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Postmodernist Historiography “On the March” in Student Demonstrations for Palestine

Postmodernist Historiography “On the March” in Student Demonstrations for Palestine

January 3, 2024

Note: This article was originally published on The Savvy Street and has been reposted with the author's permission.

Americans (including the wealthiest alumni contributors) need not have been surprised (actually “shocked”) when some student groups responded to the October 7 Hamas massacre with reflexive rationalizations and exonerations of the killers and condemnations of Israel.

Some reactions to these students, such as the headline comment by hedge-fund billionaire Leon Cooperman[*] about “students with s—t for brains,” sound like confessions that the conclusions drawn by the student groups in their protest statements baffled many intelligent, informed observers. The initial hesitation of college administrators to “take sides” turned bafflement into rage.

Again, the shock would not have been necessary if these supporters of universities had “followed the action” of faculties and their publications and courses—and not just the fortunes of the football team—over the past few decades.

Broadly summarizing the “historical” interpretation put forward by the protestors: The Palestinians are an “oppressed” group, kept in poverty and ignorance and controlled by an anti-democratic military regime under the domination of “colonialist,” “imperialist,” “militaristic,” economically advanced “Western” Israel. Oppressed groups without power or a voice must strike back in any way available to them. Just as the African National Congress in its liberation days struck back at the apartheid South African regime.

The historically most oppressed people, European Jews, sought a homeland where Judaism had been born.

And standard historical narrative? The historically most oppressed people, European Jews, sought a homeland where Judaism had been born, although now it had become part of the Ottoman Empire. With enormous effort over decades, they turned a virtual desert into a prosperous land. They introduced the first democratic government into the Middle East. After absorbing masses of surviving refugees of the WWII European holocaust, these people moved toward statehood, a Jewish homeland. The Palestinian population (some half of whom had come seeking employment in agriculture) and its leaders rejected the offer of simultaneous creation of a Palestinian state or the invitation to full citizenship in the new Israel.

A “franchise” created by the Muslim Brotherhood—Hamas—armed by the most radical fundamentalist, militant, Islamist dictatorship in the world, Iran, continues to pursue the explicit goals of “Death to the Jews.”

Instead, Arab countries from all sides invaded in 1948 to wipe the new Jewish state off the map. Defeated at huge cost by the new Israeli state, the Arab nations attacked again in 1967, again in 1973, and backed two Intifadas, all with the aim of exterminating the Jews in “Arab land.” Now, some three-quarters of a century after Israel’s founding, when Arab nations are recognizing Israel’s existence and benefiting from cooperation and trade, a “franchise” created by the Muslim Brotherhood—Hamas—armed by the most radical fundamentalist, militant, Islamist dictatorship in the world, Iran, continues to pursue the explicit goals of “Death to the Jews” and “From the River to the Sea” (all Israel must become Palestinian). They have announced they will keep killing Jews as long as it takes.

What about this brief account of the founding, development, nationhood, and decades of battles for survival of Israel? Is this not a recitation of the facts? Is this not the reality of the creation of the first nation in the Middle East committed at least in principle to human rights, democratic government, economic freedom, technology and science, and peace?

Actually, you see, it is just “language,” a “narrativized” account “centered” on the oppressor’s perspective to justify political “dominance.” By the nature of postmodern historiography, this “narrative” cannot claim to be “objective” or “reality-oriented” because they do not exist. What exists are rationalizations of oppression, on the one hand, and on the other, postmodernist attempts to “deconstruct,” “decenter” these “narratives” to expose the disguised “power relations.”

Postmodernist Historiography

They didn’t teach you all that in your history classes at Harvard?

They didn’t teach you all that in your history classes at Harvard? No, I didn’t learn it, either, in Brown University’s history department in the 1960s. But not long afterward, in 1969, Gordon S. Wood, Ph.D., joined the faculty. He became a Professor of History, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Radicalism of the American Revolution. By then, he had made a subtle change in his focus. He had started publishing his reviews of new history books not in professional journals but in the New Republic and the New York Review of Books.

Year by year, as he published these reviews, he revealed his mission to alert and arouse the American public. A theory that for more than a century had been brewing in Germany, then in Western philosophy at large, had emerged in the 1960s as postmodernism—an amalgam of Leftism with philosophical skepticism, moral relativism, and philosophical irrationalism—and had gotten a grip on American university humanities departments, especially philosophy. By the 1980s, it had morphed into a new historiography, as well, that was trying to take over history departments.

In 2008, introducing a collection of his reviews over some two decades, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin Press: NY), Prof. Wood wrote:

“This new cultural history [a term, he explained, deliberately introduced to avoid the worsening reputation of “postmodernism”] is undergirded by theory and theory has become increasingly important to historians. …ever more elaborate theories… Historians in the 1980s began importing into their cultural history new theories, especially those of French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.”

(Derrida and Foucault, both French academic philosophers, Foucault a member of, and Derrida closely associated with, the French Communist Party, were founders of Postmodernism, with roots in the ideas of Martin Heidegger, Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kirkegaard—all German or German-educated [Kirkegaard] philosophers.)

Wood wrote:

“Implicit in these theories, which tended to emphasize textual deconstruction of reality, was an epistemological skepticism…[that] had devastating implications for historians. If historians began doubting that there was an objective past reality that they were trying to recover and began thinking that what they did was simply make up the past…then they were not just clearing the ground for new kinds of approaches and subjects but were actually undermining the ground for any kind of historical reconstruction at all.”

And later: “Many of the new cultural historians seem not to want to destroy memory as much as reshape it and make it useful to their particular cause…manipulate the past for the sake of the present [ideology]. Rather than trying to understand the past on its own terms, these historians want the past to be immediately relevant and useful.”

Want to straighten-out college students about the real history of Israel and its meaning in the Middle East? Good luck. Wood writes: “The new historicism wants to deconstruct the past in order to show us that all the values, all the institutions, all the canons, all the truths, and all the texts by which we live our lives are simply imprisoning fictions that were created…(usually by white males) for self-serving purposes.”

By the time Wood published his last review, postmodernism no longer was a “threat” to the humanities, including history departments; it was a reality. “The blurring of fact and fiction is part of the intellectual climate of our postmodern time, dominated as it is by winds of epistemological skepticism and Nietzschean denials of the possibility of objectivity that is sweeping through every humanistic discipline sometimes with cyclonic ferocity.”

But why, you may ask? Why this decades-long, energetic crusade to cast doubt on all knowledge, all values, and all objective accounts of the past? That’s a big effort! What is the point, the payoff?

The Postmodernist Roots

For an answer, switch briefly to perhaps the single best book on the emergence, evolution, present state, and impact of postmodernism, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2014).

The explanation put forward by Hicks, professor of philosophy at Rockford College, is at once complex and fascinating, a landmark work of history and analysis that brings together—and brings up to the present—more than a century-and-a-half of the evolution of philosophy and the parallel evolution of Marxism. The two trends merged in the late 20th Century in the postmodernism launched by French philosophers and political Leftists.

Postmodern philosophical skepticism with its denial of Enlightenment tenets such as reason, individualism, and capitalism became a desperately sought refuge of Left intellectuals after more than a century of the brutal defeat of its predictions (the collapse of capitalism, the collapse of the middle class, the revolt of the working class) and its disastrous experiments (the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Cuba, plus New Left agitation and the worldwide wave of Marxist terror movements in the 1970s).

The payoff of postmodernism? Total skepticism and relativism solve the problems of the Left’s ideological and practical defeats (what the heck, history is fiction after all and all theories equally non-objective) and make possible the benefits of postmodern discourse, as highlighted by Professor Hicks:

—All truths are relative; postmodernism tells it like it is.

—All cultures are equally deserving of respect; Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.

—Values are subjective; sexism and racism are really evil.

—Technology is bad and destructive; it is unfair that some have more of it than others.

—Tolerance is good, dominance is bad; postmodernism in power enforces political correctness.

Yes, this does tend to confirm the “s—t for brains” case for the education of college students in the humanities.

Yes, this does tend to confirm the “s—t for brains” case for the education of college students in the humanities and their consequent “thinking” on the highly charged issue of war, but one also could wonder at the shock of college alumni at statements (to take instances at random) like that of the Berkeley student at a recent Oakland City Council meeting, “IDF did most of the killing in the Oct. 7 massacre…” and the hundreds of protest signs like “Stop the genocide in Gaza.”

A full-page ad in the December 3, 2023, Sunday Times, “J’Accuse…!” exposing the multiple hypocritical contradictions in attacks on Israel and in support for Hamas, both impressed and saddened me. Saddened because that generation of “well-educated” university protesters has been solidly armored against mere reason, logic, and historical reality.

To quote another top postmodernist thinker, Frank Lentricchas: “Postmodernism seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”

Good luck, when the time comes, trying to reason with this same generation about the economic, social, and political advantages of the free market. Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Pantheon Books: NY 1977) that the only place we can glimpse the reality of capitalist society [especially technology] is in our prisons.

By now, it has all worked its way through the humanities departments and the education of more than a dozen cohorts of American college students. Those alumni whose gifts have made so many universities endowed behemoths believed they are investing in their own future, the future of America, and the future of American ideals still upheld in places like Israel. It is high time, past time, to subject those investments to a little “due diligence.”


Walter Donway
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Walter Donway
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