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Obama, the postmodernist

In the Illinois senator’s world, words have no fixed meaning, and truth is often just a matter of perspective.

By Jonah Goldberg

Asked to define sin, Barack Obama replied that sin is "being out of alignment with my values." Statements such as this have caused many people to wonder whether Obama has a God complex or is hopelessly arrogant. For the record, sin isn't being out of alignment with your own values (if it were, Hannibal Lecter wouldn't be a sinner because his values hold that it's OK to eat people) nor is it being out of alignment with Obama's  —  unless he really is our Savior.

There is, however, a third possibility. Obama is a postmodernist.

An explosive fad in the 1980s, postmodernism was and is an enormous intellectual hustle in which left-wing intellectuals take crowbars and pick axes to anything having to do with the civilizational Mount Rushmore of Dead White European Males.

"PoMos" hold that there is no such thing as capital-T "Truth." There are only lower-case "truths." Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false, are really just ways for those Pernicious Pale Patriarchs to keep the Coalition of the Oppressed in their place. In the PoMo's telling, reality is "socially constructed." And so the PoMos seek to tear down everything that "privileges" the powerful over the powerless and to replace it with new truths more to their liking.

Hence the deep dishonesty of postmodernism. It claims to liberate society from fixed meanings and rigid categories, but it is invariably used to impose new ones, usually in the form of political correctness. We've all seen how adept the PC brigades are celebrating free speech, when it's for speech they like.

Words as power, facts as myths

Obama gives every indication of having evolved from this intellectual soup. As a student and, later, a law school instructor, Obama was sympathetic to Critical Race Theory, a wholly owned franchise of postmodernism. At Harvard, Obama revered Derrick Bell, a controversial black law professor who preferred personally defined literary truths over old-fashioned literal truth. Words are power, Bell and Co. argued, and your so-called facts are merely myths of the white power structure.

When Hillary Clinton criticized Obama for being all about empty rhetoric and no action, Obama mocked Clinton  —  "Don't tell me words don't matter!"  —  sounding like a sorcerer offended by the suggestion that magic incantations are mere sounds.

One reason Obama seems arrogant is that he can never admit he was wrong, a common shortcoming of politicians. But Obama sometimes literally gets exasperated with people who think his words can mean anything other than what he thinks they should mean. Even when he says things he later regrets such as on, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement, he merely says that his rhetoric got overheated, but that he was still accurate. When Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and "spiritual adviser" of 20 years, was caught on videotape (recorded and sold by Wright himself) saying things that contradicted everything Obama ever said about being a post-racial, moderate candidate, Obama simply said that that's not the Jeremiah Wright he knows, as if his personal perspective settled the issue.

Would that I could have told my math teacher upon receiving a failing grade, "That's not the math I know."

On the troop surge, Obama's position has changed countless times, but he says it's unchanged. Worse, he has this grating habit of prefacing his new positions with something like "as I said at the time." But he didn't say "it" at the time, he said the opposite of "it." But saying that he said "it" is, to him, the same as having said "it."

We're told that Obama is "post-racial," but he invokes his own race whenever convenient (e.g., to suggest his opponents are racists, to win support of people who want to vote for him on account of his race). Indeed, the very idea that Obama is post-racial is postmodern claptrap, since only a black candidate can be post-racial, right? No one would say John McCain transcends race. If being post-racial is something only a (liberal) black politician can do, what is "post" about it? Post-racial is just another convenient term used to advance a left-wing agenda under the guise of some highfalutin buzzwords.

A theoretical reality

The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the singular ideal of movement-ness. Obama's followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff  —  another American hugely popular in Germany  —  hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.

In Berlin two weeks ago, Obama's speech was justified solely by the fact that he was giving it. He offered no policy and  —  not being a president  —  really had no reason to be there other than to tell people, essentially, "now is the moment." He informed the throbbing masses, bathing in his charisma the way hippies wallowed in the mud at Woodstock, that the greatest threat facing the world is the possibility we might allow "new walls to divide us from one another." Nuclear war? Feh. No, walls, walls are the danger. Of course, these new walls aren't real. Some might even say they're just words.

But not Barack Obama.

Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online and author of Liberal Fascism, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.