In 1996, the New York University physicist Alan Sokal published a hoax paper in a cultural studies journal called Social Text. In it, he wrote that "physical reality… is at bottom a social and linguistic construct."
Of course, Sokal didn’t really believe that. And neither do most people working in cultural studies.
Yet despite that fact – and the publication of several nonsense scientific papers in the last few years – the Sokal Affair became legendary inside and outside of academia. For many conservatives, it somehow proved that "Marxist-feminist-queers" are plotting to undermine Western civilisation, starting with its English curriculum.
The affair is the origin of many of the quixotic attacks on "postmodernism" you’re used to – the kind of cultural criticism that asserts that postmodernists want to destroy Western culture. The reviled "postmodernists" apparently don’t believe in "a reality beyond…words", as conservative critic Roger Kimball put it.
Thanks to Scott McClellan’s new book, we’ve discovered that the pernicious influence of "postmodernism" is much worse than even Miranda Devine might fear.
McClellan became Bush’s press secretary just after his boss declared the Iraq War was over in July 2003. He stayed in the role for the best part of the next three years – in which Iraq became known for car bombs, aid worker hostages and fights over US torture in Congress – leaving the job in April 2006.
McClellan’s new book will be released in the US today. The biggest revelation in it? It appears that Americans have elected a postmodernist to the White House twice.
"Everything is centered on trying to shape and manipulate the narrative to one’s advantage," McClellan told the US Today show last week.
McClellan was talking about the way the Bush Administration sold the Iraq War in a "partisan" Washington culture. And about Bush’s decision to leak Valerie Plame’s secret spy job, after her husband criticised the Iraq imbroglio.
Perhaps the biggest kicker in McClellan’s story is that although he talks in general about a political culture that’s about salesmanship rather than solutions, all his examples of spin "happen" to relate to the Bush Administration.
And, ironically, the Administration’s reaction to McClellan’s book seems to demonstrate his argument.
Former White House high-ups have been brought in to criticise McClellan’s character. He’s been accused of betrayal, of "using the language of the other side" by his predecessor at the White House press office. Meanwhile, Bush’s former spin chief, Karl Rove, took to The O’Reilly Factor on Fox, telling a sympathetic Bill O’ that McClellan sounded "like a left-wing blogger". So McClellan’s now apparently a "fellow-traveller" alongside communists like Arianna Huffington.
For the Bushies, as in the past, "controlling the narrative" has largely meant taking down the competition with claims of guilt by association. A tactic labelled "repugnant" by a Supreme Court judge when Joe McCarthy tried it for the first time in the 1950s, is just everyday politics in DC today.
And guilt by association is just the political tactic most used this week. In the past, the Bush Administration has also pioneered "Swiftboating" as a political sales tactic. This involves using a proxy to make spurious claims about your opponent’s past that even you don’t believe. John McCain and John Kerry got taken out of business that way.
But the final "sale clincher" that the postmodern Bush Administration will be remembered for is the false historical analogy.
Bush was at it again last week in his Memorial Day address, asserting in Arlington that those who sacrificed in Afghanistan and Iraq did it for "freedom", liberty and "security".
Bush is merely extending the analogy he started to develop again two weeks ago at the Israeli Knesset. The threat from terrorists/Iran/Iraq/the Taliban/North Korea is inevitably equivalent to the threat posed by Hitler, and all the most evil tyrannies of the past.
So it follows for Bush that America and its heroes should strike out at all these nebulous but demonic "New Hitlers". Bush wrote in his diary on 11 September, "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today". He’s been trying to find an enemy to fit this narrative ever since.
Bush used to be able to sell this story. After all, the narrative featured heroes (Bush and dead soldiers), villains (who change from week to week), cowards (Democrats) and buddies (Australia and Tony Blair). Exotic destinations, grave new perils: Bush’s narrative thrilled a nation brought up on superhero cartoons and biblical eschatology. Americans bought the Republican product time after time.
Now Bush’s "World War II all over again" narrative is in disrepute. But in McClellan’s account, Bush himself has never questioned the validity of a shallow media analogy made on 11 September. That false analogy is for him truth and dogma.
So perhaps Bush isn’t so postmodern after all. Perhaps he won’t be remembered as a trickster, someone who sold a pup to the electorate twice. Instead, with his righteousness, certitude, and shallow unreflective analogies, Bush resembles a more venerable figure: the American Salesman.
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, after Willy Loman the shoe-seller dies, his neighbor Charley delivers a powerful eulogy at his funeral: "Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
Bush has more than a few spots on his hat. But Death of a Salesman, the tragedy of a common man undone by his shallow and dogmatic disposition, seems an apposite analogy at the end of a very ordinary presidency.
After all, who could blame a man for telling a few fantastic stories if he believes they’re true?
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