Speaking Truth to Power

Winter solsticeNeo-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.

Moby Dickering

MobyOK, I was bored. Really bored.

I rarely read print media any longer. Gone is the day when I used to devour every issue of Time or Newsweek, or the local paper. Even my Wall Street Journal tends to pile up, undisturbed, ready for recycling to save the Planet. Life is short, the news cycle on the net runs at hyperspeed, and there are too many drop-dead talented writers and reporters on the web — from all over the political spectrum — to spend much time on a quaint anachronism like a weekly news mag. And besides, life is decidedly Blue out here in Washington state, so the local rags are, well, predictable Pravda affiliates.

But trapped in the OR lounge between surgeries — where time between cases passes like a slug on quaaludes — I grabbed a section of one of my local papers, the Morning News Tribune. And there it was — below the fold in the Soundlife section — postmodern journalism and politics in all its glory.

Soundlife is the local interest section of the Tribune — every paper has one — teaming with lightweight articles on events of interest, the arts, gardening, and music. This is where expectations of good writing are low, and local journalists get to pad their resumes a bit while waiting for their employment call from the NY Times. Or not.

First to catch my eye — framed between two color pictures — was a pull quote, with a close-cropped head shot of a bald bespeckled pundit:


Why did half the country respond with outrage when Janet Jackson showed her nipple on the Super Bowl? Why didn’t they respond with outrage when American foreign policy results in the death of 200,000 Iraqis? … I have to ask myself: Would God be more offended by a bare breast on the Super Bowl, or 200,000 dead Iraqis? It’s a simple question. And I think the answer would be pretty clear.

MOBY, a proud Blue State voter, on American politics.

Ahh, deep thoughts, music superstar, pop theology, all wrapped up in one — gotta love it. Where to start? Such a rich target in so little space.

Yawn — another pop star or Hollywood celeb treating us to to their deep analysis of the world, perched high in their pulpit of short-lived fame and easy money. I’m an avid music fan, but the name Moby barely registers – a quick Googling unveils an aging techno-rocker with ten-plus years of striving to release The Big Album, sadly to no avail. His fawning critics shower him with praise:

Not unlike the hotel metaphor he uses, Moby checks in and checks out of public recognition with frightening momentum, inhabiting one musical habitat after another and leaving only his hair-shavings by way of a mark. Nobody quite cares who he is and nobody quite remembers him. It’s a condition compounded perhaps by his awkward intellectualism. “Why hotel?” his sleeve notes begin. But nobody asked him in the first place. Moby courts expectations of Moby more meticulously than we court those of him and it’s this freakish self-propulsion that keeps him from achieving orbit. Moby is too busy orbiting himself and his own mobiness.

Ouch. And this guy likes Moby! With friends like that…

The Moby pull-quote in the News Tribune is classic postmodern political discourse, in so many ways. Postmodernism is a nebulous non-philosophy which few admit to, but seemingly everyone espouses. Rejecting all absolute truth, it replaces fact and history with “narratives” created by culture and language, specifically by those in power. The postmodernist’s mission in life is to “deconstruct”, to show the hidden agenda — typically racism, imperialism, oppression, intolerance (you know the litany) — behind each and every construct of Western civilization, and to “speak Truth to power” (a curious disconnect there, no? What truth??). It has spread like a viral epidemic through the crowded confines and stagnant, overheated air of academia, raging through the intellectual elitism of the left, where compromised immunity against frivolous idealogy is endemic.

An odd analogy, this: the connection between Janet Jackson’s breast and the war in Iraq admittedly eludes this mere mortal — both are getting really old ? Their flaws are clearly revealed? Tune in, turn on, drop out? Oh, now I get it: hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the postmodernist’s religion — not that they are hypocrites, mind you, (you cannot be a hypocrite when there are no absolutes) — but rather that everyone with whom you disagree is a hypocrite. And no one is more hypocritical than right-wing, Red State, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, intolerant, war-mongering, neoconservative Fox News-watching, tongue-speakin’ theocrats .

The formula is perfect. When you’re making a political statement in the postmodern world, you must start with a really, really big number: say, 200,000. No matter that the number is a complete fabrication. Even the controversial Lancet article (original requires registration and is no longer linked) — which extrapolates from a small sample in the Sunni triangle to all of Iraq, fails to distinguish between innocent civilians and insurgent combatants or those killed by them, whose lead researcher was against the war and insisted that the study be rushed to print before the U.S. election — quotes only 100,000 civilian deaths, likely a vastly overstated figure at that. So where does this 200,000 figure come from? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that it’s a Really Big Number — shocking! even — and will get repeated, incessantly, until it becomes as close to fact as a postmodernist can get.

This kind of statistical hyperplasia is pandemic in postmodern political strategy. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the pro-choice N.A.R.A.L. organization, in his revelatory book Aborting America (p. 193), tells of the origin of the oft-cited figure of 5,000-10,000 abortion-related deaths prior to legalization:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L., we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false … But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? … In the last year before the Blackmun era [Roe v. Wade] began, in 1972, the total [abortion-related fatalities] was only 39 deaths.

The point is not to argue abortion, but to demonstrate a central tenet of postmodern political discourse: Statistics needn’t be true, just powerful, repeatable, and serve “the revolution.” Cite early, cite often, and your narrative becomes Truth.

But enough digression — back to Moby: he talks about God. God?? Why bring God into it? Postmodernism despises religion, with its foundation in absolute truth and moral certainty. But God can be useful, even to the postmodernist, as long as he is judging the hypocrites. God’s OK with Janet’s breast, but not OK with dead Iraqis, because Moby’s OK with Janet’s breast, and not OK with Iraq. Change the rules — suggest that God might be OK with liberating folks from tyranny and torture — and watch God get thrown overboard like yesterday’s lunch meat.

The last issue — the issue that really got me going on this rail — has nothing to do with Moby, and everything to do with the old-line media: context. There isn’t any. None. Nada. I checked the entire Soundlife section, and there’s not one word written about Moby anywhere else. Nor anywhere else in the paper. No concert in the area, no discourse about his musical evolution from rave to techno to crunch metal to ambient, no byline revealing who thought this quote worthy of citing — no nothing. The quote just sits there, a gratuitous sop to latte liberals, reinforcing their smug assuredness that All The Right People think just as they do. This is what passes for journalism when their are no facts, no truth, no certainty other than my own opinion and the will to power.

I remember hearing an NPR interview on some abortion controversy — perhaps a court ruling — a few years back. In a 60-second spot, Maura Liasson — or was it Cokie Roberts? — sympathetically interviewed a pro-choice spokeswoman, who gave her pitch about how reasonable it was, how woman’s rights and fairness were preserved, and so forth. All very smooth and polished, taking up nearly 40 seconds of the spot. Then, to “balance” the report, the interviewer read a quote from a pro-life spokesman — a man, by contrast — which sounded shrill and judgmental. No conclusions were drawn, of course: none were necessary.

Context. It’s everything. Stripped of context, vacuous words and self-important foolishness take on a gravity and value not inherently theirs: the frivolous becomes profound. Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message, and the medium is lost, hopelessly so. When truth is discarded, the vehicle drives the driver, and what’s to keep you out of the ditch? As Moby would say, “It’s a simple question. And I think the answer would be pretty clear.”