Monday, June 07, 2004

Working toward a "big" theory

Justin Katz just concluded a spate of posts that he believes are all, somehow, related. I detected a few themes that run through various sets of posts, but a comment posted by Ben Bateman to Justin's "Reaching Those Who Can Be Reached" post caught my eye. Bateman's description of the Liberal/Conservative "talking past each other" phenomenom is good and his analysis insightful.

According to Bateman:
The communication gap runs deeper than most conservatives realize. The gap between right and left has grown to the point that they’re effectively separate cultures. The problem is not just that right and left begin the discussion with different premises and arguments. Right and left don’t even agree on how the discussion itself should work.

Bateman then explained that Western Culture assumes that objective truth exists "and every reasonable person’s goal is to act in accordance with it." Unfortunately, it is difficult to agree on "truth" and we rely on dialogue to try to arrive at an agreement as to what is the truth. This often involves one side or the other, or both, acknowledging when they are wrong as the point isn't necessarily to win the debate as it is to arrive at the truth of the matter. Bateman points out that
This idea of intellectual discourse is one of the proudest achievements of Western Culture. It’s so axiomatic to conservatives that they have trouble imagining how anyone could reject it. Yet it’s almost unique to Western Culture. Most cultures do not share it. They believe that the side with more power will—and should—prevail in a dispute.

Batemen then mentions something with which I am familiar: for the last 30 or 40 years, it has been the cause of many in academia to proclaim that there is no such thing as objective truth.

Prior to this movement, the last great historical theory was the so-called Progressive theory which basically said that, overall, things are getting better for humanity. Other theories arose to counter this. The idealists, Marxism (in the historical sense) and finally Post-modernism. This last took what appeared to be the last, best shot at the Progressive theory. Post-modernists asked the simple question "For Who is it getting better?"

Where did this movement come from? Post modernists hitched their wagon to a literary criticicism movement that said that the words that make up literature, that tell a story and set it in context, can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. In short, the literary critic wasn't limited to what the author seemed to obviously mean. Under this theory, since words didn't necessarily really mean what they seemed to mean, one could interpret essentially anything they wanted from any literary passage. Obviously, the critics own agenda had a great deal to do with the interpretation derived. The post-modern historians applied this to the lifeblood of their craft, the written primary source, and concluded that, similar to any novel, "so-called" historical fact could be interpreted any number of ways. Thus, truth was relative and post-modern historians proceeded to "reinterpret" history with their new paradigm. What they actually attempted to do was to rewrite history. Tiime-honored concepts were attacked. Along the way, they sullied the name and reputation of that essential aspect of history, revisionism. Revisionism in the field of history is meant to describe a method by which new findings or sources are applied to old problems in an attempt to clarify or elaborate. Sometimes fundamental interpretations are change. This is all done in the hope of acquiring historical truth. Unfortunately, post-modern historians had no truth, only that which they could interpret. Thus, their form of revision came to be associated with all historical revision.

Bateman seems to mistakenly associate all academics with these post modernists. His conflation is understandable if not entirely accurate. However, he is correct when he says that these "illuminati" have convinced a great many Americans that truth is relative. Finally, there is a massive internal inconsistency with this methodology. It can be summed up simply: To believe means to think something is true; to say, 'It's true that nothing is true' is thus contradictory, further, the statement, "There is no absolute truth" is postulated as an absolute truth!

Thus far, this is all well-trodden dialectic, but then Bateman puts forth, to me, a most intuitive observation that to postmodernists, or liberals, "everything is about power, including conversation." It follows that,
Most liberals don’t consciously agree that there is no such thing as truth, but they often believe it subconsciously or hold views that amount to the same thing: Truth is defined by whoever has the power; truth exists but we can’t know anything about it; truth exists but it’s different for each person; or truth exists but it doesn’t matter in a moral sense. These and many variants amount to the proposition that truth doesn’t exist.

This idea of Truth = Power reminded me of something. The historian Bernard Bailyn based much of his theory on the origins of the American Revolution (eloquently stated in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) as a war between Power and Liberty. The founders believed that these two entities were naturally opposed to each other. They believed that the more power granted to anything; the President, Congress, the police, the military, the less liberty that will be enjoyed by all. The old cliche "The Truth will set you Free" leads me to believe that Truth = Freedom. Since Freedom is essentially liberty, could we then conclude that the old problem defined by the founders, Liberty vs. Power could be restated as Truth vs. Power? If Bateman is correct, and liberals equate Truth with Power, we now have a Truth vs. Truth battle. Thus, the debate is over our truth versus their truth. The importance they put on winning is understandable when one remembers the old axiom "history is written by the winner". If most of those who write and pontificate, via the media or academia, are allowed to prevail, their truth will indeed become so, regardless of its own veracity.

Bateman seems pessimistic about the likelihood that conservatives and liberals will be able to engage in enlightened debate. He may be right, but perhaps we shouldn't worry about this. One of my previous posts dealt partially with this subject. In short, the left has been losing its ability to debate. That their own success within the media and academia has been so overwhelming, they have nearly shut out opposing views. This has been to their detriment. Conservatives have had to hone their arguments in the attempt to persuade, liberals have not because they are all talking to each other. They have grown ideologically lazy, and, according to Peggy Noonan, "They often seem to fall back on attitude--wit, irony, poking fun at the thick-witted--in place of sustained thought, or meaning." If this continues, conservatives and liberals will continue to talk past each other. If it is true that Power equals Truth, then it would behoove us to gain and maintain power, wouldn't it? By this I don't mean political or ideological power, instead, I mean the power of our method of dialogue. By listening to talk radio, watching Fox News, or frequenting the internet we help each other hone our arguments and hopefully persuade a greater number of Americans that words and thinking are important. As a byproduct, we hopefully weaken the standing of those to whom truth is relative.

Ronald Reagan was derided for calling the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" and for his supposedly simplistic views. History has shown that he was right. He believed in the inherent, God-given right of all to be free. He believed this in various milieu's; politically, in the free market, freedom for people to keep what they earned. These were some of Ronald Reagan's fundamental truths. If truth means "correct", tell me now, do you think that truth is relative?

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