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”?

Bush is an Idiot: Not!

Matthew Yglesias makes two rude remarks about George W. Bush. Not only do I regard making such remarks as encroaching on my private turf, but in this instance both seem to me false-to-fact. And the wrongness of one helps make sense of the other.

The first has to do with the latest Andrew Sullivan flap. Apparently (I must have missed it) some Left Bloggers have been gay-baiting Sullivan. Glenn Reynolds has been (I think properly) tough about this. Yglesias responds, in effect, that’s it’s odd to hear so much concern about homophobia from backers of a President who believes (1) that no one should have sex outside of marriage and (2) that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

That isn’t really much of a defense of liberal gay-baiting, but it’s not a bad debating comeback: presumably being denied any sexual contact at all is worse than being made fun of for whatever sexual contact one does have. If Bush believes both of those things, Yglesias seems to be saying, then he must believe their logical entailment — that no gay person should ever have sex — and therefore must be a moral monster.

Hold that thought for a moment. Now consider another recent Yglesias comment, this one making fun of the coinage “idiotarian” and the attempt to construct a political philosophy consisting of being against it:

Incidentally, don’t you think “anti-idiotarianism” would be a good name for an ideology based on the proposition that a country shouldn’t be led into war by an idiot?

Now come on, guys, how many times is GWB going to eat our lunch before we figure out that he’s not an idiot? He’s radically unserious, both morally and intellectually, but that’s not the same as being stupid. Let’s not forget that dyslexia, which he almost certainly has and which explains some of his verbal stumbles, is defined as unusual difficulty in reading despite normal intelligence.

When Yglesias calls Bush an idiot, what he means, I think, is that Bush is in the deepest sense not a philosopher: not someone who cares about the difference between true and false, as opposed to what he can get people to believe, or who is concerned that the things he believes should be congruent with reality, or even consistent with each other.

I agree with Plato that it would be useful if our rulers were philosophers in that sense. (Plato can’t have meant that rulers should be deeply interested in, say, epistemology or ethical theory, unless he was an idiot, which seems unlikely.) But I also agree with Plato that, desirable as it might be, having a philosopher-king is not the usual state of affairs. And I strongly disagree with Yglesias’s apparent view that all non-philosophers are idiots.

Arianna Huffington has observed something else about Bush: his low tolerance for complexity. Again, not the most desirable trait in a ruler. But note that the capacity to believe contradictory propositions can substitute for a tolerance for complexity (or rather, tolerance for the cognitive dissonance that recognizing complexity usually entails). So Bush, for example, can believe that nonmarital sex is bad (not obviously false, in sociological terms), that gay marriage would disrupt the social order (again, not a silly belief, though not one I share) and not draw the conclusion — except, perhaps, as a “Sunday belief” — that all gays should be condemned to perpetual celibacy.

Holding the first two beliefs but not the third would be impossible for Yglesias, or me, or you, dear reader, or for anyone Yglesias would regard as not an idiot. But it’s quite easy for the majority of the population.

What Orwell called “doublethink” needs to be inculcated in intellectuals, but that is only because an intolerance for contradiction has been drilled into them. Normal people do it naturally. The average American believes in both physics and astrology. The average American considers himself a Bible Christian but does not believe in Hell. The average American thinks that we should be spending about ten times as much on foreign aid, as a percentage of the Federal budget, as we actually spend, but also wants the foreign aid budget cut, and will simply refuse to believe you if you tell him the actual numbers.

Again, this isn’t aberrant. This is normal and natural. Universities exist in part because people who really, really believe that 2 + 2 = 4 under all circumstances aren’t comfortable in business or government or the professions. Unless intellectuals learn (to use another Orwellism) to “bellyfeel” the fact that most people aren’t intellectuals and are nonetheless not stupid, they’re going to keep getting unwelcome political surprises.

How gay conservatives deal with the fact that the politicians they support hold, or at least express, a set of beliefs that imply that no gay person should ever have sex is a different question.

[Note that it’s possible to believe that without hating gays or thinking that they are bad people. The traditional Christian position is, as C.S. Lewis expressed it, that a homosexual orientation is “a burden to be borne, not a sin to be repented,” but that perpetual chastity is the only proper way to bear that burden. Just chalk it up to the Christian God’s rather quirky sense of humor.]

Granted the assumption — which I don’t hold, but which isn’t obviously self-contradictory — that gay sex is a bad thing, there’s nothing inconsistent thinking that gays ought to be celibate. It’s exactly my view about those unfortunates who are attracted sexually to children, and only to children: the desire isn’t their fault, but they must not act on it, even if the only alternative is celibacy.

“But,” you say, “gay sex isn’t at all like pedophilia. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Right. But that’s where you and I on the one hand, and George Bush and most of the electorate on the other, disagree.

The voters’ views are obviously changing, and we can trust GWB and his fellow conservatives to follow in due course, once they’ve milked gay-baiting for whatever votes it’s worth. (As Bush did against McCain in South Carolina two years ago, promising never to appoint a gay person to a job in his administration.) After all, today’s Republicans have learned to treat Jews and Catholics as damned near as good as white folks; why not gays? And changing his position won’t cost non-philosopher Bush a night’s sleep.

UPDATE: More thoughts here on Bushism and postmodernism.