It is always interesting to observe how postmodernist thinkers can engage in verbal convolutions before they find themselves in a tangle.
In the Oct. 15 New York Times, Stanley Fish, noted author and dean at the University of Illinois, argues the case for postmodernism after the September 11 attacks. According to critics, postmodernists deny the possibility of objective description, thereby leaving one with no firm basis for condemnation of the terrorist attacks.
Mr. Fish contends that “the only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies.”
He goes on to note that “universal absolutes” only confuse the situation. Quoting Edward Said of Columbia University Fish shuns “false universals” such as “the face of evil,” “irrational madmen” and “international terrorism” that obscure a purposeful agenda.
Professor Fish contends that Reuters was correct in the care it exercised over the word “terrorism.” After all, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The word lacks refinement and therefore, according to Mr. Fish, it obfuscates “a better picture of where we are and what we might do.”
In the end, Mr. Fish maintains that relativism, which is the embodiment of postmodernism, means “putting yourself in your 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 suggests, is “simply another name for serious thought.”
There are many things one might say about the Fish analysis, but serious thought I not among them.
Let me offer a universal term that doesn’t equivocate: “evil.” I would argue that terrorists and freedom fighters in the cauldron of postmodern exegesis might be confused. But for those inoculated against these ravings, the distinction is simple. Freedom fighters do not internationally engage in the wanton killing of innocent people.
When roughly 5,000 people were killed in the World Trade Center for no other reason than they went to work, that is the face of evil and, yes, I’m persuaded the universal definition applies.
Should I empathize with a crime so dastardly? Even if I understand the rage surrounding the attack, I still cannot understand the act itself. There is a distinction Mr. Fish ignores between understanding a motive and still not understanding the act emanating from it. I may hate a colleague for what I consider justifiable reasons, but the hate cannot serve as a rationalization for murder.
The problem with Mr. Fish’s relativism is that it ignores a certain reality even he at some point must recognize. If someone decides to slit his throat with a razor would Professor Fish ask why this would-be murderer is about to commit such an act? Would he attempt to understand the motives of the killer or would he strive in every way possible to prevent his own death?
The answer is obvious. It is also obvious, notwithstanding Mr. Fish’s ramblings, that society has a responsibility to preserve itself against those who would choose to destroy it. That is a universal contention which I believe to be true.
Mr. Fish believes that if motives are understood and a place defined one can at least try to anticipate future assaults. But is this point accurate? Surely the motives are known: real and imagined grievances. And as surely, the places are known: Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank. Now what?
This argument is mere subterfuge for the central postmodernist view that we don’t know what we mean when universal terms are used. In the September 11 attacks, I maintain Americans were not the least bit confused about terminology. We saw the face of evil; it did not require an interpreter.
Those who died at the World Trade Center were innocent men, women and children. In my judgment, there isn’t any explanation that warrants those murders. End of argument.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial,” recently published by Lexington Books.