Sometime between the My Lai massacre and Watergate (or between the first and last episodes of “Here’s Lucy,” if you like your contexts sanitized), Truth with a big T took one between the eyes.
There were no such things as moral or cultural absolutes anymore, no superior civilizations, certainly nothing like Truth, Justice and the American Way, at least not with a straight face. The old Enlightenment idea that with enough education and experience we could judge and know everything objectively was replaced with the “postmodernist” notion that we can know nothing no matter how hard we try. Education itself was suspect because you had to ask yourself who the educators were, what motive they had up their sleeve to be telling you that, say, Lincoln was a liberator but John Brown was just a black terrorist (plenty of motives, it turns out).
In sum, all theories, all ideas, all practices must more or less be respected, because all is relative. As the literary theorist Stanley Fish once put it, the death of objectivity “relieves me of the obligation to be right;” it “demands only that I be interesting.” So goes the philosophy known as postmodernism, one of whose evangelists (Jacques Derrida) just went to his final deconstructing place.
Actually, a little relativism is a very good thing. It punctures old dogmas and gives a voice to those who’ve been conveniently shut out. Americans’ discovery in the past few decades that there are such things as women, minorities and cultures somewhat more complex than the Disney canon at Epcot owes a lot to postmodernism. It had its excesses. The 1990s’ wave of “political correctness,” those campus speech and dating codes and such workplace Nazifications as “sensitivity training,” come to mind. But its own dogmas aside, postmodernism had its uses. Conservatives, to whom dogma is second nature, recognized in the trend a threat to their cherished assumptions (America the fallible? Never!) and launched a war on relativism in the 1980s, making it a slur synonymous with liberalism. They blamed universities for undermining American civilization and the media for playing along. It was the academic version of the Grenada invasion (Could a bunch of obscure professors shedding bad prose be that great a threat to an America that had God on its side?). But it helped concoct the “culture war” that has re-made the GOP in Joan of Arc’s image.
The GOP lost the 1992 presidential election in part because its crusading bombast alienated the country. But like any political movement contrived of opportunism rather than ideals, it did the next best thing. It got in bed with postmodernist theories. Like Southern Baptists co-opting rock ‘n roll to the bilge of “Christian rock,” the conservative movement co-opted the joys of relativism to the greater glories of Republican ideology. You could see it coming when creationists quit talking in Medieval absurdities and adopted the scientific-sounding language of “creative intelligence theory.” If it is all scientific opinion, they argued, then fine: Treat our “science” as such and put us on an equal footing with the other sciences. And there it was, the transformation of crock into academic respectability. Fox News is pulling the same rabbit out of its nightly slanders of journalistic fairness and balance simply by branding itself fair and balanced. The 9/11 commission was a more serious slander of objectivity. By equalizing blame so scrupulously, by making it so relative, it diffused blame to the point of whitewash while letting the appearance of conciliatory responsibility seem nobler than accounting for a catastrophe.
The same principle is at work when the president tells his crocks — about Iraqi “democracy,” about Afghan “freedoms,” about the “fairness” of his plutocratic tax cuts or the greenness of his environmental graveyard. What matters is what he says matters, not what objective truths might say matters. Liberals were the first to discredit objective truth. Conservatives are happy to play along so long as they get to blast their creative misinformation and wanton deception from behind the credibility of the presidential seal. Given the press’ unwillingness to call out liars in high places, the president was, John Kerry’s insolence aside, safe. Spin, in short, is postmodernism at full blast.
“The diffusion of ideas is propaganda, whether fascist, communist, or democratic,” the great historian Jacques Barzun wrote many years ago. “The democratic hope has always been to raise the standard of gullibility, to sharpen judgment, to confront opposite propagandas.” The Republican success has been to lower the standard of gullibility, to muddle judgment in the bullying language of fear, to make confronting propaganda seem like an assault on patriotism. Democracy has suffered. It is suffering, and it needs rescuing. The greatest mockery is that this is the party claiming to be spreading democracy abroad and protecting it at home. There may not be absolute truths. But there are absolute crocks, and this is one of them.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.