Mukasey and Digby Give Postmodernism a Bad Name

By David Swanson

I’ve often seen Bush compared to a child and Cheney to a monster, which I think is incredibly unfair to children and monsters. The following is a commentary on a blog posting by Digby that compares the Bush-Cheney crime gang to postmodernists and “relativists”, which I think is entirely unfair to postmodernists and “relativists”. In fact, I think the Bush-Cheney gang’s defense of cruel and criminal actions fits seamlessly with their opposition to “postmodern relativism,” rather than constituting a glaring and hypocritical contradiction to it, as Digby supposes.

The basic ethical assumption of the postmodernism of the 20th century European philosophers or of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism is that we must create our own system of ethics. We cannot look into an ancient text, pray to a god, or get in touch with the great spirit of the universe to discover as a scientific fact that we should not torture someone, or for that matter that it is permissible to torture someone. We can oppose torture as the result of deference to law or tradition, after studying the general failure of torture to produce anything other than misery, after realizing the likely damage to be done by establishing a general rule permitting torture. Etc. We can be as convinced as humanly possible and advocate against torture with the height of passion and devotion. Certainly I do. We just can’t swear with any more than 99.9999% certainty that we’ll never change our minds or that generations in the future will never change their minds. And nobody else can do so with any credibility either. And we can’t argue that past or future generations, or own own contemporaries, who advocate for torture are wrong by any standard other than our own practical arguments that torture does more harm than good. And nobody else can credibly do so either.

You might suppose this to somehow weaken the case against torture. You might imagine the case would be stronger if we could just point to a holy book or a philosophy dissertation and say “See, it’s wrong, now shut up.” But you’ll have failed to notice that most of the defenders of torture are precisely the people who tend to argue that way. They tell us that homosexuality and abortion and peace and single payer health care are evil for this sort of childish reason, and we aren’t convinced. Why would having such a reason to oppose torture help us convince them? It wouldn’t. It would just comfort us, and we don’t need comforting.

Switching gears, we can recognize that there might be a ticking-bomb scenario in which torture would be the best thing to do, and still believe in the wisdom of not establishing a policy permitting it. That debate, over whether to allow torture because it might in some rare instance be desirable or to ban it because a policy supporting torture will likely lead to abuse, is not a philosophical debate, but simply a practical one. The philosophical debate begins when someone lays claim to superhuman authority in arguing for or against torturing. If Gandhi or Kant or Amnesty International claims that torture can never ever be the right move, then we’re into philosophy, because “never ever” claims precedent over all possible factors, even those not yet imagined. Similarly, if Addington or Yoo or Gonzales claims that anything done in the name of fighting evildoers is good and right, we are right back into metaphysics from the other side of the field. The postmodernist position, in contrast, is not that torture is never good or always good or good depending. The postmodernist position is that what we conclude about torture we must conclude relying entirely on our own human faculties.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at Digby’s post:

There was a time when conservatives used to commonly insult liberals with an accusation that they were empty “pomo relativists.” Lynn Cheney, in particular, made a point of it when she was the chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and even wrote a book about it called “Telling The Truth,” if you can believe that.

CHENEY: It’s postmodernism, the notion that there is no such thing as truth. There’s only your version of events and my version and Charles’ version and Harry’s version, and the one that prevails will be that of whoever is the most powerful. This seems to fly in the face of the way scholarship has proceeded for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Now, as Digby proceeds you’ll see that she (Digby) thinks Lynn Cheney was right in this remark, rather than ignorant or disingenuous, as I believe. In a Pragmatist worldview, all of science and human understanding is just that, human understanding. And there is nothing greater. There are some common beliefs that have proved themselves extremely useful and enduring, such as the belief that the sun will come up again just like it did before, or the belief that WMDs that Iraq destroyed will stay destroyed unless someone goes to a heck of a lot of trouble to rebuild them. But we learn important things with each passing day and millennium, including that the sun stays still while we spin around. Our most fundamental beliefs are no more – and no less! – than the beliefs that we most strongly expect to hold in the future. One of them is, of course, that objects – like WMDs – don’t appear because some jerk says they exist. I can’t imagine I’ll ever drop that belief, but I have nothing other than my confidence to point to, no secret world outside Plato’s cave, no Jungian myth, not even the magically built in concepts of Chomsky. Nothing. And I don’t need it, and neither do you, and there’s nothing to worry about. Relax. Europeans got over this loss of mumbojumboism a half century ago. Suck it up, America! Of course there is truth, it’s just not metaphysical, it’s human. Back to Digby:

It takes your breath away, doesn’t it? The exposure of the conservative movement as extreme epistemic relativists has been one of the most fascinating (and frustrating) stories of the Bush years.

The simpler concept of hypocrisy (never very strong in the political world) had been retired some time ago, of course, when all the family values adulterers worked themselves into a lather over Bill Clinton’s furtive indiscretions (although at the time we never could have anticipated the antics of the Foley, Vitter and Craig faction.) But when the Bush administration took over, the right wing went far beyond hypocrisy to a denial of reality itself — a post-modern conservatism, as oxymoronic as that sounds. It was perhaps best encapsulated in the famous quote captured by journalist Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

No postmodernist believes this in a philosophical sense, that you can pull out a bag of Christian Science and make the world be something by thinking it. That’s a rightwing strawman. But I’m not even clear the fascist quoted here means to be talking philosophy at all. He says that he’ll change the world (presumably in the ordinary way), while others will observe those changes. He also may be saying that he’ll create mass belief in lies (such as that Iraq blew up the World Trade Center). But is he claiming that those lies will actually become true, even in the minds of those making them? Is he claiming that these will be perfect lies that everyone accepts as true, and that last as truth and are never exposed? The rhetorical flourish about the “reality-based community” may suggest as much. But this is not exactly new and blamable on English departments, unless we’re going to rank Machiavelli or Goebbels a postmodernist. Telling a lie with enormous success can indeed leave a lot of people believing it’s true, but cannot guarantee it will last, and cannot make it true in the minds of the liars. Most lies are statements that fit into a web of other beliefs that are less easily controlled. As we learn what happened in Iraq in the 1990s, as we learn what was said in the CIA in 2002, etc., it becomes harder for the WMD lie to fit into the web. As long as it does fit, we may believe it, but we won’t know we’re believing a lie, we won’t have entered the realm of philosophy. Digby goes on:

(The Bush administration’s “up-is-downism” was discussed in depth in a trenchant article from 2003 by Josh Marshall called “The Postmodern President”.)

I’m not sure if it’s that we’ve become used to it or the administration has used less of it recently, but I don’t find myself pounding my head on the desk as often I once did at some Bush official (or often the president himself) essentially saying “you can believe me or you can believe you lying eyes.” Creationism, the denial of global warming (indeed, all scientific inquiry), the Enronization of the budget, even the continuing insistence among many that there were WMD in Iraq — there are examples around us everywhere of conservatives(particularly regular Fox News viewers) who, because they are delivered by a “trusted” source, believe things that have long since been proven wrong or make no sense.

But, pace Lynn Cheney, this describes perfectly “the way scholarship has proceeded for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.” What is new, what is modern, is the notion that there are no authorities worthy of that sort of trust. Postmodernism is the notion that an entirely unexpected way of looking at physics or chemistry might give us insights into global warming that we cannot now imagine, and that something as mundane as global warming itself might stimulate such thinking. Postmodernism is not the idea that the rising temperature of the earth can really be cooling if we think chilly thoughts. he White House claim that global warming does not exist or has not been proven is an ordinary lie. The later White House claim that global warming has health benefits is a perfectly pre-modern panglossian remark. Creationism is deference to a 6,000 year old story. Cheating on accounts is also probably 6,000 years old. Fox is not postmodern, it’s prehistoric. But that’s not how Digby sees it:

But just as I’ve become somewhat inured to this right-wing epistemic relativism over time, I’ve become more and more astonished at the right’s simultaneous rejection of some of the great moral taboos of human history. After all, even more than their assault on liberals for rejecting rationalism or universalism, for years they characterized liberal social tolerance as despicable “moral relativism” and excoriated those who sought equality as threats to the foundations of civilization itself. It’s more than a little bit stunning to see these so-called conservatives suddenly dancing on the head of a pin trying to defend the immoral act of torture by saying it all depends on what the meaning of waterboarding is.

Again, counting angels on the head of a pin was a pre-modern, not post-modern, activity. Tweaking rules of behavior to fit the preferences of the powerful is as old as rules of behavior. Digby’s throwing around terms like “epistemic relativism” as if epistemology had anything to do with what she’s talking about won’t make any of this into news. Our nation has been torturing and using others to torture for us for decades, and rightwing hypocrites have been the proponents of that policy. What’s new is the openness and the greater willingness to do the torture ourselves, but lying about it is nothing new. “Thou Shalt not Kill” has never covered the death penalty. People who love simplistic holy rules are dishonest people. You should EXPECT them to lie and ignore their own rules. What is new and encouraging in the world is the increased willingness by others to think for themselves and abandon the longing for simplicity. Digby quotes some garden variety hypocrites:

“Well, I’m not sure it is either. I’m not sure it is either. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is.”


ABRAMS: All right. Let me ask – Pat, you just real quick, I want to move on to—Pat, do you think it‘s torture?

BUCHANAN: I think when you have people on the table and make them think like they‘re drowning and they don‘t know if they‘re ever going to get up, that comes very close to it in my judgment. Certainly with this exception, if you‘re going to end it before something critical happens — I don‘t know.

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, the old “it depends on who’s doing it” excuse doesn’t work very well with the rule of law.

An important point, just not a philosophical point.

This is why we have spectacles like this taking place now:

The top legal adviser within the US state department, who counsels the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on international law, has declined to rule out the use of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding even if it were applied by foreign intelligence services on US citizens. John Bellinger refused to denounce the technique, which has been condemned by human rights groups as a form of torture, during a debate on the Bush Administration’s stance on international law held by Guardian America, the Guardian’s US website. He said he would not include or exclude any technique without first considering whether it violated the convention on torture.

This is the crowd that prided itself on its so-called moral clarity. Why, “virtues czar” William Bennett even wrote a book about it called “Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War On Terrorism” in which he said:

The comparative study of culture and civilization is a quintessential product of western curiosity. It ought to fill us with complex but securely founded confidence in our own culture and civilization — in its particular values and universal values…But the terrible effect of contemporary relativism — a debased and decadent product of that same western impulse of curiosity — is that instead of imbuing us with confidence, it fills us with self-doubt and debilitates us instead.

Do you feel debilitated? I don’t. The lack of stupid infantile simplicity in moral decision making can only debilitate those who need it. Those who need it tend to be weak-willed people who fall for such obsessions as gambling.

Bennett was trying, as usual, to snidely blame liberalism for everything that is wrong in the world, but his words, when seen through the prism of right wing contemporary relativism ring true. When you have lost your moral moorings to the extent that you no longer can say with any “clarity” that tying someone down and repeatedly forcing them to inhale water into their lungs until they almost drown is torture, then I would suggest that you are indeed a moral relativist in the most pejorative sense of the word.

Read this amazing article from someone who knows it inside and out, on whether waterboarding is torture.

All those terms that conservatives used to love to use, the proud, patriotic words like Honor, Decency, Honesty, Morality no longer apply to them. The right-wing relativists have faced their own ultimate test and they have failed it in every possible way.

But, see, I can say with great clarity that we must not torture. We must respect the longstanding international ban on all torture. That’s clear enough for most people. If you have to frost that clarity with metaphysical Platonic “clarity” then you are suffering from the same need for guidance and leadership that gives us neocons and fascism, which after all promotes very CLEAR rules, albeit horrific ones.

Articles like Digby’s make use of a certain variety of relativism that I do oppose. Only Republicans are ever guilty. Democrats never are. This is an absurd pretense on the question of torture. So is the pretense that there is something philosophical here.