It has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. That is generally taken to mean that in the course of prosecuting a war, governments will often subordinate truth to propaganda. That is true enough, a lamentable but perfectly understandable response to extremity. But America’s new war against terrorism reminds us that there is another sense in which truth is a casualty of war. We refer to the surreal, truth-denying response of the academic left to the political and moral realities that have prompted the conflict.
In a much noted article that appeared on The Wall Street Journal’s website, the journalist Andrew Sullivan opined that
one of the overlooked aspects of the war we are now fighting is the awakening it has spawned on the left. In one atrocity, Osama bin Laden may have accomplished what a generation of conservative writers have failed to do: convince mainstream liberals of the illogic and nihilism of the powerful postmodern left.
There is something in what Sullivan says. There has been at least a partial awakening among establishment liberals. Confronted with the horror of September 11, instinctively flaccid liberals—many of them, anyway—have found new resolution and toughness. The same cannot be said for the “postmodern left” itself. In those vertiginous precincts, “illogic and nihilism” have proved to be hardy perennials.
Mr. Sullivan cites several examples. As usual, Duke University’s senior pomo Marxist Fredric Jameson provided a floridly inscrutable specimen. Writing in The London Review of Books, Jameson began by noting his reluctance “to comment on the recent ‘events’ because the event in question, as history, is incomplete and one can even say that it has not yet fully happened.” How much absurdity is contained in the scare quotes around “events”?
Verbal efflorescences such as Jameson’s occupy a special place in the Baedeker of contemporary intellectual pathology. To any healthy mind, it is immediately clear that something has gone disastrously wrong. More worrisome, because less obviously insane, are the sophistical speculations of Jameson’s former colleague Stanley Fish. Fish is a clever man. Indeed, elsewhere in this issue the critic Paul Dean offers admiring, if qualified, praise for his recent work on John Milton. But at the center of that cleverness is an “illogic and nihilism” every bit as destructive as the more patently loopy variety dispensed by Jameson & Co. Fish is like the nineteenth-century confidence man Barney Barnato. “Gentlemen,” he said, addressing a shareholders’ meeting, “those are my principles, and if you don’t like them—I’ve got others.” A few years ago, when the physicist Alan Sokal gulled a trendy academic journal into publishing blatant nonsense, he successfully highlighted the intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism to just about everyone—except Stanley Fish. Fish rushed into print in The New York Times to declare that “it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine” intellectual standards.
Fish was back in the Times on October 15 with “Condemnation Without Absolutes,” the perfect postmodern response to attacks on postmodernism. Where V. S. Naipaul commended the West for its development of “universal civilization,” Fish wants us dispense with universals altogether—what he calls “the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes.” We shouldn’t say that the terrorists are “irrational madmen,” he cautions, because “irrational actors are by definition without rhyme or reason, and there’s no point in reasoning about them on the way to fighting them.” But the real difficulty, which Fish elides, is not reasoning about madmen but reasoning with them. He also tells us that it is “inaccurate and unhelpful” to say “we are at war against international terrorism.” What, after all, is “terrorism”? Fish approvingly notes the Reuters news agency’s decision not to use the word “terrorist” because, as its news director said, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” A Reuters spokesman explained, “we’re trying to treat everyone on a level playing field.”
A “level playing field”? The best response to this nonsense was John O’Sullivan’s in National Review. If the word “terrorist” is unacceptable, what alternatives are there? O’Sullivan suggested “mass murderers”—accurate enough, but, of course, unacceptable to moral equalizers at Reuters. “It is terrorists hijacking planes who put themselves on a different and lower level to other people,” O’Sullivan noted. “When Reuters decided not to call the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack ‘terrorists,’ it took a step towards making people feel less guilty about aiding or sympathizing with such evil.”
For his part, Stanley Fish warns against invoking “absolutes” like “good” and “evil.” “We have not seen the face of evil,” he insists; “we have seen the face of an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals and strategies.” This from a Milton scholar? Milton’s Satan was full of plans, goals, and strategies. He was also evil incarnate. The only absolute Fish can bear is absolute relativism. He knows that “relativism” has an unwelcome ring to many ears. So he fudges the issue by describing “relativism” as “the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them.” Relativism in this sense, he says, “is simply another name for serious thought.” In fact, it is another name for sophistry. The serious, thoughtful person does not respond to terrorism by trying to understand it. He responds by attempting to destroy it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 3, on page 2
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