
And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with a senior adviser to a Republican president criticising, in 2002, the naivety of what he called the “reality-based community”, stating
That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.
And sure enough, as soon as a new Republican is elected, we have his surrogates even more openly attacking the very notion of objective reality:
And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.
And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.
You may think you’re talking about facts and evidence, but for those on the inside these are just ways of saying whether you “like Mr. Trump”. They tried out their message first on evolution as a matter of “belief”, honed the message on climate science — a harder nut to crack — and finally brought us to where groundless claims that millions of people voted illegally are also matters of belief.
Speaking of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher who had a hit book in the mid-1980s The Closing of the American Mind, which was mainly about how the kids today with their crazy rock-and-roll music were having more sex than he had at their age, which was driving him crazy. But I remember one really striking idea that he was pushing was that, just as the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily, but then as a consequence of absorbing the Greek world ended up being dominated by Greek culture and philosophy, so the Anglo-American world conquered Germany militarily, but are now dominated by the German Weltanschauung, and Nietzsche in particular.