In this season of experts--of military strategists and imams and haz-mat technicians--it was a bit of a shock to find a literary theorist analyzing our national predicament on the opinion pages of The New York Times.
Yet there he was, the celebrated Stanley Fish, Milton scholar, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and erstwhile head of the Duke English Department. As English professor and suzerain of postmodernism--which holds, among other things, that there are no independent standards for truth--Fish may seem like an unlikely contributor to the discussion about terrorism and America's new war. Evidently, though, he felt called to defend postmodernism after reading commentaries suggesting that, thanks to postmodern thought, America has become a nation of pantywaists, paralyzed by uncertainty and unable to muster the resolve necessary to defeat terrorism.
Not so, Fish argues in the Times. Postmodernism doesn't preclude a forceful response to terrorism; it simply demands that the response be based on "serious thought" rather than meaningless absolutes like "good" and "evil."
Let me say up front that I'm no fan of Stanley Fish or postmodernism. Fish is a fabulous writer and I find it upsetting that he wastes his talent on something as inane as postmodern theory. I also think he overestimates the influence of radical academic philosophy on national policy. It's true that many intelligent people have entered the debate over the Sept. 11 attacks, and that, by suggesting more thoughtful terminology than the "face of evil" prattle thrown about by the Bush administration, these people may appear to be practicing postmodern "relativism" (i.e. Susan Sontag's insistence that the hijackers did not lack courage, since courage is a "morally neutral" term).
In fact, writers like Sontag are just practicing common sense. If Stanley Fish really thinks that postmodern theory has somehow trickled down out of the country's avant-garde English departments and grafted itself onto the American intellect, then the man needs a nap.
That said, I have to give him credit. Whether his piece in the Times convinces or not, Fish scores his point. Even during the Vietnam War, when Americans debated a host of alleged evils (Communism, U.S. involvement, Richard Nixon), people generally agreed that evil existed and that it could be defined in universally consensual terms. By rejecting those assumptions--by arguing that even in the case of terrorism, evil and good do not exist as absolutes--Fish has done what he loves to do: turn language into a phantom structure, a shadowy something we grasp at in vain. Agree or disagree, he has lured us into participating in a very postmodern phenomenon: We are now talking about how we talk about war.
When somebody gets into Stanley Fish's sandbox, he lets you know it. In his New York Times piece, Fish begins with a provocative defense of his turf. Responding to complaints that postmodern thought leaves the country with "no firm basis for either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back," Fish declares that our response to terrorism can in fact have no basis in "abstract notions of justice and truth"; it is therefore useless to try to justify our actions using words like "evil" or even "international terrorism"--words that have no "universal" value.
(For those of you who keep up with the soap opera of contemporary literary theory, this is familiar rhetoric. It was just this sort of thinking that, a decade ago, began to radicalize curricula on college campuses, gutting the canon, trashing Western culture and introducing a new vocabulary of "discourse" and "deconstruction." Postmodernism is now a full-blown fad that has people like William Bennett rending their garments and the rest of us wondering whether our favorite novels, stories whose morals and meanings we believed to be timeless, are nothing more than "text.")
As leader of the postmodern pack, Stanley Fish has made a career out of notoriety, never hesitating to push the limits of controversial scholarship and critical thought. And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the current spotlight. Three paragraphs into his argument, Fish backs away from the rarefied dogma of relativism and assumes a reassuring, even comforting tone. Not to worry, he says; in the absence of universal truths or absolutes Americans can still rely on their "lived values," their "preferred" convictions. He goes on to say that, "at times like these, the nation rightly falls back on the record of aspiration and accomplishment that makes up our collective understanding of what we live for."
That's about as patriotic as you get from a man who denies the possibility of objective truth. Having discarded the voice of the radical academic, Fish argues sensibly against the language of absolutes, suggesting that it stands in the way of "useful thinking." Every time we use the expression "We have seen the face of evil" or "these are irrational madmen," Fish writes, we blind ourselves to the true danger and reduce the strength of our response. We haven't seen the face of evil, he continues; we've seen the face of an enemy "who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals and strategies. If we reduce that enemy to 'evil,' we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counterstrategies."
Fish's argument sounds convincing enough; as he puts it, we must put ourselves in our adversary's shoes, "not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them." This he calls "serious thought," and it is laudable indeed.
It's also sobering, especially when you get down to the specific differences between our "lived values" and those of our adversaries. One such difference comes to mind every time I hear people imploring one another to get out there and live their lives just as we did before Sept. 11. If we bend to the fear, they say, the terrorists will have won. The problem is, scaring Americans isn't al-Qaeda's objective. Terrorism is frightening but it is only another style of warfare. Scaring the enemy isn't the end; it's a means. We may believe that Osama bin Laden is out to destroy our lifestyles with fear--after all, our "lived values," our "preferred" convictions center around our relative prosperity.
But Osama bin Laden could not give a rat's tushie about our prosperity--except as it bolsters his portrait of the American infidel. (This is perhaps the biggest shock for most Americans: There are people who choose the ascetic and who would not accept our prosperity, our modern values, if they were handed to them on a platter.) Bin Laden's "lived values" have nothing to do with prosperity and everything to do with creating a pure Islamic empire to the glory of Allah. This is the goal of his jihad.
Here, too, Stanley Fish's formula for serious thought turns out some uncomfortable truths: Since jihad has no place in our national mythology, we assume the aggressions and goals of Osama bin Laden and his mujihadeen are the products of a kind of incomprehensible savagery, without precedent or support in the Muslim world. In fact, Osama bin Laden is the latest in a long line of revered warriors who have sought to purify a corrupt Umma, or Islamic world, and restore the glory of its former empire. Bin Laden's ideology and tactics may seem abhorrent to a majority of the world's Muslims, but his underlying goals are far from illegitimate or untenable. The role he's playing has mythic stature, and his jihad is part of an ancient and well-respected movement in the Islamic world.
Understanding the goals and mythology of jihad, replacing prejudice with history, we are forced to re-examine our responses to the enemy. It is no longer possible, for instance, to say that Osama bin Laden's followers are simply madmen, caught up in the frenzy of the moment, seduced by the charisma of an unprecedented leader. It is no longer possible, knowing that we occupy and influence the very land they hope to "purify, " to wonder why Islamic fundamentalists hate us.
What we can do--what is possible--is to use knowledge to defuse the movement that makes the current jihad viable. Concluding, for instance, that bin Laden's war is at heart a civil war rather than a war on America might suggest a very different course than the one we are taking. Studying other Islamic insurrections, such as the one in Iran only 20 years ago, might give us clues about the evolution of radical movements in that part of the world.
This is the kind of serious thought Stanley Fish advocates in his defense of postmodernism. It's hard to argue with. And yet, plenty of people, including a number of TV talking heads, have taken Fish to task since the publication of his piece in the Times. Some of these critics have boorishly resisted any kind of complicated re-assessment of the enemy; all of them have balked at Fish's dismissal of universal truths.
As well they should. The postmodern theory of relativism is a lot of hooey (though it's entertaining hooey). Fish's argument that we can't justify our response to the Sept. 11 attacks "in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies" assumes that truth cannot withstand altercation. Osama bin Laden does not believe he is evil. Neither, presumably, did Hitler or Amin or Milton's Satan. Do their objections really change our minds?
Fish's central point is well-taken: Simplistic language does little to advance our understanding of complicated circumstances; it may even prove dangerous, since it masks truths. On the other hand, he disables his argument by basing it on an untenable premise. Who among us could face our daily lives, much less the current crisis, without faith in universal truths? My own "lived values" tell me that it's possible to participate in both serious thought and moral adjudication.
Osama bin Laden and his followers have created a movement--a jihad--with the power of an ancient mythology and the respect of a growing number of Muslims. This jihad--these mujihadeen--stand before us as a body, with the grist of centuries, the charge of history and the face of evil.