There is truth, after all

Culture | Reality breaks in on the postmodernists

Issue: "Life is not a party," Oct. 3, 1998

On the videotape of his grand-jury testimony, President Clinton is uneasy and evasive, caught in facts he cannot explain away. Nevertheless, he tries-invoking the indeterminacy of language, citing how different people have different interpretations, and other tricks of the postmodern relativist. On the tape, though, these epistemological gymnastics seem like mere acts of self-serving desperation. Perhaps we are seeing on the tapes the unmasking of postmodernism. A worldview that denies truth may be brought down on the issue, appropriately enough, of lying.

Back in February, WORLD (Feb. 20) discussed President Clinton as the postmodern president. Academics were hailing him for his capacity to "re-invent himself," for his freedom from restrictive absolutes, for his ability to construct alternative realities, and for otherwise going beyond the old-fashioned paradigms that actually believe there is such a thing as objective truth. Now, it appears that the president is finding out that despite his constructions, truth is not so easily evaded.

In August, the president's four-and-half minute speech-his first acknowledgment of wrongdoing-was a textbook example of postmodernism at work. Here were compartmentalization (I did wrong, but it doesn't matter because it was private), contradiction (I accept full responsibility, but I'm a victim of my accuser), and constructivism (my account, while legally accurate, was not forthcoming).

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Most remarkable is how the president has been basing his defense on postmodernist language theory. According to postmodernists, words do not have a definite objective meaning. Rather, meaning is only a matter of interpretation. People interpret words in different ways; therefore, words are incapable of communicating any kind of objective truth, as such. In practice, this "deconstruction" of language means that such texts as the Constitution and the Bible do not have fixed meanings, but are open to unlimited interpretation.

President Clinton's semantic juggling has been almost a comic parody of deconstruction. He was not lying, he maintains, when he denied having "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky. When he was testifying under oath and wagging his finger at the American people, he had his own interpretation of what the words "sexual relations" mean. If most people would consider his actions with the intern to fall into that category, that is because of their interpretation. The legal definition, when taken apart and deconstructed, is itself subject to interpretation. Therefore, he was not committing perjury-it was all just a matter of conflicting interpretations.

On the tape, he is asked if he had been truthful when he testified earlier that he had never been alone with Ms. Lewinsky. It depends on what you mean by being "alone," he says. There may not have been anyone with the two of them in the private hallway off the Oval Office, but there were other people at the time in the White House. The definition of "being alone" depends on one's perspective. So, again, he was not committing perjury. He had his meaning in mind, and if other people have different meanings, that is their problem.

This sort of thing has become almost a game in the literary criticism fashionable in academia. In this context, though, Mr. Clinton's reasoning comes across as ludicrous and pathetic.

To be sure, if there is no truth, it is impossible to lie. If language has no meaning, there can be no perjury. And, we might add, if there is no right and wrong, there can be no moral failure. But now it appears that the whole postmodernist house of cards is collapsing.

Mr. Clinton's admission that he did things that were "improper" was occasioned by an inexorable fact, a bit of physical evidence that could not be explained away: a certain blue dress. This was something real, revealing information that was scientifically verifiable, an intrusion of objective, unspinnable truth. Though he would have liked to construct a different version of reality, the dress was a truth that is not relative.

The whole sordid affair proves that morality is not relative either. If we

construct our own moral values according to our choices, why was the president so furtive in his affair, sneaking around the Oval Office like a guilty 21-year-old when his parents were not at home? Why would he be embarrassed at the exhibition of his "values"? Why was he ashamed?

The spectacle before us is a conflict of worldviews: between postmodern relativism and the biblically informed realism encoded in our legal system. Our legal code grows out of a worldview that recognizes objective truth. Its legal processes may seem drawn out and tedious, but they are designed to get at facts, weigh evidence, and assess matters of truth. The law may grind slow, but when it works as it should, the truth will out. And reality thwarts relativism every time.


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