Thursday, November 21, 2019

Ship of Fools, or The Titanic Arrogance of Postmodernity

We’re setting sail
To the place on the map
From which no one has ever returned
Drawn by the promise of
the joker and the fool
By the light of the crosses that burn

Drawn by the promise of
the women and the lace
And the gold and the cotton and pearls
It's the place where they keep all the darkness you need
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip, baby

You will pay tomorrow
You’re gonna pay tomorrow
You will pay tomorrow”
Ship of Fools, World Party (1986)

Those are pretty “Christian” lyrics, really.

Oh, they’re not genteel, kindly or polite, to be sure; but they’re real, they’re true and they’re accurate — at least when we apply them to our present society.

Ship of Fools

The motif of a ship full of foolish people mindlessly pursuing their pleasures while the ship itself heads toward doom is an old one. Apparently it dates from Plato’s Republic (380 BC), but quickly became one of the most commonly repeated images in art. It appears in etchings, tapestries, paintings and stories of all kinds, all the way up to the present day. Such noteworthies as Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer took it up during the medieval period, and in 1962 the Pulitzer Prize-winning authoress Katherine Anne Porter gave that title to one of her novels. So it’s not terribly surprising to find a rock group with a song to go along with all that.

The theme is old and resonant. It’s stayed around because in every day and age there are groups of people who are all in the same boat together but are blithely sailing off in some bad direction out of misguidedness or confusion.

The motif is really around to remind humanity that just because a lot of people are doing something together, that doesn’t make it a smart thing to do.

Modern, Modern, Postmodern

Well, they say we’re all in the same boat these days. And we’re told this “boat” is variously “The Internet Revolution”, “The Global Village”, “The International Community”, “World Economics”, “The United Nations” or …

You pick it: there’s been a billion of these things, these metaphors that presume to describe our destiny.

Maybe the overarching claim is that we are all being precipitated together into something called “postmodernity” these days. Supposedly, that’s because we’ve all given up on a thing called “modernity”, and somehow we all got “post” of that.

Those two words get chucked around a lot these days, but not too many people know much about what they mean. I’m going to keep it simple here: “Modern” means “living in the conditions of post-industrial Western life”, essentially, the sort of life we’ve had in North America and Europe for a century or more. Let’s leave it there.

“Postmodern” is more a current buzzword; but really, all it means is “living in the wake of, and with the consequences of, the failure of the values and aspirations of the modern world”. In fact, many experts prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of “postmodernity”, since really, nothing has changed except that after about 1960 the chickens started to come home to roost, and the bad ideas behind some aspects of modernity began to rear their ugly heads.

The Postmodern Condition

Anyway, we are now told by these same experts that we are “postmodern”. We are people who have seen modern industrialism play itself out through two world wars and a cold war, colonial collapse, the “me” generation, nuclear proliferation, rising consumerism, environmental devastation, rampant inequality, the media revolution, and so on. We’re a bit tired of it all, more skeptical than we’ve ever been, and fed up with things not turning out the way we had hoped. So they say.

The grand old man of this sort of critique is, of course, J.F. Lyotard, author of a famous and oft-quoted book called The Postmodern Condition. In this very short work, Lyotard tries to describe what it’s like to live with some kind of hope even though you’ve given up optimism so far as the modern ideas of irresistible progress and the inherent goodness of technology have been abandoned.

Lyotard thinks we’re not entirely jaded. We still believe in things, but not in the same things, and not in the same way, as we used to do. Seeing the modern world fail has made us universally incredulous, he says: we don’t really believe in anything much anymore — at least, not the stuff people tell us or try to educate us to think — but we do have a sort of hopefulness that out of our confusion and cynicism some positive thing can come about.

The Social Situation

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman takes up the theme from Lyotard. He argues that because most people today don’t really believe in all the modern promises of progress anymore, we’ve become sort of suspicious about everything. The world starts to look to us like a tangle of distractions and illusions. Science, education, ideology, religion, advertising, politics — all start to look like lies or distractions of one kind or another. And we become convinced that what we really have to do is to get free of these — if for no other reason than to be able to clear our own heads and gain some kind of new purchase on reality.

This is why, more and more, being and thinking like a modern person means ignoring the past and focusing on the future: “living with a project”, so to speak. The past is a disappointment, a mistake, a fix: but the future might be brighter, we think, if we can “see through” enough of it, and discredit or destroy the structures that support all the delusory ideologies of the modern world.

Project Management

So we have a sort of project to do. We have to work toward a future in which a new world is possible because we’ve kind of killed off the old one. Thus, ironically, killing the old things off becomes a kind of hopeful, liberatory exercise. So Bauman writes:
“That project, that Grand Ideal at the heart of modern restlessness, that guiding lantern perched on the prow of modernity’s ship, was the idea of emancipation: an idea which draws its meaning from what it negates and against which it rebels — from the shackles it wants to fracture, the wounds it wants to heal — and owes its allure to the promise of negation.

‘The promise of negation’ means that the whole attractiveness, the appeal, the siren song of our modern ideology is the idea that we can simply be free. Free from what? Free from everything. Free from anything. Whatever happens to hold us back, whatever says ‘No,’ whatever stands between us any desire a human being can have (no matter how glorious, hopeful, enticing, vain, absurd or unhealthy it may be) that thing must be removed.”
And why? Simply because it says “No”. No “no” can be borne. No “no” can be allowed to stand. The pure desire for emancipation — undefined, unrestricted and uninhibited — must be satisfied. That is the aim of all our modern, secular liberation rhetoric.

Creeds of Negation

Like atheism, modern liberalism is simply a creed of negation. It knows what it wants to reject, what it despises, what it hates, and that’s all. It draws every bit of its own vigor from its hatred of a vigorous enemy. And modern people find it very attractive, if for no other reason than that it promises them from relief of whatever has previously held them back. They are told they can at last have life their way, if only the emancipation project goes forward. It’s the sort of handle that fits whatever pot you want to take it to.

On the other side, though, the Grand Idea of Emancipation carries with it no conception at all of what we are being liberated to. It tells us we must be free, but it does not and cannot say to what it is that we are being freed. After all, to specify the legitimate goal of our unrestricted freedoms would be to restrict them. It would be to impose a particular vision of the future to the exclusion or at least diminishment of some other possible view.

Future Blind

We’re going somewhere, but we have no idea where. The Grand Idea tells us it will be good … and that’s all we know.

So Bauman continues:
“Of what life would be like without shackles and wounds, the Grand Idea of Emancipation tells us little and knows less still. That life, after all, has been lodged in the future … however hard one strains one’s eyes, the only sight one can catch is that of one’s own vision.”
We will be free. Free from everything, but free to … well, we don’t know. Can’t say. Won’t try to say. Just “free”.

That’s the modern liberal vision of liberation. In it there is no conception of humanity flourishing, but only the pallid hope that each man can make it up for himself. Somehow, that’s all supposed to work out, and be to the good for all of us.

Key Point

Here’s the kicker: being negative, modern liberalism can deprive us of a past, but never build us a future. Having no ethic, it cannot direct us, shape “the good society” for us, or point us to justice. Having no vision, it cannot lead us. Having no objective truth, it cannot sponsor science.

All it can do is negate, refuse, deny, and in short “liberate” is from all objective reference points. But once the ground has been cleared and leveled by its universal suspicion, it has absolutely nothing to say. Nothing to offer. Nothing upon which to build.

Atheism’s like that too. It derives all its force from fighting against theism. But if it ever were to succeed in eradicating the enemy it so hates, it would be devoid of purpose in the very next second. Like liberalism, it would have no insight to offer the future, and no direction in which to take us. It could deprive us of meaning, but offer us nothing in return.

These creeds are moral eunuchs. They have nothing productive to offer the world. All they can do is deny.

Bon Voyage?

Modernity’s “liberationist” propaganda — so beloved by the press, so celebrated in politics, so current on the internet, so orthodox in public education and so generally lauded for its advocacy of “humanity”, “equality” and “rights” — really amounts to a pell-mell race toward emptiness. Once the revolution is achieved, there is no “good society” to come. Modern liberalism knows nothing about that.

However, nature abhors a vacuum. So the real effect of secular-liberal revolutions is to clear away objective values so completely that any fool notion has space to rush in. Whether it’s communist despotism, fascistic nationalism or Islamic fundamentalism, people need something to fill the gap in existential meaning and to fulfill the public functions of its guiding ideology. Eventually, they’ll take anything that promises to restore some order or meaning. And historically, the results are never good.

Modern liberalism is a “ship of fools” sailing to nowhere. For now, it has lots of vigor because it has lots to oppose. It rides high in the liberal press and in the imaginations of those indoctrinated by Western liberal ideology. But be warned: when it has played out its self-righteous hand, it will assuredly turn and begin eating its own children. For it cannot survive without an opponent: and if its old opponent has been defeated, then new ones must be invented. Anything is better than having to face the realization that the liberation has ultimately left us adrift and meaningless.

Steer Clear

It all reminds me of Psalm 2:
“The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!’ ”
Let us.” It’s a trend, a movement, not just an individual thing. The de facto “rulers of the world” (whoever they are) start a program and the masses jump in.

Let us tear their fetters.” It’s all about emancipation, liberation, freedom; but freedom from God, not freedom to any particular good.

And the response:
“He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.”
Now, trust me: when the Lord “laughs” in this way, he’s not amused. He’s not laughing with you; he’s laughing at you. It’s never a good thing when he does that.

And he “sits in the heavens”. He doesn’t even have to bestir himself to deal with the alleged threat to his authority:
“Then he will speak to them in his anger
And terrify them in his fury …”
Emancipation is not a universal good. The freedom of God is freedom indeed. The freedom of man is nihilism. And the end of man’s emancipation is judgment.


You’ll hear a lot these days about “social justice”. You’ll hear about everybody’s “right” to do what they want, their moral “freedoms” and “liberation” from “oppression”. Such language does have an appeal to Christians, since historically they have been on the forefront of social improvement and the extension of legitimate human rights of all kinds, from women’s rights to racial rights to prison reform to public welfare. We care about people, and we want to do the right thing.

But don’t be tempted to join in on mankind’s “emancipation plans” too quickly. The ship isn’t always headed where you think.

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