THESE ARE tough times for academia.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans find themselves better able to distinguish what’s truly important from what’s merely petty and trivial. That leaves the ivory tower which has specialized in little other than the petty and the trivial for the better part of four decades at its most inconsequential moment since the tenured radicals first took over.
If the country has given up its concern for Washington’s old preoccupations, from lockboxes to campaign-finance reform, then it surely has lost what little patience it once had for eco-feminism, queer theory, or the sundry other absurdities that rain down from academia.
And whereas the anti-American rhetoric and protests that have long been staples of campus life were once considered merely quaint or silly, they are now self-evidently traitorous. The sight of students and professors alike grieving more for terrorists than victims, blaming America for its suffering, and equating yet further victimization with "peace" has made their real intentions all too clear. With more than 6,000 innocents dead, "peace" protests are no longer so easy to laugh off the natural reaction is now contempt.
But perhaps hardest hit of all of academia’s pet theories is the one that, to varying degrees, seems to sustain them all postmodern relativism. The notion that there are no absolutes, no universal notions of right and wrong or good and bad, is difficult to maintain at a time when the nation has so many unambiguous examples of all of the above, from murderous terrorists to heroic firefighters.
Sensing that his own philosophy is in crisis, Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sets out to defend relativism on the editorial page of Monday’s New York Times. In making his case for the absolute veracity of his belief that there are no veritable absolutes, he disputes unnamed "critics" who have commented on relativism’s demise. Fish takes issue specifically with the notion that "the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country’s resolve" by leaving us "with no firm basis for either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back."
On the contrary, Fish argues, America has plenty of reason to protest the terrorist attacks and, presumably, even to retaliate. The reason isn’t that terrorism is wrong or that a national policy of self-defense is right, but that "we can and should invoke the particular lived values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish and wish to defend."
The key words in that clever little bit of dissembling are "lived values" and "wish." In Fish’s view, our values have no basis in higher truth, they are merely the sum total of our "lived values," or experiences narrow self-interest masked in idealist language. We defend them not because we must or even because, in some metaphysical sense, we should, but because we "wish" to. In other words, it serves those narrow self-interests, however we define them.
For most of us, going to war is serious business, and not the sort of thing to be done lightly. But for the relativist for whom war, like everything else, is ultimately morally neutral—any one reason to go to war is as good as any other. Whether we choose to decimate Afghanistan because terrorists leveled the World Trade Center, or because Afghans prefer chocolate ice cream and we prefer vanilla, it wouldn’t make much of a difference, so long as vanilla were one of those "institutions we cherish and wish to defend."
Of course the corollary to this reasoning, which Fish only hints at in his op-ed, is that our attacks on Afghanistan are then no more right or wrong than the terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Center. There are no principles at stake, merely perspectives or as Fish would put it, "rival interpretations."
Fish is right that this sort of thinking hasn’t done much to sap the nation’s wartime resolve, but only because so few Americans buy into it. If they did, their thinking would render America impotent. After all, who would risk death on a battlefield for something they believe to be merely one of many "rival interpretations," little more, in fact, than a social prejudice?
In the few places where relativism is taken seriously, namely on college campuses and in America’s other remaining bastions of leftism, it has had precisely the morally debilitating effect that Fish denies. Dona Spring, a member of the Berkeley City Council, recently told the Daily Californian that the "the U.S. is now a terrorist nation. According to the Taliban, these are terrorist acts." After some of her council colleagues denounced her remarks, Spring sought to clarify by explaining, "to many of the Afghan people, the U.S. bombing feels like a terrorist attack."
In a very limited sense, she’s right some Afghan people surely feel that way. That’s why it’s important to make moral judgments, to realize that bombing to terrorize is different than bombing in self defense; that targeting civilians is not the same thing as killing them unintentionally; that those Afghans are wrong in their understanding of the situation.
But Fish will have none of that. He insists that "there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one." Our perception of Sept. 11 is no better or truer than Osama bin Laden’s.
Americans are entitled to our feelings of anger and sense of injustice, but we must abandon the "hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies." By Fish’s logic, no statement can be true if someone disagrees with it. The sky is only blue until one person pronounces it green.
According to Fish, what we have in the century’s first great war is little more than a heartfelt but ultimately irreconcilable difference of opinion. "Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn’t be effective," he argues, "because our adversaries lay claim to the same language. (No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice.)"
And that’s where Fish most compromises his own case. Just as no one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice, no one claims to be an enemy of love or an opponent of goodness. Across all cultures and times, these virtues are always held in the highest esteem. It’s what Fish calls "the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes to which all subscribe but which all define differently."
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis convincingly contends that this paradox is proof of the existence of God. That all men pay homage to the same virtues points to their shared, divinely endowed moral compass a universal law of right and wrong. That they struggle and clash in their definition and pursuit of those virtues is evidence both of free will and the existence of evil, the perversion of otherwise good things.
Fish scoffs at the idea of evil, and most especially of the country’s tendency to label its enemies as such. "If we reduce that enemy to ‘evil,’" he says, "we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counterstrategies."
Hardly. If we call evil by its name, we are better equipped to combat it.
It’s when we make excuses for evil, equivocate, or confuse it with good that our counter-strategies are rendered useless. Only those Americans with very little sense of moral clarity, those weaned on the relativist rationalizations espoused by the likes of Fish and fellow academics, are unable to deal with the problems of terrorism seriously. Only those who think that terrorists have as much of a claim to truth as we do are clueless, or indifferent, about what to do about terrorism.
That truth is difficult and even controversial isn’t reason to give up on the enterprise altogether; it’s reason to be all the more vigilant in its defense. Perverse worldviews must be countered and repudiated wherever they are, whether it’s Afghanistan, Berkeley or the New York Times.