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Dying by the Post-Modern Sword
We, who support the struggle of our brave Danish compatriots, are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs—and we are unaware of this handicap. Our side in this battle has failed to use our most important weapon: we are fighting for the truth. This isn’t incidental to the debate; this is the whole purpose of the debate! Freedom of speech isn’t irrelevant to the truth; it is the means required to establish the truth. The cartoons depict Mohammad as a violent man and that is the truth.
But you don’t hear the ‘T’ word. Conservatives, libertarians, and liberals, who support the right to publish the cartoons, have yet to deploy this mighty and noble word. It’s as if the truth is completely irrelevant, some strange anachronism, or perhaps impolite in mixed (i.e. multi-cultural) company. If concern for the truth has been banished from public discourse, we must accept some of the blame if only by default.
Consider a much praised article by the neo-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He does not once mention the word but instead talks about how Arab countries are hypocrites for allowing the depiction of Jews as “sons of pigs and monkeys,” a description which, of course, is a vile lie. The Danish cartoons, on the other hand, may be crude but they are true: Mohammad was violent! He started by raiding caravans, terrorizing critics, and graduated to full scale warfare. But Krauthammer isn’t at all concerned with the truth. He writes: “Had they not been so hypocritical, one might defend their refusal to republish these cartoons on the grounds that news value can sometimes be trumped by good taste and sensitivity.” In other words, your being upset with the truth is equivalent to our being upset with vicious hateful lies. We’ll stop telling the truth if you stop lying! That’s being “fair to both sides” in the post-Modern world.
We need not single out conservatives. President Clinton calls the cartoons bigotry for no apparent reason than they are negative. But bigotry is an unwarranted negative assessment which begs the question: are these cartoons without basis? Of all those who decry that the cartoons are insulting, inflammatory, blasphemous, and painful, no one asks: but are they true? There is no debate about the validity of the cartoons—only about tolerating their publication. But toleration is the consolation prize for falsehood, ugliness, and absurdity. This, again, begs the question: are they true or should they merely be tolerated?
“What is the truth?” postmodernists skeptically ask but quickly answer: “There is no such thing as truth, only perceptions dependent on one’s demographic group. You have your perceptions and they have theirs. The very notion of ‘truth’ is a tool of the powerful to oppress the powerless.” Even those who wouldn’t agree with these statements have adopted an “our prejudice vs. their prejudice” posture. This denies the possibility that the cartoons might be true before they’ve even been debated. And that’s a major concession in this war.
For subjectivists, truth means intolerance. Wanting to be free from the tyranny of reality, truth is an oppressive “construct” that cramps their style. Those who mention such matters are met with visceral outbursts: “Who’s truth?” “Are you going to impose truth?” “Do you have a direct line to God?” There is only truth-as-you-see-it constructed by each person or, to be “authentic,” by one’s demographic group. Thus, reason and reality are banned from the debate: truth is just not a consideration. Your group’s outrage is just as valid as any other group’s. Or as Norman Mailer said during the Salmon Rushdie affair: “our religion hurt their religion.” (For Mailer, our faith is free speech.)
Some libertarians and liberals mistakenly argue for liberty on basis of skepticism. They accept the premise that intrinsic harm would be grounds for limiting liberty, “but who can be certain?” The subjectivist/intrinsic distinction bifurcates the debate into a false alternative: unknowable and allowable or intrinsically valuable and mandatory. But if freedom of speech is only to express subjective unverifiable sentiment, why is it so important? If ideas can’t make a difference in reality why not limit speech to spare others’ hurt feelings? Indeed, freedom of speech, opponents will argue, is just another prejudice that has no more right to prevail than multi-cultural sensitivity.
However, the rationale for free inquiry is its potency. Imagine for example, if we presented the persecution of Galileo’s by the 17th century Catholic Church in a matter that regarded his truth as ancillary to the discussion. Here’s how a post-modernist might describe the matter: “Let’s remember that Galileo wasn’t the only person persecuted by the church. Science suffered but so did astrology and sorcery. Indeed, the vast majority who suffered weren’t scientists but alternative thinkers outside the scientific tradition. It’s time we correct the historical imbalance by featuring, first and foremost, the vast majority of those persecuted.”
Don’t laugh! While that’s not how you and I remember learning about Galileo’s plight, don’t be surprised if books aren’t being rewritten to embody just such a “narrative.” Of course, it is also important that other people suffered persecution! But the fact that a scientist of the stature of Galileo was persecuted dramatizes that policy. And it shows the harm to the truth! What could more elegantly illustrate that liberty is a potent requirement for understanding reality?
The Objectivist defense for liberty is based on reason’s potency and its centrality to man’s survival. As such, the truth isn’t superfluous even if hierarchically, in a social context, establishing liberty as a right is a prerequisite that makes possible (but not guarantee) the knowledge man requires for his survival. To value man’s distinctive tool of survival, reason, one needs to value the conditions of its growth and maintenance, liberty. Liberty’s purpose is reason’s purpose: to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge to enable one to live life to the fullest.
The truth is never tolerated; it is embraced. Astrology is tolerated; Galileo is embraced. The Communist Manifesto is tolerated; the Declaration of Independence is embraced. Expositions of Sharia law are tolerated; the Rights of Man are embraced. Pictures of Bush as Hitler are tolerated; amusing cartoons illustrating Mohammad’s intolerant warrior-like character should be embraced … and discussed.
If we are to win this battle, let’s remember that we are fighting for the truth as well as for the process, liberty, required for the growth and maintenance of a society where the truth can ultimately prevail; and by so doing we may flourish in a society where dignity, mutual respect, material progress, and self-fulfillment are possible. Let’s not concede the war to win the battle. Let’s not, for a second, fail to acknowledge the truth. That is our most important weapon.
A draft of this article was first published on my blog. Here is a recommended list of books on Islam for those needing an introduction. Srdja Trifkovic, author of “Sword of the Prophet” has a summary of Mohammad’s life in his four page article.
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