Deconstruction

On April 18th the Washington Post ran a book review by Jonathan Yardley lamenting the damage done to our society by deconstruction and pointing out for the umpteenth time that Paul De Man had sympathized with Nazism in his youth.

If you don’t have a very good idea what deconstruction is, don’t worry about it. Neither does Yardley. The idea found in the writings labeled deconstruction, pragmatism, postmodernism, and so on, which draws the most fire is the notion that humans have to create their own scale of achievement. This means that in the law and science and ethics there is no such thing as “getting it right” by some extra-human standard. This scares a lot of people. They imagine that great horrors will follow from acceptance of such a belief.

But a moment’s thought will reveal that one cannot accept this belief without believing that it has always been the case. Whatever pretenses people may have made to worshiping, addressing, investigating, corresponding to, and obeying extra-human enitities (God, the Super-Ego, Natural Law, the Moral Code, Objective Reality, Universal Instinct, the Market, and so forth), no one, according to this theory, has actually succeeded in doing (or even beginning to do, or even making sense of the idea of trying to do) any such thing. If this is so, then no one can possibly cease doing such things.

But what if we were to cease pretending or attempting to perform these feats? Would this have any political consequences? I believe so. Leftists would have been better off this century had they not fallen for Marxist beliefs in extra-human historical forces. We would all be better off without current right-wing beliefs in the “naturalness” of heterosexuality, the “justness” of “retribution,” the sacredness of the “freedom” to passively watch others starve and struggle.
Back in January various newspapers, beginning with the L.A. Times, ran an editorial by Neal Gabler explaining the sexual inquisition in Washington, DC, as a struggle between proponents and opponents of religion, and taking the side of the religious. I think Gabler was right about that struggle, and would like to comment from the opposing camp.

Of course, beliefs can be put together in any combination. Many people opposed the impeachment of Clinton and attend church. Many people oppose attending church and support “belief in God.” Many oppose “belief in God” and fanatically defend the existence of “objective reality.” Others reject “objective reality” but attend church. Still others favor removing Clinton from office – either because of his sex-lies or for one of the many more serious reasons now being ignored, as similar reasons have been ignored in the past – and do not have any use for religion.

But, for the most part, right-wing views are religious views. An ABSOLUTE defense of one’s preferred “rights,” appeals to the notion of what one “deserves,” condemnation of certain types of sex and drugs as “wrong,” as well as scientists’ talk of “objective reality”: none of this could exist without the assumption of a deity. I recall a bumper sticker that I saw shortly after Clinton’s first election to the presidency:

“Smoke pot, dodge the draft, cheat on your wife, get elected president – The new American way.”

I thought to myself: “What harm was done by his trying pot? He should have conscientiously objected and didn’t have the integrity, but at least he didn’t go. His marriage is none of my business. Can he be any worse a president (not a role model, but a president) than George Bush?”

A religious person might have thought: “He did three forbidden things [that is, things forbidden by a non-human being]. He should suffer.”

All right, so maybe Clinton has been worse than Bush as measured on a scale of left-wing concerns. But that fact supports Gabler’s view that Clinton was been impeached for being counter-cultural, not for opposing Republican initiatives.

For the most part, left-wing views can be detached from religion. Concern for human well-being is enough to motivate, for example, decreasing Big-Government spending on weapons, prisons, highways, and the clear-cutting of national forests, as well as to motivate the criminalization of campaign bribery, and the institution of humane human services including health care and decent schools. Mere concern for human happiness is not enough to motivate legalizing bribery, creating and accepting poverty, incarcerating what will probably soon be a full one percent of Americans, or destroying the environment. To defend these things one needs arguments derived from theistic notions like “just deserts” and the Enlightenment idea of anarchy as a “natural” state preceding a social contract. One has to be capable of calling the enforcement of starvation wages a “right to work” and destruction of forests a “salvaging operation.”

Many right-wing policies are so blatantly motivated by greed and bigotry that critics are tempted to call Republican religion hypocritical. Surely Jesus would not condone Republican behavior. Jesus preached love of enemies. We annually pass a Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday without hearing a word about love of enemies. No country with a criminal justice system like ours could have much memory of what loving enemies meant.

But one element of religion is an appeal to magical authority. It is precisely in cases of greed and cruelty that this appeal is made, as when Pat Robertson declared that it was God’s will to let Yugoslavians engage in “self-genocide.” In cases not involving such disreputable motives one can appeal to the goal of human well-being. It is entirely appropriate that the “right to work” is phrased in religious terms. The phrase doesn’t mention “God,” but without God we would be free to create and eliminate “rights” based on what looked likely to do the most good for people.

We hear less about the “right to a livable wage” than about the “right to work,” not because the former would be less beneficial, but because the proponents of the latter wear crosses on their lapels and display bibles on the dashboards of their Cadillacs. In addition, supporters of a livable wage don’t tend to declare their position “objective” and everyone else’s “subjective,” because they find this trick laughable and unconvincing when practiced by the likes of Neal Gabler.

Gabler’s editorial struck the educated atheist as especially cynical because of its extraordinary ignorance. Deconstruction did not originate in linguistics, as Gabler claimed, but in the philosophical writing of Jacques Derrida, who adapted the word from Martin Heidegger. And it has little in common with Gabler’s description of it. Gabler admited to oversimplifying and then claimed that the idea he had oversimplified (or, rather, missed entirely) was nothing new.

Gabler blamed Clinton (reasonably enough) for hiding behind legal technicalities, but condemned this, absurdly, as deconstruction. At the same time, Gabler more or less admited that the whole impeachment circus was driven by Republican sexual dogma, and had not one word to say against Republican claims to being motivated by concern for the legal offense of perjury. (Republicans, like Democrats, have a strong record of not opposing lies out-from-under oath, as well as of supporting George Bush’s pardoning of accused perjurers after Iran-Contra.)

Gabler first painted the usual caricature of deconstruction (or pragmatism or postmodernism or secular humanism) as “subjectivism,” “relativism,” and the idea that any belief is just as good as any other. (One might respond that there are many ways for measuring beliefs against one another, but that none of these seem helped by vague talk of “objective truth.”) Next Gabler lumped anything that he didn’t like under the label of deconstruction: Clinton’s lies and sophistry, the apparently wrong verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, the early Nazism of Paul de Man, etc.

Gabler even maintained that the idea that not all lies in a court are perjury is deconstruction. It is a matter of long legal tradition that perjury is defined as lies relevant to important questions in a case. Somehow I doubt that this fact would be labeled deconstruction (i.e. evil) if a Republican president were on trial for perjury.

I applaud Gabler for openly admitting what motivated many Republicans and explaining that “Republicans don’t seem to mind that the public now reviles them,” because their cause is a holy one. I would ask only that Gabler consider whether that is an attitude which in an alleged democracy merits anything other than the fiercest criticism. If religion trumps the will of the people, then the people can achieve democracy only by refusing to elect religious representatives.