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January 2002

Volume XXII, No. 1

A case for essentialism

On October 15, 2001 in the New York Times, Stanley Fish, dean of humanities at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a militant postmodernist, presented his thoughts on postmodernly correct ways of facing the events of September 11. He stated that there could be no universal standard by which the suicide missions that killed nearly 3,000 could be judged. Fish is against "invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth" because there ain't any such thing. He offers a substitute: the "values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish and wish to defend. . . the democratic ideals we embrace."

Fish substitutes fashion for morality. He assures us that we have grounds enough for action and justified condemnation in the democratic ideals we embrace, without grasping for the empty rhetoric of "universal absolutes." But the projection of raw power as practiced by some nation states depends on national loyalties that are inconsistent with the ideals of democracy, as Professor Margaret Canovan famously noted in Nationhood and Political Theory. If we followed Professor Fish's reasoning, we would stand ready to defend democracy, but only within the circle of our own national loyalties. This kind of 'democracy' equals Darwinian struggle for survival. It equals saying that we shall fight for our own tribe because it has adopted a democratic system of government. This kind of proclamation of 'democratic values' can only be made tongue in cheek.

Fact is, the standards that operate in American society are only partially grounded in the social contract and support for a democratic form of government within our own nation. These standards go back to the standards of right and wrong that earlier societies internalized on the basis of religious texts. Religious practice might have waned and religious freedom disseminated many faiths in America, but belief in the absoluteness of right and wrong, good and evil, remains. The democratic ideals themselves are grounded in that belief. It is unwise to try to dislodge them as Professor Fish does, for we have nothing better to offer. The concept of democracy becomes empty if it is not grounded in the belief in an innate dignity and worth of human beings, from the lowest to the highest. Unless we share that absolute respect, democracy remains no more than a nationalistically-based contradiction of which Canovan spoke; or a form of hypocrisy where we secretly divide people into Alphas, Betas, and Gammas, while ostensibly proclaiming our support for the U.S. Constitution.

Yes, we do and should argue about what constitutes a just war or sufficient justification. This is appropriate for an open society. But to attempt to cancel these concepts out as "abstract" and "false" is not much different from saying that we are simply victorious barbarians who found a way of life convenient to ourselves, one that we cherish, and we will defend it at any price.

To label the terrorists "bearers of a rationality we reject" is a pernicious misstatement. If we assume that there are different "rationalities" and each of them is correct within its own frame of reference, we proclaim our belief in chaos and disorder.

Edward Said (whom Fish approvingly quotes), is the most lovable of all postmodernists because he repeatedly breaks postmodernist rules. He may inveigh against "absolute universals" on one page, and then quote a twelve-century monk's admonition to be absolutely charitable on the next. The entire enterprise of criticizing Orientalism which Said initiated was based on righteous indignation, which in turn is rooted in a sense of right and wrong. Said's anti-essentialist comments are interspersed with appeals to our sense of wrong done to the third-worlders. The anti-slavery movement was grounded in a similar sense of absolute right and wrong, and not in the "democratic values which we all cherish." It is universal standards that we apply when we speak of the war against Hitler. It is righteous indignation that we express when we hear how the Nazis treated those they deemed inferior. It is an absolute rejection of consent to treating human beings as disposable objects rather than as persons that motivates our indignation over the World Trade Center disaster.

In the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh half a century ago (subsequently published as Religion and the Rise of Western Culture), historian Christopher Dawson traced the development of Western institutions including democracy to these absolute principles. Like many others before and since, Dawson observed that no society has ever managed to maintain its coherence for a considerable length of time without a widespread consent about right and wrong, truth and falsity. One might not be able to eloquently speak about these principles and yet be sure of them, and not irrationally. As Karl Popper once remarked, we know what happiness means even if we cannot fully describe it. The same with our sense for absolute values on which civilized human societies are built.

It is true that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Likewise, some people may forever maintain that the earth is flat. But this does not mean that sober heads in their best moments cannot distinguish between truth and falsity of a statement. Few people do not know the distinction between those who tried to assassinate Hitler and those who tried to assassinate John Paul II. Those who do not should not be excused by Fish's suggestion that they belong to a "different rationality."

It is appropriate for a journal that tries to speak up for the Central and East European ethnics in the United States to repudiate the kind of relativism Fish espouses. The Central and East European societies have paid in blood and misery for the rejection of "absolute universals," a position Fish recommends. Both Nazism and communism were based on such a rejection, and both offered a blueprint for a new society based on ‘values' they cherished.

As Leo Tolstoy noted in his Confession, brilliance is no substitute for wisdom. It is important that views such as Fish's be countered whenever thinkers like him lean out of their academic perches and preach to the public at large, as Dean Fish did in his column in the New York Times.

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