Postmodernism, Multiculturalism, and the Death of Tolerance: The Transformation of American Society.

Author:Raeder, Linda C.
Position:Essay
 
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Over the past several decades American society has been engaged in what is popularly described as a "culture war," pitting secular "liberal" progressives against "conservative" traditionalists. The conflict is generally thought to involve various contested social issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and sexual expression more generally, education, the family, media, environment, and others. The focus on issue politics, however, tends to obscure the more fundamental and deeper divide in contemporary American society. Every culture is a product of the religious views held by members of that society. The contemporary battle over the direction of culture in the United States is ultimately a battle not over discrete issues but rather conflicting religious worldviews. Modern liberal progressivism (the Left) generally embodies the novel secular or human-centered faith that arose in competition to traditional biblical faith, generally defended by contemporary conservatism (the Right). The division between the two camps could not be starker. Their respective views conflict at the most fundamental level, the level of religion, encompassing as they do conflicting views regarding the very nature of human beings and purpose of human existence. Nor could the stakes involved in the culture war be more significant. What is ultimately at stake is not the substance of particular public policy but rather preservation or destruction of the characteristically American way of life, dependent as it is upon certain inherited religious values (culture) implicit in both its institutional structure and customary practices.

The contemporary culture war is a particularly American manifestation of the modern revolt against God and displacement of Christianity by one variant or other of a secular or innerworldly political religion. Contemporary cultural and political conflict in the United States did not begin with recent elections but is rather an outcome of trends and movements developed over several centuries. The nineteenth century witnessed the construction of various forms of intramundane social or political religion intended to supplant traditional Christianity. The political Left is the chief carrier of the novel secular religiosity in the American context, beginning with such movements as the Social Gospel and Progressivism, the proximate forebear of modern liberalism. (1) Traditional religious values and institutions are typically defended by the Right, the conservatives whose general aim, as the term indicates, is the conservation of traditional American values and institutions in the face of modern challenges.

For well over a century the Left in both Europe and North America has led an assault on biblical religion and its civilizational manifestations. Such efforts have achieved substantial success; contemporary Western culture, including American culture, is saturated with the secular progressive worldview. The rising generation in the United States has been reared in a cultural environment profoundly shaped by nontheistic and even antitheistic assumptions, a society implicitly and explicitly informed by a post-Christian, post-theological, or postmodern worldview. Many members of American society are ignorant of the nature and history of Western civilization in general and American society in particular and increasingly unfamiliar with the religious worldview that impelled their development. The deracination of significant portions of the American populace, especially its younger members, may be well-intended but is not accidental. It is rather the result of conscious efforts to transform American society, efforts typically spearheaded by secular or progressive elites. Advocates of such transformation, from Karl Marx through Antonio Gramsci to Saul Alinsky, have long understood that the success of their efforts depends upon transformation not only of particular political, economic, and legal institutions but culture more generally. As one important contemporary American public figure put it, such transformation requires a "change in our traditions, our history." (2) Culture is always and everywhere the product of the cult. Thus the transformative change sought by the modern American Left necessarily involves transformation of the religious and moral self-understanding of traditional American society, an understanding decisively informed by the biblical worldview.

The ongoing transformation of traditional American values and beliefs has been facilitated by the rise of several significant intellectual and educational trends, among the most important of which are postmodernism, multiculturalism, and relativism. Marxism and related modern ideologies are widely recognized to have sought explicit transformation of Western society. The relation between the fashionable doctrines of postmodernism, multiculturalism, and relativism and the goal of cultural transformation is less commonly perceived. The means employed by the latter are more subtle, indirect, and implicit than those advocated by classic Marxist ideology, but such doctrines serve to undermine traditional Western and American society as surely, if not as straightforwardly, as Marxist doctrine proper. The Fabians and fellow travelers were correct: the transformation of the free society in the direction of socialism or some other form of collectivism does not, as Marx suggested, depend on violent revolution. The same goal can be achieved by the gradual, evolutionary destruction of its foundational beliefs and values, as recognized by the British Fabians, their Progressive American counterparts, and later Communist strategists such as Gramsci. The realization of Communism, Gramsci maintained, requires destruction of the "cultural hegemony" putatively held by the capitalist ruling class--the false intellectual, philosophical, and religious ethos it has long perpetrated to maintain privilege and control. Such can be achieved by the patient and long-term reeducation of the populace within the framework of traditional social institutions, such as schools, universities, courts, and media. Communist student leader Rudi Dutschke famously reformulated Gramsci's evolutionary strategy as "the long march through the institutions." (3) We recall in this regard the motto of the Fabians: "Make Haste Slowly." Postmodernism, multiculturalism, and relativism are three gradualist or evolutionary means advanced by the modern Left toward attainment, surely if slowly, of its transformational goals.

Postmodernism

Postmodernism is the general term used to describe the overarching cultural perspective that develops in the West after the decline of "modernity." Scholars disagree on the precise origin of the term, variously attributing its first use to one or another nineteenth or early twentieth century thinker. (4) The central attribute of postmodern thought, on the other hand, is more readily identified, namely, skepticism toward or outright denial of the existence of universal or absolute Truth--a "Big T" Truth that transcends both history and the subjective values and opinions of human beings. The Western tradition from classical Greece to modernity is of course saturated with the very outlook that postmodernism rejects--belief in objective and immutable Truth, including moral and religious Truth. Accordingly, the postmodern era, as previously noted, is often referred to as the "post-Christian" or "post-theological" era.

Postmodernism not only rejects the concept of absolute Truth but other conceptions central to the Western tradition as well. It rejects, for instance, the characteristic distinction between this-world and the world Beyond first apprehended by Plato, as well as the related distinction between nature (what is objectively given to humankind) and history (contingent human experience in time). On the postmodern view, Nature is more or less assimilated to History. Not only does the traditional concept of a given nature presuppose a metaphysical "Giver," which cannot be sustained on postmodern grounds, but the truth of nature can never be more than particular historical truth, the only form in which truth of any kind can or does exist. The postmodern restriction of truth to the various truths accepted by particular cultures and societies over time means of course that truth, like history itself, is continually in flux. Truth, as every other aspect of human existence in time, is and must be provisional and contingent, relative and conditional. What is true for postmodern society may not have been true for ancient or medieval society or, for that matter, the eighteenth century society of colonial America. What is true for one culture, say Western culture, is not necessarily true for other cultures. What is true for one ethnic group may not be true for a different ethnic group. Indeed what is true for one person may not be true for a second person. There is no eternal and universal Truth that transcends particular historical truths, no absolute, unconditional Truth that transcends the relative truths of particular historical cultures, groups, individuals, and so on. Postmodernism so conceived therefore must, and does, reject the Truth-claims associated with the Platonic and Judeo-Christian worldviews, and indeed any religion or philosophy that claims to articulate a universal or absolute Truth that transcends the movement of history. For postmodern thinkers, such truths as exist are inevitably subjective, relative, and conditional, relative to and contingent upon the particular perspective of the perceiver, a viewpoint generally described as "perspectivism."

Nietzschean Perspectivism

Various postmodern thinkers regard themselves as descendants of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who famously announced the "death of God" at the close of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche's critique of Western civilization involved a thoroughgoing attack on the Platonic and...

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