Culture Friday – The modernist-postmodernist GameStop conflict

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday, February 5th, 2021. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Culture Friday and so let’s welcome John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast.

John, before we even say good morning, I need to know how much money did you make in the stock market this week? This was crazy!

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: A crazy week and I plead the fifth. No, listen, I think this —

EICHER: You mean you didn’t invest in GameStop? Is that what you’re telling me?

STONESTREET: I did not. I can confirm that. But I tell ya, what we saw over the last couple of weeks and particularly this past week is a fascinating micro picture of our cultural moment. I know there’s a ton of economic details, there’s the technological realities that would never have been possible a decade ago. So, this is a new reality for Wall Street. But I think the backdrop of this is even more interesting.

EICHER: Yeah, I mean, tell me what you think about that. You say it’s a microcosm, but a microcosm of what? Seemed like a bit of a microcosm of our politics: free money!

STONESTREET: Well, this wasn’t just about making money. In fact, one of the interesting facts was the Reddit users not only posting pictures of paying off their debts or making a lot of money, but also buying in of the stock at the highest level. In other words, really proud that they were able to drive it up, even though it was a terrible decision and even the most uneducated retail investor would have known that. It was a real sense to basically squeeze out these hedge fund folk who short stock. And it was this frustration that we have been seeing in our culture for 20 years. 

Here’s what I mean: People forget that postmodernism is not a reaction against Christanity, it’s a reaction against modernism. It is a frustration and despair that comes from the unfulfilled promises that our modern institutions and our modern science and our modern technique is going to basically build a perfect world and we’re going to be able to make everything get better and better and better. And when it fails to do that—because there’s no other place to look in secular societies—you don’t look up because there’s nothing up there, you’ve just got to look at human systems, then basically let’s just burn the thing down. We saw that over and over and over in 2020. That was the impulse of 2020. Anger. Frustration. Despair. And that’s what drove this. And the idea of kind of the modern system feeling like it was impervious to any sort of manipulation was clearly wrong. And at that same time, the retail investors thinking that it was OK to manipulate prices that don’t reflect at any level the value of a company, and to do what they did out of the frustration or out of the sense of revenge, I guess more accurately, that’s A) foolish investing. It’s not a wise way to live your life. And it just wasn’t truth. And that’s the modernist-postmodernist conflict. There’s not a good guy and bad guy side to this, Nick, in my mind. There is a human fallenness side that infects our most deeply established institutions as well as just the individual trying to react and make sense of the world. What a fascinating, fascinating story this was.

EICHER: Let me ask you about the big social media story involving the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The story of two publications and Twitter. It was a Focus on the Family publication. It referred to the president’s pick to lead that office. It’s a medical doctor, Dr. Rachel Levine, who is—quoting from the Focus on the Family tweet—“a transgender woman, that is a man who believes he is a woman.” Then another publication, Catholic World Report, referring to Dr. Levine as—quote—“a biological man identifying as a transgender woman.” Both of these publications saw their Twitter accounts locked for those tweets. CWR was unlocked. The reference remains online. But as far as I can tell, that Focus on the Family account no longer has that tweet up. So, question is — and, listen, it’s interesting because Dr. Levine is going to need Senate confirmation. This is going to be publicized. We’re going to have to deal journalistically with the pronoun question and I wonder how all that is going to play out on social media, but when we talk about the minute details of stories like this, it could seem like we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Are we or do you think this is in truth a big deal?

STONESTREET: This is a big deal. It’s big deal for two reasons. The first is we’re talking about the Department of Health and Human Services. This was the office that under the Obama administration gave the most direct challenges to religious liberty of the entire U.S. government in any of the branches. This is the department that saw the most dramatic shift and swing in the philosophical approach to matters of the entire presidential administration between President Obama and President Trump. In other words, HHS under President Obama and HHS under President Trump could not have been more different. Even more so than the Department of Education, by the way. This is a big deal. 

Look, if this had been the Secretary of Transportation, it wouldn’t have been a big deal that this is a transgender person, a man who believes that he is a woman. I mean, that’s why it made no sense this week when all of the major news outlets announced that Pete Buttigieg being confirmed as the Secretary of Transportation was historic. There’s nothing historic about it. To say that it was historic downplays the significance of the office and downplays the identity of Pete Buttigieg, right? I mean, in other words, you want a guy who can actually do the job and it’s not clear what Pete Buttigieg’s — from all the headlines and articles — what his qualifications were other than the fact that he is a gay man married to another man, right? It didn’t matter in that position. 

In this position, it absolutely matters. And that brings up kind of the second key point and that is we’re talking about the Department of Health and Human Services, right? In other words, does it matter that we have someone who denies biological reality, who embraces “science” that will be rejected in 100 years because it denies chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and external genitalia as being legitimate to determine one’s sexuality or one’s sexual identity. And we’re saying this is kind of the nation’s top person in the area of health? Yeah, I think that matters. 

Now, of course the other side of this is just the thing that has so many folks just really reading 1984 all over again and that is the absolute control of thought, the control of speech, and the deplatforming and the fact that the new public square is managed by companies and there’s an unimagined in times past level of power of a few tech companies to control speech and control thought. And just like that, somebody like Focus on the Family can be deplatformed for saying something that was utterly uncontroversial five years ago, maybe? Yeah. That is a big deal, but that is the tech side of the story and what is it going to look like to actually express views that are considered to be unthinkable in this context. I don’t know what the right answer to that is other than good for Focus and good for the Catholic World Report for being willing to say what’s true about Dr. Levine.

BROWN: Well, so deplatforming is one thing. But erasing history is another. 

I’d like to ask about the San Francisco board of education voting to change the names of more than 40 of its schools because of alleged associations with slaveholding, colonization, or oppression. Here’s a partial list of unacceptables: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, even the senior Democratic senator from California Dianne Feinstein. 

Let me read a passage from an article in The Atlantic: “[George Washington] the leader who won America’s war of independence … and [Abe Lincoln] the one who saved the union and issued the Emancipation Proclamation … were dispatched without further discussion. The decision to rename Abraham Lincoln High took five seconds; George Washington took 12.”

Shouldn’t we at least take 60 seconds to discuss?

STONESTREET: Maybe, I mean, at least 60. One wonders, look, if a board of education of a major U.S. city cannot tell the difference between the KKK and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, they probably don’t have any business putting up schools anyway. This is just really a stunning thing.

But what’s really behind this, it’s really in a sense the same sort of impulse that drove the GameStop story and that’s this collision between postmodernism and modernism. I remember, Nick, in the spring of 2002 hearing a major theologian and apologist announce that postmodernism was dead because certainly no one could believe in absolute morality after seeing 9/11. I was young and I didn’t want to challenge this guy, but I thought he was absolutely wrong because I thought, look, a culture pre-committed to relativism is not going to look at this and say, you know, we have to believe in absolute truth. They’re going to look at this and say it’s people who believed in absolute truth and morality that did this. And that impulse to question everything in the past and all the promises of progress and all of that sort of stuff comes right along with what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. And that’s this kind of deeply held impulse that, well, we would have done it better. We would have done it right. And if there’s one disease of our generation, it’s the fact that we somehow think that we can look back in the past and completely condemn in one fair swoop of an entire history of America as if we would have done things differently had we been there. We would have been the just ones. We would have been the moral ones. And I just think that the tone deafness here is just absolutely stunning because 150-200 years from now, what are they going to look back at us and say? Those are the guys that castrated little boys who thought they were little girls and fed into delusions. Those are the ones who would actually rip apart little babies in wombs. There’s no moral high ground that we have over generations that are past. And the other part of this that is huge is that you do not have a nation to speak of without a history of that nation. You don’t know who you are if you don’t know the story of which you’re a part. And this whole impulse is not pointing out the wrong parts of the story. It’s not trying to correct parts of the story that we got wrong so that the next part of our story we’ll get it right. It’s an attempt to erase the story. This isn’t the way forward.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. 

BROWN: Thank you John.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) Pedestrians pass a GameStop store on 14th Street at Union Square, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Manhattan borough of New York.

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