Disagreeable Truths


Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense–and What We Can Do About It, by Lynne V. Cheney, New York: Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $23.00

One of my oldest friends is a rat-commie bastard. We cross paths a few times a year and whenever we do, we argue incessantly about everything under the sun. Other than the fact that we are friends–that we seek out and enjoy one another's company–we have just about nothing in common. After a few minutes of catching up, we start slugging it out with little style and less poise, two flat-footed boxers pounding away at each other. He says the government spends too little on education; I say that the government spends far too much and shouldn't be involved in the first place. He thinks that the minimum wage should be raised; I think that it should be abolished. He claims that corporations own the government; I claim the government owns the corporations–and the rest of us, too. You get the picture.

We have a ritual that ends each session, one designed to congratulate ourselves on our civility and to mollify inflamed passions while yielding not one inch of ideological ground. "Well," one of us invariably says when it's time to hang up the phone or get some sleep, "I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree." My rat-commie bastard of a friend then invokes Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." I point out that Voltaire was no commie and turn to F .A. Hayek: "To live and work successfully with others…requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends." My friend notes that compared to Voltaire, Hayek was no wordsmith and the discussion is over.

But what does it mean–really–to agree to disagree? Can a free and open society tolerate all beliefs, all ideas, all speech? By definition, one assumes, it must. But Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says no way. In fact, she opens her lively, engaging, and sometimes ridiculous polemic Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense–and What We Can Do About It, with an interesting quote on the matter from George Orwell, patron saint of freedom of thought: "Any attack on intellectual liberty, and on the concept of objective truth, threatens in the long run every department of thought."

Even while espousing absolute intellectual freedom, Orwell immediately places a condition on it: You can't attack "the concept of objective truth." So what if, in exercising your intellectual liberty, you begin to entertain doubts about the "concept of objective truth"? This is similar to puzzling over the limits of free speech. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech–including speech advocating the repeal of the First Amendment. Hence, a policy of free speech inherently gives a platform to its precise opposite. But if such subversive speech is disallowed, then what's the value of free speech? Questions like these are not easy nuts to crack and they are worth puzzling over in a liberal order.

Cheney, a Ph.D. in English, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, doesn't think so, especially regarding the "truth," a term much easier to invoke than it is to describe with any great clarity. Again using the Englishman as an authority, Cheney writes, "As George Orwell showed in a world where objective truth is denied, definitions become exceedingly slippery; and anything can mean almost anything else." The result of the "postmodern" rejection of objective truth is the breakdown of "culture" and "country" alluded to in her subtitle, writes Cheney, who calls for nothing less than the intellectual equivalent of total war in the battle for "truth." "The virtues that we have increasingly come to believe we must nurture if w e are to be successful as a culture simply make no sense if we turn away from reason and reality. Thus, whether we as a society find the will to live in truth is more than a matter for idle speculation. The answer may very well determine whether we survive

Telling the Truth casts a wide net and, to a degree, benefits from such tactics. The approach allows her to tackle such issues as grammar school curricula, political correctness, Oliver Stone's films, and critical legal studies. Whatever the topic, her basic refrain is that what we to be true is becoming hopelessly mingled with what we to be true. Once that happens, she argues, "The idea of responsibility–of being accountable for one's actions–has no meaning in a world where there is neither truth nor reality, but only endless interpretation."

Cheney is at her best when engaging specific figures and texts rather than making broad, facile pronouncements about the state of American culture. In the chapter "From Truth to Transformation" for instance, she does a close reading of some writings by Michel Foucault, the French scholar whom Cheney rightly identifies as one of the very most influential postmodern thinkers.

She particularly takes issue with Foucault's treatment of Pierre Riviere, a 19th-century killer who murdered his brother, sister, and pregnant mother. In the early '70s, Foucault, with the help of his students at the College de France, published an edition of Riviere's memoirs along with trial transcripts, medical evaluations, depositions, and critical essays about the case. For Foucault, notes Cheney, "The depositions, testimony, and court briefs are important not for what they tell of the murders, but for what they show about the struggle to control the interpretation of the event: doctors battling with other doctors and with judges over whether Riviere was a criminal or a madman; the villagers of Aunay trying to put forward their version emphasizing the singularity of the event–and thus the unlikelihood of its being recreated."

Cheney hoists Foucault on his own petard. The documents, wrote Foucault, "form…a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses….I think the reason we decided to publish these documents was to draw a map, so to speak, of those combats, to reconstruct these confrontations and battles, to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defense in the relations of power and knowledge." But, as Cheney points out, Foucault's book "is about more than competing discourses. In an important way, it deconstructs itself because its authors prefer one of the discourses….They prefer to think of Riviere as he thought of himself: as the murdering hero….Wrote Foucault, 'We fell under the spell of the parricide with the reddish-brown eyes.'"

Similarly powerful is her critique of Liberators, a 1993 made-for-public-TV movie that purported to document the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald by an African-American tank battalion. In the opening scene of the film, a concentration camp survivor returns to Buchenwald, accompanied by two black veterans. When the survivor breaks down, the vets comfort him. "The problem," says Cheney, "is that neither [vet] had ever been to Buchenwald before the filming of Liberators ….How did this error happen? Given its magnitude, it seems improbable that it was an accident. More likely, rather significant license was taken for dramatic effect."

Cheney plausibly links the film's focus "on African-Americans helping free Jewish prisoners" to black-Jewish tensions in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991. She quotes one of the co-hosts of a screening of the film at New York's Apollo Theater: "What we're trying to do is make New York a better place for you and me to live….There are a lot of truths that are very necessary. This is not a truth that's necessary." Cheney demurs, noting that one of the vets featured in the Buchenwald scene pointed out, "We had been stripped of our history in our slavery, and I didn't want to come up with anything that could tarnish our record." And as Cheney points out elsewhere, the falsification of history for "good" reasons often obscures the ways in which excluded or underrepresented groups actually did contribute to history.

This is Telling the Truth at its best. It engages other people's arguments or "truths" and presents plausible alternative arguments for one interpretation over another. It helps fill out a dialogue in which all participants, however opposed, can actually learn from one another.

Unfortunately, much–I'm tempted to say most–of Telling the Truth is not up to the level of the above examples and seems more like petty bickering. Sometimes, Cheney comes off less as the "disinterested" seeker of truth she claims to be and more as a political partisan. Hence, Cheney–a former Reagan administration member whose husband served as President Bush's defense secretary–is at very unconvincing pains to explain why Bush's breaking of his "no new taxes" pledge was less deceitful than Clinton's failing to deliver on a proposed middle-class tax cut.

At other times, Cheney proffers silly support for potentially sound points, as when she laments "the radical egalitarianism espoused by many feminists in the movement to do away with.. .competition in the schools." Among Cheney's evidence: "In every part of the country, school children are dancing and jumping rope, activities that do not involve competition, instead of playing games like dodgeball, from which a winner emerges." As if kids actually engaging in traditional, aerobically challenging playground sports rather than beaning each other with rubber balls represents much of a threat to this sweet land of liberty.

In a related way, Cheney is often in a rush to link every contemporary trend she abhors to postmodernism's insidious influence. The last few pages of Telling the Truth, for instance, are a dizzying whirlwind of innuendo and invective, especially when she invokes the brutal 1994 murder of a Philadelphia ice cream vendor as the necessary terminus of postmodern thought. After a young thug shot the vendor in an attempted ro bbery, a crowd of teenage onlookers laughed and danced as the vendor lay dying in the street.

Writes Cheney, "People who behave this way have obviously become desensitized to violence, probably because they have seen so much of it. Columnist Bob Greene suggests that their insensitivity reveals a contemporary confusion of entertainment and reality. 'We [have] increasingly become a nation of citizens who watch anything and everything as if it is all a show,' he writes."

Cheney's linkage is implicit and unconvincing: Postmodernism leads to murder and mayhem. "People who laugh at a dying man have no sense that a stranger can suffer just as they do," continues Cheney. "They have lost the animating perception of compassion, the awareness, as Josiah Royce described it, that another person is 'just as real…as actual, as concrete, as thou art'….It is…evident that intellectual elites do no one a favor by sending throu gh society messages that there is no external reality in which we all participate, that there is only the game of the moment, the entertainment of the day."

This sort of logic strikes me as muddled, tenuous, and tendentious. In her comments on Foucault, say, Cheney does an admirable close reading and carefully teases out implications; here, she merely substitutes assertion for argumentation. She knows nothing for sure about why those disturbing, laughing onlookers acted the way they did–or whether they are representative of American culture or postmodernism's influence on our society. Indeed, far from eschewing compassion and awareness for others, much of what goes under the rubric of postmodern thought explicitly attempts to (and often does) shed light on the history and experience of marginal groups and individuals.

Similarly, postmodern theorists aren't playing "games" and "entertainments" in any trivial or careless way. They too are searching for the "truth"–even if their truth is precisely that there is no truth. Even as execrable a legal theorist as Catharine MacKinnon thinks she is accurately describing the objective world when, as Cheney summarizes, she claims, "that men define reality." When Foucaldians stress that all social arrangements reflect power relations, they think (rightly or wrongly) they are getting at the truth.

Cheney also mixes up "truths" that are demonstrably false (such as the Liberators film) with ones she dislikes or disagrees with (Foucault's lionization of Pierre Riviere). And she consistently conflates philosophical skepticism with extreme relativism. "Nor should we bow down to heavyhanded assertions about how there is no objectivity and thus no way to judge whether one way of doing a thing, be it educating the young or choosing a leader, is better or worse than any other," she writes. While it is true that most postmodernists (however defined) would agree that full objectivity is impossible to achieve, the second part of her statement hardly follows. In fact, Cheney's own book details, usually with horror, the intellectual and political prescriptions of postmodern thought. Postmodernists, just like conservatives, have their methods of evaluation and preferred agendas.

These criticisms perhaps get at the heart of the problem with Telling the Truth. Cheney has framed the issue so that there is really no way to disagree with her and still be "living in truth" (as she titles her final chapter), much less be granted equal intellectual respect. Even as she grants the quintessentially postmodern insight that "imperfect as we are, we can never hope to know [truth] fully or possess it completely," Cheney insists, "encountering postmodernists at work, we must not lose sight of how offensive their assumptions are, how condescending to those who seek knowledge." In her world, there seems to be no way to agree to disagree.

This is partly a testament to Cheney's skills as a polemicist and an indication of just how seriously she views her subject (and, to her credit, she never contemplates state control or censorship in any way, shape, or form). She is mounting her best attack in this battle of wits, and, as in any other contest, it makes sense to try to knock your opponents out of the ring altogether.

But such a strategy is somewhat troubling, too, whether utilized by right-wingers or left, conservatives or liberals, pre-modernists or post–especially in the absence of an explicit affirmation of a Voltairean social order in which the intellectual arena is open especially to unpopular viewpoints and ideas. After all, one of the things that Cheney and others hate about "political correctness" is that it attempts to brand dissent as unacceptable. In truth, "progress" in a liberal society comes not so much from deeming certain ideas off limits, but by letting them be debated vigorously and openly. If we cannot agree to disagree, there is indeed very little common ground left to share and very little of substance left to discuss.