A postmodern scandal

Culture | If truth is relative, it's impossible to lie

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

President Clinton, according to psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, is the nation's first postmodern president. Not bound by objective standards of truth, Mr. Clinton is able to continually reinvent himself, flexibly adapting his ideology, his behavior, and his very personality to the needs of the moment.

Mr. Lifton, writing before the latest scandal, meant this as a compliment, indeed as an example of his postmodernist psychological theory of mental health. Traditionalists might speak in terms of lying and immorality and demand facts and consistency. But some recent graduates of America's top universities-including the lawyers, media consultants, and political tacticians who reign in Washington-look at matters much differently. The unfolding controversy-and the way it is being discussed-offers a textbook case study of the principles of postmodernism at work.

0Truth is a construction. According to postmodernism, truth is relative. We can never know some absolute, objective, once-and-for-all truth. What's true for one person may not be true for someone else. Individuals and cultures construct truths that work for them. Since truth is not discovered but constructed, there are many ways of putting together a plausible explanation. Constructing a model that accounts for the evidence is the best that we can do, and one model is just as valid as another.

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By this way of thinking, spin is literally everything. Since truth is not an absolute, it can be continually revised, without even worrying about contradictions. "I did not tell her to lie," may very well be what a postmodernist would say. If there is no truth, it is impossible to lie.

Truth is a matter of interpretation. Postmodernist scholars are obsessed with hermeneutics, the process of interpretation. Truth-claims, because they are constructions of language, are subject to endless reinterpretation and are incapable of any definite, fixed meanings. Postmodernists cut their teeth in graduate school on "deconstructing" texts-that is, making them mean the opposite of what they say.

Thus, note the excruciating exegesis of common language that is accompanying the scandal. Is oral sex to be construed as adultery? What is meant by "sexual relations"? Telling someone to be evasive is not the same as telling them to lie. It all, of course, depends on one's "interpretation." Postmodernists have learned how to make words mean anything they want.

Truth is an exercise of power. Ultimately, what is accepted as being true for any culture is a function of power. Those who rule impose their constructions of reality on everyone else. Thus the postmodernists' aversion for books by wealthy white heterosexual males, which are nothing more than projections of an oppressive power structure. Thus the postmodernists' willingness to accept historical constructions by women, homosexuals, and racial minorities that cannot be supported by evidence, but which advance the political agenda of the marginalized and so become liberating alternative truths.

This overt politicizing of truth means in practice that reason, evidence, and fact-finding can be set aside by simply exercising power over one's opponents. Today, academic politics has become notoriously nasty, replacing genteel discussion with vicious personal attacks on one's opponents. Similarly, in Washington, the best way to reply to a charge is not to address whether or not it is true but to slander, indict, investigate, or otherwise crush the people who are making it.

Truth is compartmentalized. Those who are consistent in their beliefs, who try to live according to a specific set of principles, and who imagine that they have a single core identity are, according to postmodernist psychologists such as Mr. Lifton, mentally ill. As opposed to this syndrome, which he terms "fundamentalist," is the "protean" self, always changing and thus always free. In a given day and certainly over the course of a lifetime, we play different roles and are thus actually different persons.

Values such as consistency, unity, and personal integrity are "fundamentalist" and thus wrong. Instead of having a single core identity, human beings are free to have many identities, compartmentalizing them so they do not impinge on each other. Religion, sexual desires, job demands, family role, and political beliefs are all part of one's makeup, but none of these compartments need have any bearing on any of the others.

Observers marveled over how, after the most embarrassing revelations, Mr. Clinton was able to deliver such a bravura performance of the State of the Union address. This protean president can face down Saddam Hussein and the Republican Congress unfazed by disasters in his personal life. He himself has spoken about how he can "compartmentalize" his duties.

Not only can the president compartmentalize, so can ordinary American citizens, who may now like their president more than ever. All this proves that postmodernism now reigns not just in Washington, but in American culture as a whole.


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