A Po-Mo in the White House?

My colleague Andy Sabl, and one or two other readers who have not offered to have their names published, have raised questions about my assertion that universities tend to attract people with a strong urge to keep their thinking coherent and in touch with reality. What about the post-modernists, I am asked? Aren’t they even more tolerant of incoherence, and even less interested in having their ideas track reality, than the ordinary folks whom I called “non-philosophers” and among whom I numbered our current President?

This is not the forum, and I am not the person, for an attempt to disentangle what, if anything, postmodernism means (other than a chance at a career teaching LitCrit or political theory).

Having made the segue from the important (and obviously correct once you think about it) observation that our knowledge of the external world is personally and socially constructed, rather than a Baconian “spelling-out” of the book of nature, to (what seems to me) the obviously silly proposition that such knowledge is merely constructed and has no external validity of the sort that would allow one to brand a proposition as false-to-fact (for there are no facts, only interpretations), the PoMos are able to justify, or explain away, the most appalling crimes. The psychological mechanisms at work are entirely different from those of a Treasury Secretary O’Neill, for example, who denies that the Bush tax cuts benefited the very rich disproportionately, and refuses to allow the Treasury to calculate exactly what that proportion is, but at some level the results are the same, and all laid out in 1984 and Arendt’s “Lying in Politics.”

So I stand corrected. It is not the case that their contempt for the difference between truth and falsehoold distinguishes the President and those who work for him differ from the professoriate generally. That contempt separates them only from the respectable parts of the academic world. There is actually a resemblance between Bush & Co. and the denizens of academia’s lowest slums.


Thanks to Matthew Yglesias for this link to a Washington Post story documenting Presidential mendacity. Note Ari Flesischer’s bland lie about lying. Perhaps that should be called “meta-lying”?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com