How postmodernism let me down

We had such high hopes.

As discussion of deconstruction, relativism, Foucault and Derrida pervaded college campuses in the late 80s and early 90s, those of us with a political bent thought it was a good thing. We had grown up in a world of moral ambiguity, where a small number of elite sources put forth the truth, while we knew there was a different story not being told. Marginalized peoples needed to be given a voice, identity politics needed to trump mass-action politics, and a decade-long flurry of quotation marks was our badge of honor, proof that we knew that all “truth” was politically motivated.

It was fun too. Earnestness and self-importance took a back seat to irony, and if we looked like we didn’t care, it was only because we were waiting to be shown our skepticism was unfounded.

I have to admit I adopted the cohort. I actually was an undergrad in the first half of the 80s, surrounded by the last gasps of 60s protest politics, wondering why being a liberal was so tedious and unfun. I grew up watching the Boomers, thinking that my life would be like theirs, only to realize how much everything had changed by a year or two into my adulthood. How refreshing, then, to be given a new perspective, a new way of seeing the world. I devoured the writings of Thomas Kuhn and John Fiske, the early films of Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater, any music on the Gavin Report lists. Postmodernism had the practical ability to make our world anew!

I was excited by the prospect of a philosophical and cultural underpinning for a worldview that realized multiple viewpoints, appreciated diverse voices. I still remember the excitement of the first time I read Sandra Harding and truly realized how even the natural sciences could be studied with a gender bias, and how making this bias explicit allowed the possibility that people could “appreciate difference,” as the lingo stated. A world that enjoyed Jane Campion movies would certainly be more open and free.

It turns out I was wrong. Somewhere between the death of Kurt Cobain (and the death two weeks later of Richard Nixon) and the “proof” of Saddam’s WMDs, postmodernism began to eat itself. What seemed at first a way for all voices to be heard became a rationale for all other voices to be shut out. Somehow we got from Richard Rorty’s impossibility of truth to Sarah Palin’s “truth is whatever I say it is.”

To be honest, the leap isn’t that hard. It’s just that we didn’t see it. And, is in so many things, difficult ideas are problematic in the hands (and mouths) of those who only understand a little, and are dangerous when implemented by those only concerned with maintaining power. The problem lies also in the disconnect between the academic and real life. In the half-millennium since the Renaissance, and the 250 years since the height of the Enlightenment, average Western people have gotten pretty comfortable with Modernism and the idea of knowable truth, and a few books by a few professors aren’t going to change that. And while I doubt Roger Ailes and Andrew Breitbart have read Derrida, they seem to get the point. More importantly, they understand the gap between Derrida and the average Middle American, and know how to exploit it.

This is where I wish I could be prescriptive. It would be great to say, “here’s how to fix this” and anyone who knows me knows I want that. But our world is both modernist and postmodern, and it’s really, really hard to tell which truths are knowable and which ones aren’t, and where there is no truth at all. I do know that, in a nod to Leibnitz, the more little tiny pieces of truth we can accumulate, the greater the chance that what we see is kind of correct. Not in an absolute, epistemological way, but in that practical, everyday kind of way, the way that allows us to function. There may be no absolute knowable truth, but we have to set the bar somewhere.

To those under 50, to those who embraced postmodernism in our youth, like it or not, we’re the ones who have to set that bar.

A new message box.

It’s always bugged me.

I never knew why, but the standard political training “message box” always seemed off somehow. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just that it seems inadequate and misguided. It’s never seemed to me to really help see the whole picture. As a result, I never used it, but had just chalked it up to me being ornery.

I recently read a reprint of an old article that touted the value of the message box, and it got me thinking about it again. For those of you who don’t remember, it looks like this:

Then it occurred to me, it’s built on that 60′s/Boomer worldview that all people are either with or against us, or empty vessels prepared to receive (good or bad) wisdom. Perhaps the demographic/historic analysis isn’t quite right, but what’s missing is clear: the public. Campaigns spend an inordinant amount of time reacting and responding to the other side, when a political messaging process should really be a conversation between you and your public. While you usually assume your opponent is wrong (and can get away with it), if you find the public doesn’t agree with you, you can’t so easily dismiss them. Whether they’re smart or stupid, rational or irrational, their reality is your reality and you’ve got to meet them there.

So what if the message box looked like this?

That’s not too crazy a leap, is it? As a graphic, I feel like the only problem area is in the middle square, where I wanted to include the public’s view of politicians and government, because that’s inextricable from they’re view of you and/or your opponent, but it doesn’t really belong in that spot.

Maybe the classic version left out the public because they don’t speak with one voice, or because what they say isn’t part of a strategy, or you have a harder time figuring out what it is. Or maybe it’s because they don’t have a method to get their “message” out. But they do, and even so, that’s not the point. When you’re crafting a message, it’s at least as important to respond to the public’s perception as to your opponent’s, and the public — the voters — are not an empty vessel. They bring a wealth of preconceived notions to the table, about you, about your opponent, about politics in general. You cannot afford to ignore those notions. If they assume you’re elitist because of the town you’re from, then they don’t need your opponent to say you’re an elitist for your message to need to to address that.

It’s also important to check your assumptions. Just as it’s part of the drill to figure out what your messaging is saying about your opponent, it’s critical to analyze what assumptions you’re making about the voters, particularly if you’re going public with those assumptions. If your messaging treats balancing the budget as the most important thing, you better know that your public believes the same thing. If they don’t, then either be prepared to make the connection for them (and do it clearly and compellingly), or reframe your message in terms of what’s important to them.

Perhaps more than anything, this new matrix encourages listening. If all political messaging is set up as opposing sides of a four-square box, then is it any wonder the ideology gets in the way? In the last months we have seen egregious, embarrassing disconnects between public opinion and the posturing of ideologue politicians, and while I seriously doubt a new black-and-white two-dimensional graphic would change that, maybe it can help those of us who are in this business to serve the people to do a better job at doing just that.

Welcome to me

Something like a decade behind the curve, I’ve finally entered the blogosphere as a way to get my thoughts out into the world. The hope is that, despite my lateness, it will be worth reading. Stay tuned; I have no lack of things to say, but it’ll probably take me a bit to hit my stride.

In the meantime, here is a series of articles I wrote for Minnesota Playlist last summer. It’s about theater marketing, and most of what I hope to write here will be about politics, so it’s kind of standalone thing.