If you want to glimpse why tenured intellectuals, here and abroad, so often detest the Bush administration, you need look no further than recent remarks by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On the subject of negative media reports out of Iraq, Rumsfeld last month said, “I see what the people in that region are seeing, and so much of it is untrue, so much of it is viciously biased, and parades around as the truth…. And do I think ultimately truth wins out? You bet. I mean, our whole system is based on that, that we can take untruth and, over time, the truth is heard, and it begins to register, and people begin to behave off it. And people who tell untruths ultimately are punished. They’re punished, if they’re in the journalism business, because people don’t read them anymore; they don’t tune in. They’re punished, if they’re in government, by being defeated or deposed.”
Implicit in Rumsfeld’s comments is what philosophers call epistemological optimism. It’s the belief that truth–defined as the correspondence between what’s thought or said with a reality that exists independently of what’s thought or said–can be had. In other words, if I state “The moon orbits the earth,” that statement can then be crosschecked against conditions in the world and judged either true or not true. Rumsfeld’s confidence that “truth wins out” (perhaps a garbled version of the truth will out) depends on epistemological optimism.
This would be no more than a pedantic point except that the last several decades of academic philosophy have been dominated by epistemological pessimism–that is, the belief that propositions cannot be judged against an independently existing reality because reality doesn’t exist independently of what we think or say. Truth, in the sense that Rumsfeld is invoking it, is thus never objective because the way we see the world is hopelessly constrained by the way we’ve been trained to see it. The suggestion that truth wins out has been dismissed by a steady stream of continental thinkers, and their American disciples, as the height of intellectual naïveté. In their minds, what determines truth is not correspondence with reality but political utility; we decide a proposition is true only if it directly or indirectly serves our interests. Different “discourse communities,” accordingly, will always construct their own realities and determine their own truths. Sure, “the moon orbits the earth” is true in Western culture. But a tribe of aborigines may decide that the moon is a goddess who comes out at night; that is their truth. The critical point is that neither of these truths is “truer” than the other because reality is socially constructed, not objectively discernable.
The names most often associated with this worldview–i.e., that reality is socially constructed, and that objective truth cannot be had–constitutes a glittering who’s who of late 20th-century thinkers in France and America: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Jean Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Fish. What these very different thinkers have in common is epistemological pessimism. Several of them, it must be noted, have explicitly denied that they are relativists–though none can quite explain how their rejection of the possibility of objective truth differs from outright relativism. Nor can they explain how their rejection of the possibility of objective truth does not admit, say, Holocaust denial as an equally legitimate “counter-narrative” to the prevailing view of recent history.
It would be difficult to overstate the influence of epistemological pessimism on European and American campuses, each replete with its own postmodern fiefdom in which Einstein’s objectively verifiable theory of general relativity morphs into the absurd, self-negating notion of the general relativity of truth, and in which Heisenberg’s rigorously reasoned uncertainty principle is bastardized into the idea that nothing is certain. A quarter century ago, it seemed a cutting-edge insight for the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak to declare that “The human being has nothing more to go on than a collection of nerve stimuli. And…the nerve stimuli are explained and described through the categories of figuration that masquerade as the categories of ‘truth’”; or for the perspectivist critic Jane Tompkins to assure her readers that “there really are no facts except as they are embedded in some particular way of seeing the world”; or for the feminist theologian Mary Daly to decry “the eternal masculine stereotype, which implies hyperrationality, ‘objectivity,’ aggressivity, the possession of dominating and manipulative attitudes toward persons and environment and the tendency to construct boundaries between the self…and ‘the other.’” Yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s conventional wisdom. Sophisticated postmodernists no longer talk about “truth” or “facts” or “objectivity” with a straight face.
But President Bush and the members of his administration do. Not only do they believe that truth can be had, they believe they have it–at least with respect to the war on terror. It’s a truth, moreover, that doesn’t need to be “problematized” or “deconstructed.” That truth is this: Saddam Hussein’s Pan-Arabism and Osama bin Laden’s Islamism are both, literally, dead ends. Either sanity will prevail in the Islamic world, in which case Muslims will embrace this truth and reject Islamicism, or insanity will prevail in the Islamic world, in which case Muslims will reject it…and suffer.
In the cities of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, the Bush team is doing its level best to bring people to their senses. That effort has earned Bush relentless derision in the literary salons of Paris and in faculty lounges across the United States. History will take note of this phenomenon, and it will be their lasting shame, not his.
–Mark Goldblatt is the author of Africa Speaks. Visit his website at MarkGoldblatt.com.