Richard, my supervisor, and I were musing over a primary document some years back. Our attempt to dissect the words of an eighteenth-century letter had somehow devolved into a curious struggle to pinpoint the author’s state of mind. How can you really see tone in a letter written in the 1750s? Can you truly get inside the mind of someone who lived 270 years ago and judge their emotional state as they dipped their quill into an inkwell and spewed some gibberish across paper? Was this author angry, despondent, or perplexed? Were not these just subjective gradients that have little basis in reality? I mean, what if the letter writer was actually in a malicious mood and chomping at the bit to write a friend some biting satire over some looming crisis?
And just like that, the two of us were where Foucault and Derrida were in the 1950s – recognizing that truth is really super difficult to get to.
Richard then quipped, “What do you make of this post-modernism, Joe?”
“Not much.” I replied.
“What you mean?” I think he was startled over the tone of my self-confidence while answering.
I pointed out to my supervisor that “Sure, we can never really know for sure the state of mind of some letter writer in 1756; and so yes, perhaps, our work is biased; I’ll even say that sometimes it may approach a level we sometimes call “circumspect.” But so what? We still have our stories to tell.”
Richard agreed and we moved on.
I’m not sure why that conversation remains with me so. I can still see his third floor office at 13 Woodland Road in Bristol: a mish-mash of boxes, books and papers with a desk in the middle also covered in boxes, books and papers. That’s how brilliant people work.
But now it’s 2017, and the Alt-Right has glommed on to the processional vocabulary of post-modern dictates. I am seriously beginning to wonder where this will really lead us. For history it was clear: we still have our stories to tell. But for life? For “real politick”? Are we to answer offhand then that life will just happen anyway?
Treating Trump as if he’s nuts, insane, or mentally ill might be somehow reassuring to those of us who cling to the sanctity of truth. But it misses the mark of what the post-modernists were attempting to clarify: according to them, truth is relative. And there is, I must admit, quite a bit of validity to this (see the above scene). BUT, we historians can get pretty darn close to the truth and though we may come up short… we must and will keep trying.
So let’s now take this to Trump-land. It certainly appears that “Truth” and Trump are 180-degrees out of sync, like water and oil the two don’t mix. BUT, what if that’s on purpose? What if 45 is willfully lying, willfully abusing the truth? Will life go on anyway…? Sure. But what kind of life do we citizens of the United States have if we cannot trust the president? Answer: it’s been that way since Vietnam and Watergate. We’ve been in this socio-political, post-modern stew for some time, the only difference here is that the pot seems to be coming to a full boil.
In essence, truth does matter, or at least the effort to get to the truth. For Trump and his backers they don’t see it that way. They’re playing a Foucaultian flute and like pied-pipers are leading bunches and bunches of good people astray.
Good historians will almost certainly always pursue “truth.” Investigators of the past will use evidence and calculate their prose all in some optimistic hope that their work can come close to revealing past truths, their valuations, and their many meanings. Truth-seeking is our mission. So to Foucault – fine, you’re right, now go away – because I’ll pursue history and the truth anyway, thank you very much.
But by using the language and deeds of post modernists – who ultimate aim is to tell us there is no such thing as truth and that there never could be – this frees 45, conspiracy theorists, and folks like Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity to tell one unfettered lie after another. This has been going on for quite a long time (see the culture wars).
But sooner or later, truth makes itself known, and then the lies come crashing down. Just ask the Nazi’s in 1945.