Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Enlightenment and the Election

Garry Wills had an interesting column in yesterday's New York Times that articulates a view of the partisan divide in the United States that I've been mulling over. What follows is my take on the issue. Be sure to read Wills' take on it.

In the past, liberals and conservatives have often been divided over the question of what ought to be done about domestic and foreign policy problems. We understood the problems--poverty, the spread of Communism, drug abuse, etc.--in the same way, but differed on whether tax cuts or welfare programs, containment or rollback, tougher sentencing or more treatment programs were the proper remedies. Now we seem, increasingly, to be unable even to agree on what the problems are. Facts--not interpretations of facts, not policy prescriptions--are in dispute. Did Iraq have WMD in March 2003? The Kay Report and the Duelfer Report said "no." A majority of those who voted for George W. Bush said "yes." Has the United States tortured some detainees at Guantanamo and "disappeared" others? The New York Times and Human Rights Watch, based on the testimony of witnesses, say "yes." U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Pierre Prosper says we shouldn't believe the media.

A decade or so ago, conservatives worried that postmodernism (or post-positivism, to be more specific--although few are very specific when discussing this topic) was causing us to lose our moorings as a society. It was, in other words, turning us into relativists for whom truth has no fixed meaning. Conservatives pointed the finger at liberals, particularly those in academia who dared to discuss the ideas of Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, Richard Rorty, or Stanley Fish. Ironically, it now appears that conservatives are the ones to whom the rejection of Enlightenment principles has proved most appealing. As a consequence, here is the conservative post-positivist's view of truth: Revealed truth (which depends on the relationship of the knower to the one--often, but not always, the One--who reveals it) is beyond question. Objective truth (which is the same for all knowers) is subject to question. It is a reversal of the Enlightenment view of truth.

To be as clear as I can be, I have no quarrel with faith (or with people of faith). I do, however, think that reason is a good thing, too. Christians, in fact, have always regarded faith and reason (or faith and learning, in the parlance preferred at Pepperdine) as perfectly compatible. It would, I think, be good to return to that understanding.