Journal: Bush, Iraq, and postmodernism

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From a speech by McClatchy Washington bureau chief John Walcott to the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head Island. He gave this speech on Feb. 16, 2007. I found it on Bill Moyers' website while searching for references to a book called Fear of Knowledge by New York University professor of philosophy Paul Boghossian.

Walcott makes the strongest connection I've read between the challenges of journalism (finding truth despite the efforts of the powerful to hide the truth) and the ubiquitous notion among academics and society at large that there is no such thing as truth, a "corrupted" interpretation, as Walcott rightly calls it, of the post-modern school of thought that sprung from the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s. While it used to be a tool of the left, Walcott notes, this kind of relativism has now become a tool of the right. More importantly, it's become a tool that was used in selling the American people on a war that may never end. Here's a large sample. Please, if you're interested in this topic, go read the whole thing. —J.S.

The first is that despite the Internet, concentration in the news business is getting worse, not better, especially when it comes to foreign and national news. Only a handful of newspapers-The Times, the Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and McClatchy-still maintain significant foreign news operations. The Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday on Long Island are abandoning their foreign bureaus and cutting back in Washington.

It's a matter of economics. Circulation and advertising revenue, the underpinnings of newspaper and magazine economics since the middle of the 19th Century, are falling, in some cases precipitously, and newspaper company valuations and stock prices are falling with them. McClatchy bought the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1998 for $1.4 billion and sold it recently for $531 million. The New York Times Co. just wrote down the value of its New England operations, mainly The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram, by more than $800 million. Wall Street, as many of you know better than I do, wants 30 percent margins from publicly held newspaper companies-Knight Ridder was put out of business when it was returning a little more than 19 percent-Tribune's head is in the noose now and Morgan Stanley is pressing the New York Times Co..

The causes of this trouble are essentially two-fold, and as you might expect we're not blameless. Many of us ignored the Internet for too long, or arrogantly dismissed it, and now it's siphoning off readers and advertisers, especially classified advertisers. Compounding the problem are the sectoral woes in industries such as autos and homebuilding, traditionally important advertisers, and the wave of retail consolidation, which has left many papers with one advertiser where a decade ago there were half a dozen.

Back to journalism. The response to these circumstances has been to cut: Cut jobs, cuts bureaus, cut expenses, cut raises, freeze hiring, freeze pension benefits, cut newsprint costs. In other words, bleed the patient. In many places, but not at McClatchy, foreign news has been an easy target. It's expensive and you can buy it elsewhere cheaper than you can do it yourself.

Jack Welch said that's fine; you can get all that stuff from The New York Times, anyway. I think Mr. Welch, despite his accomplishments at GE, is wrong. Iraq is part of the reason I think that - $500 billion, Jack, $500 billion - and maybe we at least would have debated the wisdom of that venture if we hadn't all relied too much on The New York Times.

That brings me to my last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news sources, for the truth is infinitely preferable to the pernicious notion that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between two opposing arguments.

Halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or communism and democracy. If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, you must give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

That idea that truth is a social construct first appeared in academia, as a corruption of post-modernism, but now it's taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

What began with liberal academics arguing that the belief of some Southwestern Indians that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology", has now devolved into the argument that global warming is a liberal invention.

As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, "Fear of Knowledge":

" . . . the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root."

All knowledge, in other words, Boghossian explains, depends on its social, political, religious or other context, an idea that evolved, if you will, from Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and William James.

Although this kind of thinking, either relativism or constructivism, in the language of philosophy, started on the left, conservatives feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance, on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq, which until very recently they insisted was going well and didn't appear to be only because liberal, anti-American journalists weren't reporting all the good news that they just knew was out there somewhere in Diyala province.

"Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official said to Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way any more. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

I respectfully disagree.

The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.

The Earth is not flat, and men did land on the Moon.

There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation.

Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong, no matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda.

President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.

Or, as Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

I'm not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter; or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters: beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we, and hopefully our Iraqi friends, must simply learn to be more tolerant.

But as Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it in his marvelous little book, "On Truth" (the sequel, I tell you truly, to his first classic, "On Bullshit"):

"It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are."

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