The philosopher Bernard Williams used to counter the weak relativist arguments of his Berkeley students with the rejoinder, “Hey, I know where you’re coming from, but, you know, relativism just isn’t true for me.”
The story (which may be apocryphal, though Hilary Putnam mentions it in Renewing Philosophy) may not amount to a full-blown critique of relativism; but it’s enough to dispense with relativist arguments that confuse moral judgment with prejudice or point of view: i.e., you may think Matilda is chaste, but I just don’t see it that way; you may think that Joe is trustworthy, but I just take a different view.
Of course things get a little fuzzy when you start moving from chastity to piety to trustworthiness to moral goodness. Still, it’s worth observing that the relativist arguments mocked by Williams are common enough these days and that they go hand in hand with, or are usually marshalled in defense of, consumerist solipsism, a lack of shared principles or standards, a disrespect for convention and civility — the sorts of perils conservative writers warned against all through the culture wars of the 90s.
Odd, then, that this brand of sloppy relativism now informs the nonsensical arguments wielded at every opportunity by the McCain presidential campaign.
To take just a couple of recent examples: asked by reporters at the Des Moines Register about the truthiness of the kindergarten sex-ed smear and the charge that “lipstick on a pig” was an sexist jibe, John McCain angrily and automatically responded by retreating to a sophomoric distinction of fact from assertion: the reporters at the Register may say that McCain is being untruthful and running a smear campaign; but that’s just their assertion. He was a POW, after all, and he remains committed to the truth, their editorial assertions and observations and be damned. A nincompoop small town mayor like Sarah Palin lacks experience? That’s just what you say. I see it differently. And she sees Russia right from her doorstep.
Just yesterday, when a reporter noted that McCain himself has spoken contritely about his role in the Keating Five and the S & L crisis of the 80s, McCain’s lawyer John Dowd responded, “I’m his lawyer and I have a different view of it.” You may say he was contrite; he may have said he was contrite; but that’s just not the way I look at it — now.
The campaign resorts to these relativist contortions to make a muddle of history, so that anything whatsoever can be asserted and nothing can be observed for certain about John McCain or Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. In so doing, they lose any claim to moral seriousness while asking us to entrust them with serious questions at a serious time.
This is the cost of trying to win at any cost. Things are true by your standards, not mine; things are sleazy or indecent by your standards, not mine. There are no standards that govern what we say except those that serve immediate political needs.
Only a few conservative writers have called the campaign to task on this stuff. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post comes immediately to mind; he cited Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to style McCain both a tragedy and a farce. Others, like George Will and Kathleen Parker, have told the truth about Sarah Palin. But that’s not quite the same thing. All these contortions and distortions, the turning of objective fact into subjective fiction, the casting of historical description as mere political assertion, are ultimately tactics that serious conservatives pretend to deplore.
Will there eventually be a reckoning? I hope there will be, but I doubt it. Right now, the John McCain campaign acts as if whatever truth you will is as good as any other, as long as CNN picks it up and runs with it or it gets you out of a tight spot with the editors of a Midwestern newspaper. That may be politically advantageous, but it is morally reckless — and destructive to our political culture.
Right now, the McCain campaign is now doing as much as, if not more than any liberal academics ever did to hasten the closing of the American mind.