Monday, June 20, 2005

Clarity on Certainty

Three weeks ago, I recommended Charles Krauthammer's essay in the June 1st Time magazine. I've re-read it often, and have further thoughts.

Since the age of Reagan, the foreign policy debate swirls has several flavors (the taxonomy is inexact): Krauthammer is a big brain, as even adversaries such as Francis Fukuyama concede, and he's covered all those bases. His most interesting contribution stands on the shoulders of giants, particularly the "American exceptionalism" school praised here before. But he's best known for two essays a decade apart articulating an American "unipolarity":
In the winter of 1990-91, he wrote in Foreign Affairs of the "unipolar moment"; in the Winter 2002/03 issue of The National Interest, he expanded the scope of his thesis by arguing that "the unipolar moment has become the unipolar era." And in February 2004, he gave a speech at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in which he took his earlier themes and developed the ideas further, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. He defined four different schools of thought on foreign policy: isolationism, liberal internationalism, realism and his own position that he defines as "democratic globalism", a kind of muscular Wilsonianism-minus international institutions-that seeks to use U.S. military supremacy to support U.S. security interests and democracy simultaneously.
Obviously, Krauthammer's unipolarity touches both the power and multilateral prongs above. But, more controversially, Krauthammer returned to morals as well:
A large segment of American opinion doubts the legitimacy of unilateral American action but accepts quite readily actions undertaken by the "world community" acting in concert. Why it should matter to Americans that their actions get a Security Council nod from, say, Deng Xiaoping and the butchers of Tiananmen Square is beyond me. . .

This logic is deeply puzzling. How exactly does the Security Council confer moral authority on American action? The Security Council is a committee of great powers, heirs to the victors in the Second World War. They manage the world in their own interest. The Security Council is, on the very rare occasions when it actually works, realpolitik by committee. But by what logic is it a repository of international morality? How does the approval of France and Russia, acting clearly and rationally in pursuit of their own interests in Iraq (largely oil and investment), confer legitimacy on an invasion? . . .
Plainly, Krauthammer's detractors are the foreign policy cognate of academic post-modernists. According to leftist deconstrutionists, objectivity's impossible, everything's relative, so judgment's disputed or doomed. That alone explains the transformation of liberals to reactionaries. Once Foucault stole syllogism, change turned terrifying, locking the left into "just say no.". Now they say "Only Conservatives Deal in Absolutes." Their mantra comes from Camus, "We are not certain, we are never certain;" their prophet Nietzsche, who anticipated Fahrenheit 911 by a century, "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

Krauthammer's Time magazine essay (mirrored here) explodes this nihilism. Caution and careful consideration are critical, but need not paralyze:
The campaign against certainty is merely the philosophical veneer for an attempt to politically marginalize and intellectually disenfranchise believers. Instead of arguing the merits of any issue, secularists are trying to win the argument by default on the grounds that the other side displays unhealthy certainty or, even worse, unseemly religiosity.

Why this panic about certainty and people who display it? It is not just, as conventional wisdom has it, that liberals think the last election was lost because of a bloc of benighted Evangelicals. It is because we are almost four years from 9/11 and four years of moral certainty, and firm belief is about all that secular liberalism can tolerate.

Do you remember 9/11? How you felt? The moral clarity of that day and the days thereafter?

A few years of that near papal certainty is more than any self-respecting intelligentsia can take. The overwhelmingly secular intellectuals are embarrassed that they once nodded in assent to Morrow-like certainty, an affront to their self-flattering pose as skeptics.

Enough. A new day, a new wave. Time again for nuance, doubt and the comforts of relativism. It is not just the restless search for novelty, the artist's Holy Grail. It is weariness with the responsibilities and the nightmares that come with clarity--and the demands that moral certainty make on us as individuals and as a nation.
At bottom, certainty is judgment about options producing choice. From Rawls to Roe, the left loves choice (well, except when they don't, e.g., involving Amendments 2, 5 (takings), and 10, plus alternate Tuesdays). Indeed they claim the Constitution contains both a right to certainty despite incomplete information and a ban on questioning even a child's judgment. Yet liberals favor freezing foreign policy while they "try to understand the grievances of the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center," and call a 50 year-old University Provost with a doctorate an idiot, a dissembler and an outright liar--and impugned her judgment. If only she had lied about her age. . .

Certainty isn't inevitable, but it is the norm. The 9/11 hijackers were unambiguously evil; conservatives didn't condition certainty on the late game West-coast box scores. Starting 50 years ago, lefties targeted societal constraints -- in some cases properly so -- but, scrambling process and outcome, now reflexively reject rules because they're rules. But some now-discarded codes -- call them morals -- reflect 8,000 years of wisdom, shaped by circumstance over time, a transformation similar to English/American common law. Many Americans are certain about retaining that wisdom.

So persuade me; out hustle me; out vote me. But get a sophistication upgrade and junk "old code bad: it's old, certain and I'm impatient." And don't assume I'll subordinate my syllogism to your ADD. Sometimes, I'm certain about my judgment. I might be wrong -- ready, set, debate! -- but there's no one else’s judgment on which I can rely.


Pedro grabs the ball and drives toward the goal-line.


Pedro said...

Beautiful post. Postmodern relativism and the trashing of syllogism gives those who are seduced by it two things:

1) By rejecting certainty, they get to tear down others' certainties, not by placing it in dialogue with another, better one, but through a parasitic hatred of all forms of belief, faith, and tradition. That is, they don't stand on another platform to combat yours (that would be taking a position), they attach themselves to yours and suck it dry -- in fact, that's how they actually exist. The only moral context or foundation they have is not a value core of their own, but rather an antagonistic relationship to anyone around them with principles. It's the difference between real humor and ridicule, satire and sarcasm.

2) They never have to take a moral stand on any issue, which always carries with it the possibility of being wrong. Thus, you can never prove a leftist wrong, because they never took a moral stand in the first place. They simply disagreed with whatever stand you took.

But here's the paradox: the parasitic anti-principles of postmodernism have themselves come to be a belief system, just like any other. It's so easy to expose:

Nihilist: "We are not certain, we are never certain."
Believer: "Are you certain of that?"

Nihilist: "Only conservatives deal in absolutes."
Believer: "Always?"

Postmodernism is a cancer that grows out of its host but eats at it until it kills its host. Western civilization spawned postmodern nihilism, which is as much of a threat to it as terrorism, in the long run. But like cancer or a parasite, when Western civilization dies, so will postmodernism. You think Bin Laden's Islamic caliphate will put up with the Berkeley Left, even though they tried so hard not to upset his Gitmo buddies?

SC&A said...

Excellent- as ususal. Merits more attention.