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Postmodernism in a History Museum

By Colton Kirby

With the increasing rise of Postmodern philosophy in regular life, we can begin to see its delirious effects everywhere. Some may like to claim that things can exist in one domain; viz. something is said to be only biological, or only cultural, or only religious. However, if something is, if it exists in the real world in any concrete way, it exists at every level simultaneously. This is true of Postmodern ideology. And while some may like to say that Postmodernism has affected every area of life, this is not the case.

I wish to take a recent example, gathered from a personal anecdote, to explain this: A couple of weekends ago my family and I had the opportunity to visit The Museum of Idaho (Idaho is where I live). Due to the working of which I have no knowledge, (perhaps a coalition of museums), the Museum of Idaho switches displays and exhibits on a more or less annual basis. When I visited there was one exhibit dealing with the biology of mammals (mostly, at least), and one with the history of Idaho along with some facts on 19th century Western Expansionism. The latter is where our attention lays.

In most all the exhibits in the museum, there is a large heading title to grab a person’s attention and typify the information, and then there is smaller text detailing some information of significance. Most of the headers did their jobs well and most of the body texts carried some useful information. For instance, next to a display of a bull-cow in the biology exhibit, part of the text relayed that the average bull makes a total of 30,000 chewing motions per day to go along with 40 gallons of saliva. Another, next to a display of a camel, revealed that the humps on camels do not store water but rather store body fat.

Despite this, there was one section of the museum (in the aforementioned Idaho History exhibit) that was apparently dedicated to Postmodern philosophy using history as its Zarathustra. There were three particularly outrageous signs posted on the gray walls here, and none of them had a display to which they were referring. We will look at these each separately and then see what they mean together, in the context of the museum, and in the context of broader life.

The first claimed follows for its title: “How do you know what you know?” Even someone who knows less than Ayn Rand did about philosophy would know that this is the basic epistemological question. Although it may seem silly to the motivated, modern utilitarian man or woman, one does have their own answer to this if only they choose to look. How do you know that you are reading this sentence? Because you see it? But who’s to say that the things you see are real? You see cartoons; they aren’t real. And so, even if one is not particularly interested in epistemology, everyone is an epistemologist. This sign in the museum had its own words to give about epistemology: “LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, etc.) became a widely used term in the 1990s, but LGBTQ+ history in Idaho goes back much further. Most readily available historical research is found through prejudicial practices and laws, like the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness, and sodomy and sterilization laws dating as far back as 1864 in Idaho. Communities of LGBTQ+ people and allies started to become more visible in the 1950s, and even more so with the establishment of Boise Pride in 1989. Many communities in Idaho, including Idaho Falls [the town where the museum is located], now host Pride celebrations, but as of 2020, Idaho has no statewide legal protections for LGBTQ+ people.”

Aside from the text having a complete disconnect from the title, this is portraying basic Postmodern ideology. According to this sign, the answer to the most fundamental epistemological question is that LGBTQ+ people have been oppressed;--that one knows what one knows (or, shall I say, a person knows what they know)--because of oppression. This oppression comes in many forms. Firstly, it comes from individuals. Secondly, it comes from the government which is run by those oppressive individuals. Thirdly, it comes from those (all institutions and people) who not only actively suppress another’s truth (i.e. their belief that their sexuality is oriented in whichsoever way they please and that that is good) but also from those who do not actively affirm another’s subjective truth. So, how do we know what we know? We know it because we create it; you must bow down to what we (the oppressed) create. Of course, these are not truly oppressed, they are the powerful. The second sign was even bolder than the first; it asked the reader: “What is justice?” By this time in my leisurely museum-walking and sign-reading, I had become more suspicious, due to that first sign, but not entirely negative or pessimistic. I did not expect this sign to be as bad as the first. Surely, it was asking an equally difficult question, but I did not yet suspect that it would give an equally terrible answer. The question of what is just is central to human flourishing: without justice, a true justice, we cannot live; or, rather, we must make our own justice and make the world ever so increasingly in our image. As the other was a question about epistemology, this was about ethics. We have shot and missed the first major branch of philosophy, hopefully, we do not miss this one too. The text to this sign read thus: “On January 29, 1863, near what is now Franklin, Idaho, 200 U.S. Army Soldiers killed 250 or more Shoshone, including at least 90 women, children, and infants. The Shoshone were shot, stabbed, and battered to death. Some were driven into the icy Bear River to drown or freeze. This horrific massacre took place during the Civil War in response to tensions with Mormon settlers and a claim from a minor that this band of people had stolen goods and animals from him.”

I think that every sensible person can recognize that what these American soldiers did was, on some level, unjust. But why was it unjust? The writing on this wall tells us not. Is death always unjust? Is it always wrong to kill native people? What if this was some overarching strategic move by the U.S. Army (I am not saying it was because I have no idea, but the sign allows not for such a question)? What if the natives had, in this instance, killed 250 settlers? Would that be unjust? Who’s justice, anyway, is being executed? Was the minor telling the truth? Did the natives attack the U.S. Army camp first? Was this killing out of self-defense? I do not know the answers to these questions and I am not attempting to read into this text all too much, but it seems as though some questions would be important before using such an example to make a metaphysical truth claim about the fundamental fabric of reality itself. The presumption of innocence as is Gatsby: once proud and important, now gone with hardly anyone to care. Real Justice has died and a new justice is born. If you are a part of the group with power, you define what is right and just; it is time for the newly freed oppressed to have their say. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

I wish to give the example of one last sign; there were others as well. One read: “How does history shape your understanding of our present and future?” Another read: “How does the way you were taught history shape your understanding of it?” The former is, quite obviously, more behavioral; the latter more developmental. I will include photos of these signs at the end of this post, but I ought not to invest myself in a commentary on them. Nay; instead we will look at this question: “What is truth?” With the question, we have now covered all three major areas of philosophy: first, epistemology; second, ethics; third, metaphysics: this is a metaphysical question. Unlike my approach to the second sign, unassuming and thinking that it would say something of value, I was less sanguine here. Or, rather, I was not only less sanguine, I was almost something like afraid and appalled. Here is what this sign said: “In 1870, just 60 ‘free colored’ men and women were recorded in the Idaho territorial census. Black Americans came to Idaho largely through homesteading, ranching, and railroading. At first glance, Idaho’s lack of laws, institutions, and traditions related to racism toward Black Americans appears to reflect a history of equality. However, historians have come to understand that Idaho didn’t have these laws simply because the population here was so small. In fact, it did not exceed 1,000 until after World War II. Regardless, social norms of segregation and discrimination were entrenched in Idaho through well-established, but unwritten rules.”

Truth, in other words, is what racial relations are--albeit, what harmful racial relations are. But what if there is no such harm in the racial relations in any given state--say, Idaho? No problem; just make them up. After all, “truth” as it used to be understood is something of the past. We now make truth. It is created in our own image. Truth may as well not exist: it is a way to gain power and to keep power. The people like such talk of what is “true” and “objective.” Why should we not give them what they want? But first, in order that they will not get what is really true--for that would make them really free, as you know, and we could not have that--we must redefine truth. This is no matter anyway: language is just a social construction used by some to leverage their view of the world, their view of what the world should be. All before us were cowards; we are the courageous men, for we care not for what was before unless it serves our purposes. Truth--Ha! What an idiotic notion! There is no such thing as truth anymore. Our truth from here on out will be that everything from the past shall be torn down . . . because we hate it! And if you try to stop us, you are the oppressors, you are intolerant.

That Still Small Voice--the voice of how we know what we know, the voice of justice, the voice of what is really true, the voice . . . that voice which tells us what Love is--these people wish to drown it with noise: the noise that everyone in the past was either of the oppressor or the oppressed. We shall scoff and mock and snicker at the past; for maybe in the past we would find something bigger than us--and oh! that would be a terrible thing indeed. Noise, noise, noise! We need more noise, more flashing lights, more artificiality, and then maybe we could get what we want. We shall not Love, for Love is a dangerous thing. Of course, we cannot get rid of Love, so let us recast it in an obscure form--yes . . . let us make it into “compassion” and “care.” Let the people think they know what Love is because they are caring for the “oppressed minorities.” It will all be a wonderful delusion! Kill the Still Small Voice with this, and then people will no longer even question our signs.

I would like to point out that these signs and the philosophy they contain is rather strange given that they were written by living creatures and exist in a building which does not fall in on itself. The Museum was not built on one’s own subjective truth. It was built in accordance with a higher truth than one’s own truth. And how do these builders know what they know? Well, it is at least in part because what they believe is true works: the roof is not falling in and the lights are still running. Did they make up these physical laws? The people who wrote the signs would probably have to admit that they certainly did not. The museum, then, is a living contradiction: we can play around with our Postmodernism but we cannot really enact it. All this philosophy does--this system of complete nihilism with the only saving force being ourselves--is tear down and destroy things. Need an example? Look at the last year and a half of “politically” motivated riots and violence. We cannot enact this version of reality. If we do, everything falls apart. We can create a very sophisticated version of Hell, but we will never create Heaven. All is depravity and meaninglessness. The whole point and metaphysic to which creation was pointing has been lost: it is time for us to create our own. I am god. What I say goes above what you say because of Power. And Power . . . Yes! O life! Power is all there is! What a wonderful word! A wonderful concept! We meaninglessness and Postmodern thinkers are to create gods, for we are god. Nothing matters but Power. Claim that you are oppressed to steal the Power! If Reason was given to man in order for him to escape his troubles, well then, Power was not: it was given to man by himself in order to make the world in his own image. To who does it matter if we could not build the physical museum using our ideas? We will create a new idea with Power. And to who does it matter that other men must die and suffer because of our cause? We define justice now (O! justice, such a pathetic notion!) and will make it into what we wish. We Hate what is Love. And if Power is not real, then Hate certainly is.

And so, this is what this museum is saying. It could be said of my argument here that I am misconstruing what was being communicated through these signs. However, if one does not draw the conclusions I just now illuminated, I would doubt the honesty of such an interpretation. The philosophy of Postmodernism exists at all these levels of reality and it cannot and will not be confined to one dimension. It is only a matter of time before this philosophy, like a lethal bug, embeddes itself into the skin of our world. This is already happening at some levels. The only place such an ideology can go is down: toward destruction, horror, fear, pain, death. At this particular moment in history, however, and to the thanks of God, it only does infect certain aspects; it contradicts itself in practice, too. But if it is not fought, this sickness--that of the soul, spirit, mind, and body of everyone--will conquer and all will fail.

Shall we be complicit with these ideas: the same ideas which gave motive to the infamous “H.H.”? The crossroads is upon us. Will Hell overcome? Perhaps we should heed the words of Dante, that great Italian poet: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Love is being killed; shall we stand by and watch the greatest of all jewels be crushed under the feet of disgusting men? Perhaps we should die, but not die because we did not fight.

By Colton Kirby

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