Republican relativists

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.

One thought on “Republican relativists

  1. Marc Tognotti

    Thoughtful piece. You make very interesting observations, which got me thinking. Here are a few thoughts.

    It surprised me somewhat to hear you frame this as an issue about relativism. I had to think about it. If I’m paraphrasing correctly, you’re saying that a standard rejoinder of the McCain folks to whatever challenges or criticism comes their way is “that’s just your opinion, I have different perspective.” In other words, they refuse to discuss any content straight on, they slide everything off the ramp of the “relativism” of differing perspectives. In effect, in characterizing all statements as “merely the opinion” of a particular person or group, they obscure and dismiss content. One consequence is that they, and this style of political discourse, loses “moral seriousness” (your term). It turns into an undermining of people’s character and a programmatic delegitimation of the perspectives of others. It assumes that everything is merely “individual opinion,” which is to assume a non-political culture, because a truly political culture (or at least a healthy one) is one that is dedicated to the creation of widely shared understanding arrived at through healthy dialogue that welcomes and fully engages all perspectives: it values the process of creating shared agreement through inclusive, open constructive, thoughtful process. The dismissive appeal to relativism that you point out is one that shows no commitment to dialogue; it relies instead on a kind competition among perspectives and the hope that my perspective (as the candidate with the microphone) will end up as the most “shining and appealing” of the atomized bits.

    One of the causes of this McCain camp strategy, I think, is the inherently individualist nature of the television/broadcast/newspaper media: neither television cameras nor news articles can deliver the considered judgment (by which I mean an agreement reached through considered dialogue) of a mixed group of people. (The media rarely do but can theoretically REPORT on such a judgment [there are precious few fora for the creation of such judgment to report ON], but such a report is by definition something after the fact — the viewer/listener/reader does not participate in the experience of coming to the shared opinion, is not a party to it, and therefore experiences such a REPORT merely as the statement of yet another outside perspective or opinion.

    The media model of this country seems to presume that individuals reading/watching/listening to the reports of individuals speaking and writing, and then being “polled” individually, results in some sort of simulacrum of “public opinion.” But the mechanical aggregation of any number of individual opinions, whether hundreds or millions, is not at all the same thing as the judgments arrived at by a group that, through comprehensive listening and dialogue, works through and binds together a wide variety opinions to reach a shared judgment that, by acknowledging and relating all opinions, brings them all together — there is still a relativism in this in that there is no “external standard” by which to enforce the truth or norms, but it is the difference between a relational whole that is bound together by trust and shared experience–and that as such is more than the sum of its parts–and a heap of atomized unrelated bits with no means to get gathered up where everything remains relative and unrelated.

    In my view, the only thing that “rescues” statements, stories, etc., from relativism is the agreement of a group who has arrived at a shared judgment (opinion being the individual perspective which, being shared, becomes a working basis for arriving at a collective agreement, what I am calling a shared judgment). That’s the only thing that can create “standards” and “norms” — shared understandings. The least degree of the kind of relational agreement I’m talking about, the starting point, is the recognition and acknowledgment by the full diversity of perspectives in a group of the reality and legitimacy of all of the others. Let’s agree who’s all here and what each of them have to say. This is the ground from which all can set out to take responsibility for the quality of relations that exist within the whole, which is the quality of relating within or the ethos of the community. Relativism of the scary sort is merely how the natural diversity of opinions looks when there is no commitment to relating.

    Reply

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