Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Post-modern Presidency: An open letter to Fred Siegel

Dear Professor Siegel,

I read your essay “Acadeaniacs” in the New York Observer,23 March 2005 (, and I found a great deal with which to disagree. It starts off promisingly enough, by relating how a student you met called President Bush evil and then said that we had no standard by which to judge Saddam Hussein. You correctly noted this incongruity but then wrote an essay with an enormous error of omission. Your essay is written in opposition to postmodernism in academia, and at the same time in implicit defense of the Bush administration. Postmodernism is the view that there are no universal truths; instead there are only competing opinions. By failing to criticize the postmodernism that so pervades this administration, you lead me to wonder whether you really care as much about challenging the idea of postmodernism as you do about bashing Democrats and supporting Republicans.

This administration behaves as though there is no such thing as objective reality. Therefore, it uses words according to their ability to persuade, not according to their closeness to truth. An implication of political postmodernism is that it becomes impossible to advance the notion that reasonable men and women may disagree with each other on some point. Instead, disagreement is necessarily equivalent to disloyalty. A Texas Republican said that if you oppose Karl Rove on anything, you become an enemy even if you are not one (Mark Crispin Miller, Fooled Again, 2005, p.82). This administration’s actions have been corrosive to public discourse and action in at least three areas, the role of journalism in mediating between the government and the people, the justifications for war in Iraq, and science policy.

An academic thinker may approach a problem by studying it in a preliminary way, then developing a hypothesis, testing it if possible, and finally drawing conclusions. Something like this should also be the normal course of events in a democracy: presentation of a problem, analysis and debate to consider alternatives, then a decision. This administration reversed the process: First came the decision behind closed doors, then came forth the arguments (often false) in a sham debate.

To control public debates, this administration has applied postmodernism to journalism. Eric Boelert points out that this administration’s tactics have been to blur the distinction between responsible journalists and irresponsible punditry such as Armstrong Williams or nonjournalists such as Jeff Gannon ( When Jeff Gannon asking fawning questions is made to be as worthy as Helen Thomas to ask substantive questions at briefings and press conferences, the very idea of professional journalism is imperiled. Boelert quotes David Brock as saying "Their explicit goal is to get us to the point where there are blue [state] facts and red [state] facts." As one means to blur the distinction between news and opinion, this administration has used press releases disguised as news. These tactics erode the ability of the press to be an independent inquisitor of government policy. Boelert summarizes the comments of Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind:

Ron Suskind argues that the Bush administration has rejected the fundamental idea of debate and intellectual exchange. "Other administrations ceded to fact, and saw the benefit -- the value -- to meaningful public dialogue based on fact," he says. "They understood that was one of their obligations, to engage with people who were there to ask pointed and pertinent questions and demand answers to them. They understood that's how it worked and that that was the precedent. This administration has said, 'What does that have to do with me?'"

The adminstration was committed to war with Iraq no later than the spring of 2002, as can be seen in
The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (2006), and The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind, and A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies (2005), by James Bamford. Then the White House attempted to sway the public toward embracing the war, while simultaneously maintaining the fiction that what the inspectors found or what Saddam did could change the outcome.

President Bush began the selling of the Iraqi war in his 2002 State of the Union speech, in which he said “States like these (Iran, Iraq, or North Korea), and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” This assertion is completely bewildering: Iraq and Iran had fought a bloody and debilitating war in the 1980’s, yet, the notion of an axis implies cooperation and collaboration. With respect to the case for the existence of Iraqi WMDs, one brief example will suffice to indicate that facts didn’t matter to this administration. None of allegations made by defectors allied with Chalabi about the locations of Iraqi WMD programs were substantiated by the inspectors’ work in 2002-2003, a discrepancy which should have weakened the defectors’ credibility.

The White House’s allegations of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda never suggested administration cares at all for factual accuracy or logical consistency. The intelligence community strongly disputed reports of meetings between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda operatives, despite strong-arm tactics to push it toward such claims, as documented by Ron Suskind in The One Percent Doctrine. Indeed, the very idea of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda never make sense: Saddam was a secularist, whom Bin Laden reviled.

And yet, the problem that may be most pertinent to a discussion of postmodernism is that the administration’s arguments were incoherent (at least as much as the arguments put forth by the students you engaged). As political columnist Michael Kinsley has said, the administration’s arguments stumbled into each other like drunks ( Kinsley highlighted the contradiction between the contention that the Iraqis had WMDs and the claim that they would not use them against our troops if attacked.

Another inconsistency was the charge that Saddam was guilty of gross human rights violations coupled with the acknowledgement that the United States would stand down its military threat if Saddam complied with the UN resolutions with respect to the inspectors ( This is a meretricious argument, in that makes our nation seem noble for its intention to depose a tyrant. Yet suppose that Saddam had been able to comply with the inspections to everyone’s satisfaction. He still would have been just as guilty of human rights abuses; therefore, this administration’s bringing up those crimes was entirely irrelevant. The administration’s arguments were dissonant, clashing even with each other, apart from whether any of them were true.

To postmodernists such as Irving Kristol, Karl Rove, or Ahmed Chalabi, the objections presented above miss the point. The arguments may have been “phony” (to quote Kristol’s description of the reasons given for military action in Granada), but they worked in both instances. That this administration could drive public opinion in spite of the facts becomes more obvious when one compares polls taken just after 11 September 2001 to polls taken near the start of the Iraqi war. Over time more and more people believed that there was a link between Iraq and 9/11 (

The same sacrificing of truth to political gain has also permeated this administration’s approach to issues requiring scientific expertise. This has been documented in The Republican War on Science (2006), by Chris Mooney, and Bush versus the Environment (2004) by Robert S. Devine. A Newsweek cover story (13 August 2007) on the global warming debate reinforces Mooney’s analysis. The tactic of this administration (and the Republicans in general) has been to exaggerate the degree of dissent within the scientific community about the reality of global warming and its causes, then to use the manufactured uncertainly as a rationale for not taking action. Senator Inhofe implied that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by scientists. These tactics willfully misunderstand that science operates by testing falsifiable hypotheses. The mere existence of global warming skeptics is not surprising or particularly meaningful. What would be significant is if they performed and published experiments that bolstered their claims in peer-reviewed journals.

In September 2002 tens of thousands of fish died along the lower Klamath River in Oregon. A team of fisheries biologists led by Michael Kelly had been against releasing water for irrigation on the basis of it potential to harm two species of endangered fish, as well as to other fish. Vice President Cheney sought a second opinion from other scientists, whose report was construed by the White House as not entirely supporting the team’s conclusions. The water was let out for irrigation, and that summer witnessed the death of about 33,000 salmon, damaging the fishing industry. The issue is not merely that this administration was wrong, but that it shopped around for a viewpoint that could be twisted to support a politically advantageous irrigation policy. This is postmodernism in action.

In general, this administration has given undue weight to scientific opinions that happens to support its political and economic policies. It has sought to pack advisory councils with poorly qualified, but strongly ideological individuals. These are the actions of those who don’t believe that science can probe objective truth. Instead, this administration appears to believe that there is nothing more than competing scientific opinions, and the way to prevail is to promote one’s own views through arm-twisting.

The way this administration behaved with respect to Iraq, to economic policy, to the environment, or to treatment of detainees has a common thread. It began to become apparent what the philosophy of this administration is when I read Ron Suskind’s article “Without a Doubt,” published on 17 October 2004 in the New York Times Magazine. One can only cringe when one comes across examples of the president’s stubbornly clinging to falsehoods, such as insistence that Sweden had no army, for example. His ignorance of the two major types of Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, as reported by Great Britain’s ambassador, helps one to understand the postwar debacle a little better. The lack of a process for rationally considering alternatives has been a remarkable weakness in this presidency that might be initially puzzling. However, the comment from a senior advisor that Suskind reports is particularly chilling but also clarifying:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

To put oneself in opposition to the reality-based community can only mean that one is an irrationalist, meaning that one does not believe in objective reality. What is meant by creating one’s own reality? Seymour Hersh gave one possible answer in Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004), when writing about President Bush’s statements on torture:

There are many who believe that George Bush is a liar, a president who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases makes them real. It is a terrifying possibility (p. 367).

Chris Mooney summed up the Bush Administration’s relationship to science:

By failing to respect the integrity of science, and instead repeatedly undermining it and employing it opportunistically, the Bush administration erodes public confidence in the scientific endeavor and leaves it crippled and undermined. This fosters outright relativism about the value of science as opposed to other ways of knowing—outright “faith,” for example. (p. 257)

Mooney quotes Thomas Murray, who says that this administration “has a postmodern take on science.” Mooney discusses the anonymous comments of Bush’s aide about the reality-based community (see above). “Whoever is speaking here has become the most dangerous sort of relativist.”

If our leaders do not believe in using reason, facts, and logic to make decisions, then what is left? President Bush has indicated that he thinks his gut and his faith in God are sufficient. President Bush once said, “I may not know where Kosovo is, but I know what I believe.” A White House official said, “the President is not a fact checker,” in regards to the false Niger uranium claim, but his comments beg the question, “Who in this administration is checking facts?” One wonders how honest decisions can ever be made in the absence of reliable information.

Moreover, there is a symbiosis between Bush’s trusting his gut instincts and the One Percent Doctrine, first enunciated by Vice President Dick Cheney: If there is even a one percent chance that someone or something can do us harm, we have to act as if it were a certainty. At first encounter, this sounds as if this administration merely wishes to be zealous in their protection of our country. Upon further examination, it means something different and far more dangerous, and this administration treats it as carte blanche to do what it pleases. This administration’s line of thinking seems to be: The number of threats that this country faces that have at least a one percent chance of coming to pass is very large. Is there a one percent chance that Iran or North Korea, or even Pakistan could harm us? Of course, yet we don’t have the resources to invade all of them. So which one’s do we invade? We use our instincts, our gut intuition.

Suskind argues that Vice President Cheney’s formulation divorces action from deliberation. Therefore, Cheney liberated President Bush from the complex and dull task of reading, weighing facts, considering alternatives, and only then deciding and acting, based on one’s proscribed role in government. On the contrary, this administration has used the unitary theory of the executive to expand its role well beyond that envisioned by the founding fathers. If one is president of the strongest country on earth and is further liberated by the One Percent Doctrine, the power must be so intoxicating that checks and balances are merely fetters. It is no wonder that President Bush called the Constitution “just a goddamned piece of paper (”

Since the time I first read your essay, my study of the Duke lacrosse case has made me more receptive to the notion that postmodernism is a real threat to the academic enterprise. However, why not acknowledge the harm postmodernism has done to this nation in the last eight years?

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