Neo-neocon ponders the origins and significance of the term “speaking truth to power”–so commonly heard from the left in recent years most recently from Dan Rather. Speaking of the media’s coverage of Katrina,
Rather praised the coverage of Hurricane Katrina by the new generation of TV journalists and acknowledged that he would have liked to have reported from the Gulf Coast. “Covering hurricanes is something I know something about,” he said.
“It’s been one of television news’ finest moments,” Rather said of the Katrina coverage. He likened it to the coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
“They were willing to speak truth to power,” Rather said of the coverage.
It is not terribly difficult to deduce Rather’s point here: the media coverage of the hurricane challenged the authorities in power–specifically the Bush administration, one suspects–by depicting their failures. And this, in his opinion, resulted in the best media coverage of an event since the Kennedy assassination. The parallel itself is peculiar–the notion that the media perceived themselves as instruments of an assault on political power in 1963 seems at best revisionist history. I watched both as a news consumer, and the comparison of Katrina coverage to that of the Kennedy assassination is highly strained–bizarre, even.
The principle that coverage of a natural disaster should be about the news itself–rather than a statement about politics and power–seems rather lost on Rather. Not surprising, really–but still somewhat startling to hear the major media’s core motivation enunciated so clearly from one of its heavyweights. And one is also presented with growing evidence that the media’s coverage of Katrina significantly overstated at least some of the negative aspects of the disaster, such as deaths at the Superdome–and the lack of skepticism about the anticipated 10,000 deaths in New Orleans also comes to mind. While such media missteps may not have been directly motivated by political underpinnings, they certainly appear to dovetail well with Rather’s perception of the political implications of the coverage.
Neo-neocon traces the term “speaking truth to power” back to the Quakers, who promoted the idea of using the proclamation of truth to correct deceived or wayward leadership. But the term has been completely co-opted since the Quakers used it, by the contemporary postmodern movement. The Quakers used the term “truth” to speak of absolute, transcendent principles, given by God; the postmodernist view rejects all such absolutes, replacing them with “narratives” which are predicated and derived solely from language and culture, rather than any deity or transcendent supernatural being.
For the postmodernist, institutions such as religion, or the influences of law, morality or ethics, are merely expressions of the group in power exerting their control. Such vehicles serve as a means of enslavement, oppression, and victimization. The “narrative”–or story–of the powerful uses the tool of language to imprison thought. Hence, the postmodernist’s task is to “deconstruct”–to uncover in the words and actions of such centers of authority their underlying oppression and will to power–which to their mind is always present. Postmodernism is also group-oriented rather than individual-oriented. Groups define their own narrative, their own meanings for language, their own truths.
And so, when the postmodernist talks about speaking “truth”, they are not speaking of transcendent absolutes, but rather about their particular narrative, their worldview, their convictions derived from social consensus among the peers of their group. It is “truth” in a sense that is eminently self-referential–something is True because I, and others of my group, accept it as True. Reference to absolutes or universal principles may be made as part of such truth-speaking (such as appeals to “justice”, “compassion”, or “fairness”)–but these terms are not in reality absolutes at all, but are also themselves defined as the group sees fit. Such reference concepts are therefore in no way universal, nor even remotely related to that which another group conceptualizes them to be, despite the use of identical words or terminology. Words in the postmodern world are completely fungible–rather than representing a single abstract or concrete object or idea, they may be freely redefined to mean whatever suits the group’s purposes.
Postmodernism can be found among members of all political and professional persuasions, but it is most at home in the fertile soil of academic liberalism, the media, and the socialist left. The reasons for this are doubtless varied, but likely include a fondness for Marxism and socialism, a holdover mistrust of authority engendered during Vietnam and Watergate, and a libertine approach toward personal freedom engendered in part by the sexual revolution, birth control, and the drug culture. One dominant factor, however, is the widespread secular or agnostic worldview of those who inhabit these arenas. It is not a huge leap from concluding that one’s personal morality–sexual, ethical, or otherwise–is a personal matter (rather than dictated by God or moral absolutes), to reasoning that there are no absolutes whatsoever, and that groups may therefore determine their own truths or narratives.
The problem with jettisoning absolutes–moral or otherwise–is several fold. First, there are consequences to behavior which stubbornly persist despite studious efforts at their denial. While you may argue that sexual mores restricting intercourse to marriage are oppressive to women and the manifestation of control by the patriarchy, it is nevertheless a fact that when sexual activity is so limited, out-of-wedlock births do not occur as an inevitable result. If you are not addicted to drugs, you do not have to steal to support your habit. To a degree, the postmodern narrative simple rewrites itself to reinterpret such consequences: the high rate of illegitimacy (and its inevitable companions of poverty and crime) in the urban black community is not caused (even in part) by a mores of profligate irresponsible copulation or widespread drug abuse, but rather by racism and capitalistic oppression. But the consequences remain, nevertheless, despite such rhetorical sleights-of-hand–which often contain a grain of truth just sufficient to make them intellectually plausible.
Secondly, defining one’s own truth or narrative works well–as long as the next group’s narrative is not in opposition. Certain differences are tolerable, up to a point–hence the live-and-let-live mindset of multiculturalism and the elevation of “tolerance” to iconic status. But tolerance has its limits–and those limits are met when you encounter a group whose narrative involves absolutes, especially religious or moral absolutes. Conflict then becomes inevitable. Since you cannot appeal to absolutes–you don’t accept that they exist–there is only one recourse left: that of power.
When the postmodernist is in a position of power, the instruments of their position are used to control language, to enforce the narrative–hence the coercion of speech codes and enforcement of political correctness on campus, and increasingly in society at large, as manifested in hate crime laws and punitive, arbitrary sexual harassment and discrimination policies. When out of power, access to such instruments is in the hands of the oppressors, and hence postmodernists are left with their primary weapon alone: speech. When detached from absolute truth and moral restraint, it is a potent tool indeed. You must undermine the oppressors with language, unrestrained by the need for accuracy, truth, consistency, or integrity. You must “speak the truth to power”: you must imprison the thoughts of the many with the language of your narrative, to undermine the power of those who enslave and victimize you. The motives of your oppressors for behavior must always be cynical and self-serving; their assets turned into liabilities. Hence slow response to a disaster is not bureaucratic inefficiency or local corruption and unpreparedness, but is a manifestation of racism and an illegitimate war. Religious people must be painted as hypocrites, when their actions do not meet perfect standards–even if they, on their worst days, far exceed the nobility and selflessness of your own. Tax cuts are always “for the rich”, even when the resulting strong economic benefits bring far more help to the many than the privileged few.
Unfortunately, this has become the currency of our contemporary social and political discourse. One cannot counter with reasoned argument and objective fact an opponent with no regard for either. The effects are corrosive, for both the postmodernists and their opponents: for the postmodernists–whether in media, academia, or politics–because their shrill, angry assaults lack integrity and simple attention to truth or fact; for their opponents, because the constant assault of accusations, half-truths, cynicism and hatred bring about mistrust, distraction, weariness, and defensiveness. There is no longer room for compromise or conciliation–only power struggles and full-volume shouting matches. This is the world which engenders so much pride and satisfaction in Dan Rather and his peers in media and journalism; this is the culture they–and many others like them–have helped to create. Not alone to be sure: there’s plenty of greed, selfishness, and incompetence to go around, on all sides. But they have played a major role as megaphones for postmodern truth-speaking.
Is there an answer to this growing darkness? Yes–a return to common shared absolutes, ethics, moral principles. This is a ground-up, not a top-down proposition: individuals must come to accept the value and benefits of transcendent moral principles and common truths which have served us well in the past through darker times than today–it cannot be coerced or implemented by society or government. It must be individuals–one individual at a time. It’s a huge undertaking, this changing of men’s hearts and minds. Can it happen?
God alone knows. Let’s hope–and pray–it does.