What is a postmodern Mind? Ask Rob Ford
The twentieth century was the century of the Self, according to some historians of modern social and cultural studies. Freud and the psychologists dominated discourse on human mind; rampant ideologies infected the public opinion of modern nations, and international politics, until near the end of that century.
But towards its end, post-modern consciousness was emergent in the most advanced nations, at least in the elites. Post modernity is still being evolved, but one thing that makes it clearly different from modernity is its politics.
Postmodern politics is not ideological. It is intensely personal. The first signs of it were the “identity politics” of the 1990’s. The “rights culture” is another facet of postmodern politics. Today the phenomenon manifests in blind unreasoning loyalty to elected celebrity leaders. The Ford Nation knows what I mean.
The Demons of the Demos
Democracy is not new, not a modern idea nor a modern practice. As we hear constantly, it has been with us since ancient Athens, and the governance practice of natives in the Western hemisphere and other places untouched by our own traditions also display democratic ingredients.
Modern democracy as we have known it in the West since the era of popular power began with the American and French revolutions, has never been able to decide whether The People can be trusted to rule wisely. Are The People all of the population, or just the intelligent ones who form the elites? Are people smart enough to govern themselves? If not, is social engineering needed?
Those questions trouble me a lot. I have an elite liberal education, and I am political by conviction, so I count myself a self-governing individual even though my extreme insignificance in terms of capital property eliminates me from the ruling class. I am a member of what political-science writers call “the political nation” of Canada – I pay attention to our politicians, Parliaments, parties, and news media reporting on them. And I write about them.
Ford Nation: a version of The Tea Party
Ford, mayor of our biggest city, is a sick man. So what, he can still do his job – so say many people who want him to stay at work, including his mother and sister. Intense loyalty, unquestioning support, are hallmarks of a certain kind of politics today. Is he ill? Yeah. Should he get help? Probably. But he has the right to hold onto power, and he should because he can. I shudder to hear it.
The only principle of democracy that postmodern voters seem to grasp is, the person who wins the election can do what they want, and tough luck for the losers until next election. I can vote you off the island, and if I do, that is the end of you. You don’t get to come on next week’s episode of reality. My side is bigger than your side. Shut up, suck it up: that is the rule in win/lose voting.
Harper’s supporters “get it” — no matter his embarrassments over Duffy and Wright. Bill Clinton’s supporters got it, during his disgrace in the Lewinski affair. What a man does in his private life is private – it “stays in Vegas” – and the elitist media have no power, nor perhaps even the right, to keep hounding the leader whom The People chose. The People love when the elites are upset.
Republicans in the USA understand just how much The People resent the elites and their assumed superiority. Liberals are constantly stunned by how the people they want to help, e.g. with a program like medical insurance, are angry at liberals’ assurance they know best how to help. I am guilty of that elitism.
Doing the Right Thing
For me, the other example of extremism in popular ethics that compares with loyalty to compromised leaders, is the Jailhouse Rule: Don’t be a rat. No matter what you know a person has done, no matter the enormity of their crime (up to and including murder and crimes of abuse) – if he/she is in your tribe, your in-group, you Do Not Rat. Teenagers know this. There is no more heinous betrayal of the Teen Code than ratting on another teen, taking the side of the adult authorities. It’s situational ethics run amok. It explains why teen sex-assault and bullying escapes punishment. No one will rat on the perpetrators. The crimes may be awful, but ratting is the worst crime. Die before ratting.
Extreme politicians like the Tea Party types in the USA, can depend on blind loyalty from voters because “doing the right thing” is a relative judgment, not one that can be measured against a clear code of right and wrong. My father’s generation had a moral code, called Victorian morality, and he believed in Duty. Dad was a cop, and fought in WW II. Duty had no ambiguity for him.
My generation, the Boomers, scoffed at that notion. You do not have to do your “duty” — you have to do your job. A job is defined in a job description. Your pay grade determines how important you are, and your job duties are all you are accountable for. Accountability means a public apology, looking like you’re ashamed to the point of tears, preferably with a loyal wife (or husband) at your side: “Hey, I’m just human!” — then get on with business, doing your job.
Adrian Barnes has been writing about leadership, and my thesis here is germane to his musings. Are these types of men, the Rob Fords and the Stephen Harpers, who depend on the blind loyalty of a zealous base, truly the leaders of their electorate? I would say, No. There is no leadership here. There is an agenda. The leader tells a constituency what he will do for their agenda and if they like it they elect him. The voters are constituted as a group — that is, they are “a constituency” — because they want the same political ends.
The “leader” does nothing to change minds, which would be real leadership. He merely does what the base elected him to do. As long as he stays on course, with an obsessive focus on low taxes, shrinking government, and economic growth by intense resource development, Harper is not going to lose his base. He might upset them by refusing some of their more zealous wishes, like reopening an abortion-law debate, but mostly he keeps them happy by doing what they think is most important. Admit to error? It is not in Harper to do. A leader changes his followers’ minds by persuasion, example, and perhaps by ignoring them when he thinks they’re wrong and need time to catch up with a truth he grasps. He doesn’t stick rigidly to a scripted plot. He can change.
I think democracy is withered by the postmodern mind. It is feebler. It’s the form of democracy we get when fewer and fewer people pay attention to what is done by government, when they declare it somehow not substantial for their own lives while they pursue deeper exploration of their egos, their spiritual paths, private cultural fascinations, and their virtually-real-life online.
I am setting myself up as a reactionary here by reacting against postmodernity. I want politics to feel more like they did in 1970. I know that is impossible; I know there’s no going back. I cannot see the future; I idealize my past. It’s time for elites to surrender power, but I’m feeling rebellious. Why should I/we? …because we’ve clearly messed up the earth on our watch. We should let go. We came late to the postmodern mind. Younger people were born into it.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The last installment of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.