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Arguing against Reality By: Fred Siegel
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 15, 2002


Pity the poor academics. Before 9/11, postmodernist professors were the Los Angeles Lakers of academia. No one wanted to go up against their theories about the indeterminacy of truth and the evils of American foreign policy. But 9/11 ruined not only buildings but reputations.

Here's how the academic con artists worked their marks: On the one hand, postmodernist professors like Edward Said and Stanley Fish would — ignoring the growth of science and technology — insist on the sheer indeterminacy of knowledge. Objective judgments were impossible, they claimed, since all knowledge was riddled with prejudice/power considerations/ethnocentric assumptions, and so on and so forth. But then, having been freed from the need to make empirical evaluations, they would go on to insist with absolute certainty that their favorite cause (whether it be campus speech codes in the case of Fish or Palestinian and Arab power in the case of Said) was absolutely justified. In the closed world of academic sophistry, dogma was justified as an attack on dogma.

Highly susceptible to fraud, this largely self-referential world of words produced a number of passing academic scandals. Fish, for instance, was called upon to defend an article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" which claimed to show that gravity was merely a literary concept, just a linguistic construction. The article, it turned out, was parody, but Fish didn't get the joke. And neither did Edward Said. When author Justin Weiner produced evidence to show that Said had lied about his own personal history, Said, who usually insists on the indeterminacy of truth, argued (ineffectually) that in this particular case the accuracy of the facts really did matter. But for the most part, the two were lionized; Fish as the globe trotting professor Morris Zapp in the novels of David Lodge, and Said as the darling of the English and Middle Eastern Study Departments.

But when the planes crashed into the twin towers it became clear that the anti-rational rhetoric the postmodernists shared with the suicide bombers turned out to have a very practical meaning. Since then, off the campus at least, Said and Fish have come under heavy criticism. Now they answer back in Harpers, a magazine perhaps best know for the interminable essays by its faux aristocratic editor Lewis Lapham, who is convinced that decadent America is in is terminal decline.

True to their anti-empirical biases, Fish and Said insist that they have learned nothing from 9/11. In his Harper's essay entitled "Postmodern Warfare: The Ignorance of Our Warrior Intellectuals" Fish tries to defend himself against the charge that he has no way to condemn the 9/11 attacks. He responds by insisting that "the problem is not that there is no universal (truth) -the universal, the absolutely true,exists, and I know what it is. The problem is you know too, and the we know different things." Unconvinced? Confused ? Try this earlier Fish formulation from a New York Times op-ed. There Fish insists that he can have a firm ground for condemning 9/11 even though "Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one." In that case maybe the Saudis were right and it was the Mossad that blew up the Twin Towers.

For his part, Said, in his Harper's essay "Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified" is very angry but not with suicide bombers either here or in Israel but with his old nemesis Professor Bernard Lewis. Lewis, who is described by Said as "ignorant" "crude" and "unscrupulous" had the temerity to publish a book entitled "What Went Wrong" which anticipated the terrors of 9/11 by focusing on the rage and backwardness of the Arab world. If Fish is a specialist in obfuscation, Said's game is intimidation, Playing off the political correctness of academia, Said has insisted that "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric." These are terms that apply well to Said himself.

Lewis, said Said, has been "bypassed and discredited by the many recent advances in knowledge about particular forms of Islamic experience." But it's quite the reverse. Said has helped discredit academia by imposing the same restriction on free thought and debate that define most of the Arab world. Take the case of Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College, one of many Said acolytes. Gerges made a name for himself by attacking, what he described as "the terror industry" which exaggerated "the terrorist threat to American citizens." In a book written shortly before 9/11, he accused "the industry" of creating an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios." Gerges was proven wrong, yet continues to write on the same vein because as the European intellectual Ibn Warraq explains it, Edward Said and his allies taught an entire generation of academics wearing spiritual turbans how to turn "political correctness into Islamic correctness."

Said also placed a wall around Arab pathology and threatened anyone who breached it with the fearsome charge on campus of being a Zionist or a tool of American imperialism. For a look at what goes on inside the walls you can do no better than to turn to the current issue of Commentary magazine. In articles on our Saudi 'allies" the European betrayal of human rights at the UN, the new French anti-Semitism, US-Israeli relations and the West Bank, Commentary turns an evidentiary eye toward what Said has deemed forbidden.

While the postmodernists have been spinning their wheels arguing the argument, the Commentary writers are arguing the world in the best intellectual tradition. In his article "What Occupation?" the historian Ephraim Karsh indirectly deals with the assertion taken up recently by Cherie Blair, wife of the prime minister, that Palestinian violence is born of poverty and despair. He notes that "during the 1970s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest growing economy in the world — ahead of such "wonders" as Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself." In fact Palestinian per capita GNP expanded tenfold from 1968 to 2001 so that among their Arab brethren "only Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf states were more affluent."

The facts Karsh refers to are easily available but largely unknown. They've been obscured by writers more concerned with rhetorical than economic performance. The situation is best summed up by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He was speaking about Arafat and his associates, but he could just as well have been referring to Said and Fish when he referred to men who "are products of a culture in which to tell a lie...creates no dissonance." For them, "truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn't."


You may reach Fred Siegel via email here.


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