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Facts & Firemen
An accidental phrase leaps gloriously from the controversy.


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Jonah Goldberg

This is my new favorite phrase: “factual correctness” (replacing “I can’t eat this whole thing, you want the rest?”).

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Yesterday, while writing about this fireman-statue controversy, I stumbled upon the following quote: “I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.” It was offered by a member of the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters (no Trek jokes, please).

It’s really too bad it had to come from a blue-collar firefighter instead of from Stanley Fish or Edward Said, or some other postmodern muckety-muck who could give “factual correctness” some hefty academic gravitas. Still, it does perfectly capture a certain postmodern attitude, doesn’t it? It demotes “facts” to being a mere political category, while ridiculing those people who place too much emphasis on “facts.”

Postmodernism 101
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. A quick recap may be in order. For those of you who have better things to do, there’s this school of “thought” called “postmodernism” which — kind of like WASPs with mayonnaise — put quotation marks on everything. The reason so-called “PoMos” do this is because they believe there are no “capital-T” Truths. Rather, everything is mired in “perspective,” which in turn is determined by various “interests,” “privileges,” and other “biases” and “prejudices,” etc., etc. It’s no exaggeration to say that postmodernism, of one flavor or another, is the dominant way of thinking in academia and on the cultural Left.

C’mon, you know what I’m talking about. The Pale Penis People define history, words, events, “facts,” etc., in ways that only seek or serve to reinforce our privileged place in a “socially constructed reality.” When you’re trying to figure these people out, the important thing to remember is that this socially constructed reality — their phrase, not mine — is the only reality we get. As Stanley Fish put it not too long ago in the New York Times, “[P]ostmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one.” Of course, postmodernism doesn’t maintain only that, but you get the point.

The greatest exposé of postmodern asininity appeared, in 1996, in the pages of a respected postmodern magazine called Social Text. The editors of Social Text, as part of their long campaign against facts-without-quotation-marks, dedicated an entire issue to the problem of “science.” For obvious reasons, PoMos hate science more than dogs hate vacuum cleaners, and they bark at it about as much. You see, scientists work on precisely the opposite assumptions as PoMos; they actually think that facts exist outside of clever word games. You can say all you like that physics is phallocentric, but it’s not going to change the rules of thermodynamics. This really pisses off PoMos, because scientists keep making really cool gadgets that work while, to date, Duke’s English department hasn’t been able to make an airplane run on metaphors or to illuminate a football stadium with the adverbs from James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Anyway, a physicist named Alan Sokal decided to have some fun and submit a paper to Social Text entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” After a zillion pages of jargon, it concluded that “physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” The editors loved the piece and published it. At which point, Sokal admitted it was a parody and he was just kidding. A few PoMos insisted it didn’t matter if Sokal was joking, because he was right anyway. But most of them were angry enough to spit hermeneutic nails.

Anyway, because there is no objective truth, only subjective arguments, everything becomes political: a contest about power and privilege. I say “facts” are actually just plain facts, according to the PoMos, because the status quo works for me. I complain about “political correctness,” say the PoMos, because the agenda of the politically correct is to topple me from my place of privilege. The way these self-styled revolutionaries do this is by elevating the importance of “diversity” and “community” over such allegedly white-male-empowering concepts as “individualism” and “merit.”

For example. If I stood up in a classroom at Brown or Harvard or Yale and declared, “Let the best man win,” the students would turn into a human sprinkler-system of deconstructing inquiry. What do you mean by “man”? What are your criteria for “best”? Why does someone have to “win” at all? Couldn’t we define the task more cooperatively? When you say “let,” who is doing the “letting”? Isn’t that just another way of saying we should “let” the patriarchal capitalist system continue to reward those already deemed “best” (and, therefore, most advantaged)? This word “the,” it seems to connote that there is only a single criterion for determining a privileged status — couldn’t there be a more pluralistic approach? Etc., yawn, etc.

I don’t want to sound immodest, but once you understand the above point there’s little reason for you to read Cornel West, or any other similar author who seeks to “unearth”-”expose”-”undress”-”deconstruct”-”reveal” the hidden class-racial-patriarchal-heterosexual-lookist biases hidden in our culture or language. It’s all the same analysis, just with different examples and different grudges against whitey.

The Numinous Negro
Last August, the incomparable Richard Brookhiser (okay, he’s comparable, but only to really talented and impressive people) wrote a wonderful essay for National Review entitled “The Numinous Negro: His importance in our lives; why he is fading.” Brookhiser described the pervasive habit in American culture, high and low, of portraying blacks as “numinous.” Numinous is defined in the dictionary as “of or pertaining to a numen,” the Roman word for “the presiding divinity . . . of a place.” It also means “spiritually elevated.” Numinous Negroes are the cadres of blacks, real and imagined, that our culture chooses to put on a pedestal — to treat as if they are somehow more capable of seeing the important truths, spiritual and moral.

Brookhiser uses the word Negro simply because we still used the word Negro when we first started painting blacks in numinous hues. The Numinous Negro can be seen “in the gooey prose of white liberals whenever a Negro appears,” writes Brookhiser, or in any of scores of movies, like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.

The most famous Numinous Negro was, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose real gifts and real flaws have alike been enshrouded in a holy veil of secular divinity. Blacks themselves are active participants in this cultural project. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus frequently calls itself the “conscience of the Congress” — because, well, because they’re black.

I myself have written about my habit of spotting the “anachronistic black man” in movies. These are black characters who, for Numinous reasons, are portrayed in ways which make no sense historically. My favorite recent example was the black galley cook in the WWII movie U-571 who not only bossed around all the white sailors (our armed forces were still decidedly segregated in WWII) but, when given the chance, turned out to be capable not only of driving a submarine, but of driving a German one. The all-time classic anachronistic-black-man movie, however, was 1978′s The Norseman, in which Deacon Jones (the black NFL Hall of Famer) plays one of the self-described “blonde warriors.”

Factually Incorrect Firemen
Which brings us back to that pesky fireman statue. Intended to commemorate those who died in the 9/11 attack, the proposed sculpture was to borrow the now-familiar image of those firemen raising the flag amidst the rubble like the Marines did at Iwo Jima. But, as we all know, the City and its contractor have decided that instead of depicting the three white guys who actually raised the flag, they’re going to change them into a black guy, an Hispanic guy and one token white guy (it goes without saying, that if the firemen had been three black guys, this controversy never would have arisen).

Now, I’ve already covered all this in my syndicated column, which I think is pretty good. (Oh, by the way, the San Francisco Chronicle just decided to carry it, if you can believe that.) And I learned only now that they’ve put the kibosh on the statue. But my point remains. Let’s pick up where I began before we got into all of the postmodernism stuff.

Remember that black fireman’s declaration: “I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.”

“Factual correctness”! I just think that’s brilliant, even if it was by accident. We think the politically correct are silly because they elevate “inclusiveness” over all other criteria. The handicapped are “physically challenged,” failures are “non-traditional successes,” ex-convicts are members of the “ex-offender community” (a serious voting bloc in your nation’s capital; see “Make it a State“), and so on. We deride political correctness as a fad of certain kinds of liberals terrified to speak plainly. Conservatives have managed to define political correctness — an age-old lefty term — as something a bit silly and unserious.

Well, now there’s a term for us too. We’re just being “factually correct.” The truth is just one more perspective — and not even a very useful one, since the highest value is no longer capital-T Truth, but diversity, inclusiveness, whatever. Women don’t make good soldiers? Oh, that’s just so much “factual correctness.” Black cooks during World War II probably didn’t know how to drive German submarines? Please, peddle your factually correct wares someplace else. You claim that reality isn’t a socially constructed linguistic artifice? Well! Now you’re just taking this factual correctness thing too far.

And since artistic expression of diversity supercedes any concern over factual correctness, you can just imagine how Hollywood and Harvard can now get the 9/11 story right. First of all, those planes were hijacked by homophobic Catholic priests and the senior management of Enron. Let’s change the name of Osama bin Laden to… hmmm… “Newt Gingrich.” And he destroyed the World Trade Center out of a homophobic desire to erase the implied phallic competition inherent in the male-oriented capitalism presented by those towers. The “firemen” were actually the faculty of the New School for Social Research, with Asian and homosexual women in wheelchairs leading the charge up the stairs of the burning building. Rudy Giuliani was mayor, but he refused to help any non-white, taxpaying victims. And, oh yeah, the planes were fueled by the adverbs in Dubliners



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