Pomo-bashing, like dragon-hunting, is an activity best undertaken in the suspension of disbelief. By imagining a world in which winged, fire-breathing reptiles with magical powers are real, it is possible to imagine what it might be like to hunt such creatures. Similarly, once you accept that postmodernism holds there to be no such thing as truth, you can bash it.
In political terms, such acceptance turns “postmodernism” into a dirty word. Conservatives use it to denigrate a version of the educated, middle-class left as dragon-hunting dreamers who believe that all cultures are equal and history is a myth. The left uses it to distinguish serious and practical concerns from the “soft” ideas of dragon-hunting dreamers who self-identify as left, or are made out to do so by the right. Attacking “the postmodern left”, as it were, is a bipartisan sport.
For most conservatives, “postmodernism” is shorthand for any form of critical relation to the conservative idea that truth is absolute and universal. As Giles Auty tells it in a Quadrant essay for June 2000, postmodernism’s hydra-like appearances take the shape of “deconstruction, post-colonialism, revisionist history, gender theory, political correctness, multiculturalism and feminism”, all of which are underpinned by “neo-Marxist theory” (“Postmodernism’s Assault”).
Adopting an apocalyptic tone favoured by conservatives when contemplating the always inevitably “Stalinist” implications of any so-called Marxist position, Auty ends his essay in convulsive paranoia: postmodernism, he writes, “represents an attempt to usher in a new kind of left-wing totalitarianism via the unlocked back doors of democracies. Postmodernism represents the neo-Marxist conquest of Western cultures by stealth” (ibid.).
Ramping up the rhetoric, while continuing to offer nothing in the way of legitimate evidence, Keith Windschuttle brings the conservative line on postmodernism up to date in the January 2007 issue of Quadrant. For Windschuttle, Auty’s various neo-Marxisms collapse into a powerful “evangelical” movement belonging, unsurprisingly, to the “middle-class, tertiary-educated Left, with its campaign for the three Rs of refugees, reconciliation and republic” (“Struggle for Australian Values”).
Peddling a series of fabricated atrocity stories, such as the stolen generations, this movement has somehow managed to hoodwink an unspecified but putatively vast number of Australians into hating their country:
The reasons why so many Australians today want to think so badly of their own country are hard to pin down. I don’t pretend to understand them all. But it is clear that, for the past thirty years, the Evangelical Left has bloated itself on such a diet of myth, propaganda and atrocity stories about Australian history, about our role in the contemporary world, and especially about our chief ally and best friend, the United States, that it no longer believes in or cares about objective truth. (Ibid.)
Such hyperbole (which is used to considered effect by other conservatives, from Miranda Devine, Kevin Donnelly and Luke Slattery to Prime Minister John Howard himself) seeks to make it seem as though the postmodern left will stop at nothing short of laying Western civilisation to cataclysmic waste. Small wonder of late that conservatives are increasingly emboldened to associate postmodernism with jihadism.
Yet beyond such hyperbole, where is “the postmodern left”? Where, beyond the fear-mongering accusations and alarmist spin, would you find this new “totalitarianism” that the “middle-class, tertiary-educated left” has produced, out of loathing for the West and hatred for Australia, from the utterly preposterous idea that there is no such thing as truth?
Where is this movement’s manifesto? In which books, and on what pages, is it written or implied that the aim of postmodernism is “the neo-Marxist conquest of Western cultures by stealth”? Where is it written, on what page, that postmodernism stands for the belief that nothing is true?
Like dragons, the postmodern left invoked by Auty, Windschuttle and other conservatives does not exist outside of texts. This doesn’t mean it is just a discrediting lie, however, a strategic shibboleth, invented by the right to make the left seem anti-democratic. On the contrary, for a certain idea of the left - one that reduces the radical democratic force of the left to a voter-friendly “alternative” to conservatism - the phantom of the so-called postmodern left is a very convenient bogey-figure indeed. Briefly, the version of the left we have in mind here is divisible into three groups:
- the ALP (the parliamentary left);
- established, left-leaning media commentators (“the house reds”, we like to call them);
- Internet bloggers who identify with Labor (self-styled “social activists”).