American pragmatism and the postmodern illusion—or, to believe does not make it so
Postmodernism is commonly described as the origination point for contemporary ideas such as gender ideology, notions around transgenderism and the like. However, there is a simpler explanation and one that is more in accord with the facts. Ideas like transgender ideology originate in America and not in the country most usually associated with postmodernism—France; and this is because these ideas originate not in postmodernism but in American pragmatism, as expounded by William James. Pragmatism is aptly summed up as above: “What you can make people believe is true, is true.” I don’t think there is a better maxim for transgender ideology than that: “If I can make you believe I am a woman because I can simulate the typical external features of a woman, then I am a woman.”
The quote is from Wyndham Lewis’s Time and Western Man (1927)—so it long predates postmodernism. As Lewis notes, this philosophy is connected to advertisement and hypnosis—essentially the same thing. In the popular American tradition, it is connected to works such as Think Yourself Rich! and How to Make Friends and Influence People—“Just stare at the blackheads on your nose in the mirror for five minutes a day and you will see, with the power of positive mental energy, clean blemish-free skin within the week.” It is also not unconnected to that other American pastime “boosterism”, whereby you boast that Paris, Illinois has “the finest boulevards in the Midwest, directly modelled on the latest continental ideas—with a booming population and hundreds of lots for sale, you’d be a fool not to move to Paris, Illinois” (entire town budget proceeds to collapse, mayor and staff flee to Honduras with what can be salvaged from the promotional campaign budget).
As Lewis says, the American pragmatic test for any theorem is “What difference will its truth or falsehood make to you?”. I think we see here the genesis for contemporary cliches such as “I’m speaking my truth” and “language is violence”—after all, if I contradict your assertion that you happen to be a woman it is really just being an asshole; in solipsistic mode, it makes no difference to me—so why can’t I just butt out and let people enjoy things? If I believe it, if I self-hypnotise, it must be true—or true for me, so just respect me, okay?
This outlook reached its apotheosis in the 1960s with a book call I’m Ok, You’re Ok; its argument pretty much being that we have to come to understand that our mutually conflictual beliefs are different and accept that. “I say I’m a woman.” “And, Bob, I’m okay with that—even if I disagree that you are a ‘woman’, I celebrate your truth.” “Simon, thank you for acknowledging my truth; and I acknowledge that you hold a different belief—and that’s okay; and I celebrate and acknowledge your truth.” In practice, it doesn’t work like that, but you get the general idea.
Given that William James was a notable Harvard psychologist and arguably the only philosopher America has ever produced, it would make sense if pragmatism were to be the default American philosophy—having filtered down from the country’s premier institute of higher learning to schoolteachers and journalists. This explains why gender ideology and critical theory do so well in America, she was already primed for them and perhaps added to pragmatism a Marxisant inflexion connected to race, class, and gender.
Why, then, does the right—particularly the American right—blame these ideas on French postmodernism and on the Frankfurt School? Projection: people reject unacceptable facts about themselves—so it either has to be “the French”, channeling Burke, or “the Jews” (the Frankfurt School); and this is a case where I would say the Jews are genuinely scapegoated; further, it also explains why Germany and France are not also hotbeds of gender ideology and so on—except as insofar as they import it from America.
Hence Jordan Peterson, critic of “postmodern neo-Marxism”, seems strangely “postmodern” because his ideas derive from pragmatism, so he says: “I act as if God is real,” i.e. this is pragmatism, “If I believe it to be so, act as if it is so, then it is so (for me anyway)”. Okay—yet is it true? “It’s true for me.” This is the same position as with a man who claims to be a woman except carried out with another extraordinary claim many people find difficult to credit, the existence of God. Peterson appears “postmodern”—or, more accurately, is another product from the Harvard school of pragmatism, albeit one whose “spoken truth” is conservative.
This outlook appeals to America because America is democratic and so solipsistic and narcissistic: everyone has to be valuable, so there cannot be objectivity—instead you create a narcissistic visage to flatter yourself, you “speak your truth” (and nobody can contradict that—all they can say is, “I disagree, but good for you, buddy!”). Similarly, if parents “really believe” in their child then they will become an astronaut or President one day.
America was founded on the premise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and this altered the traditional expression “life, liberty, and the protection of property”. America has always been anti-private property, libertarians are anti-American. Further, “the pursuit of happiness” did not mean “individual hedonistic satisfaction” as we think today; rather, it meant “participation in the public realm reserved for great men”. The Founding Fathers perverted ideas about tyranny—they conflated the way in monarchies citizens were expected to keep to the private domain, with their property respected, and leave the public arena for “great men” with tyranny. The “pursuit of happiness” America promised was that everyone could act as a great man in the public arena, and that amounted to a warrant for narcissism and self-delusion—a need fulfilled by pragmatism, since if you believe you are a great man you are one; and nobody can contradict you without being seen as malevolent or irrational.