The plot thickens: the Anti-Defamation League explains that this symbol wasn’t originally white supremacist code, but emerged as a 4chan hoax meant to troll liberals on social media. It may not mean anything, but people thought it did, and many on the far-right adopted the symbol as a result. It has now arguably become a tool of the Make America Great Again movement as evidenced by its frequent use by Trump supporters, like a child behind him at a rally in Montana on Sept. 7.

Back at the confirmation hearings, Bash later in the week made the symbol quite explicitly—perhaps to mock those initially outraged, or to fuel the fires of liberal fury, or to jazz up what should have been a somber affair. For whatever reason she did it, this time, it was hard to argue that she had made the sign accidentally or was ignorant of its implications. And her intentions no longer mattered anyway.

Regardless of its initial meaning, or even Bash’s goals, how people interpreted the hand symbol became more important than the person and her actions. It’s the ultimate postmodern situation. 

Bash’s hands are what Baudrillard would call “the precession of simulacra,” where representation takes precedence over reality. The onetime hoax became real and augmented the truth. It was multiplied and amplified and debated on social media, taking on a life of its own. So much so that—if her husband’s claim of innocence is to be believed—Bash was influenced to imitate herself later in the week, deliberately making motions she supposedly hadn’t known, swept up in the potency of the sign.

Simulacra took over reality.  

Life as literary fiction  

We like to think that there are things which exist and words to describe them precisely, words which can communicate meaning to others. But postmodernists like Baudrillard argue that the hyperreal has replaced these simple associations—the symbols of truth merely hide the fact there is no truth. Or, in Baudrillard’s words:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have to be produced.

Baudrillard’s prime example of the hyperreal was Disneyland, a concentrated version of the US which is more representative of American life than the lives of Americans themselves, he believed. Since he wrote his notable essay, his point has been proven many times over. Take, for example, reality TV, an imitation of real life crafted for entertainment, which created a version of reality that now shapes whatever can be called “real life.”

Reality, then, is a kind of literary fiction which we all create based upon our experiences and the information we encounter. The characters we meet are all writing their own stories, many of which don’t correspond with ours. And that can be frustrating, because we humans want desperately to believe that there are some things we all hold dear and understand as valuable. Maybe that’s the universal truth: the desire to share a point of view.

And so we are left with an unmanageable reality. Who am I to argue with your truth? To do so would be to say that your experience and interpretations are invalid. So though you and I may not see eye to eye, as a product of a postmodern society, I must recognize the validity of your perspective, even when it contradicts my own beliefs and experiences.

Postmodernism is messy. The notion that there is no reality per se, and no truth that can’t be relativized, makes us all anxious and uncomfortable. We want, instead, to cling to older notions—concepts about shared values, humanity’s perpetual onward and upward progress, the power of knowledge to free us and improve our lot.   

In The Atlantic’s October issue, editor Jeffrey Goldberg admits that this is a “a moment in which truths that seemed self-evident are in doubt.” He writes that US democracy is in crisis, but cites the nation’s founding fathers and constitutional principles as a source of hope. Americans at one point held certain truths to be self-evident, or so wrote the powerful white men who drafted the Constitution.

But when you look at the facts, matters were complicated even back in the day. No one asked the slaves in the US about their values or their definition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The powerful were indifferent to women’s rights, too. Our shared values were espoused by people out of touch with many of us. Looking back to the founding of the country for a sense of moral comfort, in some respects, is just nostalgia for another unreality. 

That doesn’t mean we should trash the Constitution. But it does highlight the fact that the relativism of postmodernism existed before the vocabulary for its discussion formed. It may well be that we never really shared beliefs—we just had authorities dictating the truth, and it was easier to ignore other people’s perspectives in the past.

Instead of blaming postmodernists for the messiness of our time, we should be trying to find a new kind of language—one that allows us to speak across divides, rather than rejecting opposing perspectives as inherently false. We have to learn to acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of views and from this craft some kind of working truth. That may too be an illusion, but it will be more functional than living in denial. Otherwise, all that we’re left with is this impossible mess, and our perpetual rejection of life’s many inconvenient complexities.

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