Stuck On Neurath\'s Boat

Will Wilkinson puts his finger on a problem I've wondering a lot about lately:

Of course, we have to have some fixed standard (whether it is preference-based or not) in order to avoid thoroughgoing normative vertigo. Rorty, for example, reads his relativist crypto-Marxism into Rawls and interprets him as allowing the sense of justice to vary with institutional structure. But he doesn’t worry so much about the problem of specious stability. Rorty claims to be a pragmatist and pragmatists start from where we are. Rorty seems to think there is enough play in the method of reflective equilibrium to move us incrementally toward justice. However, there is also enough play in the method to move us toward totalitarianism, or, worse yet, laissez faire. So, may the best rhetorician with the best arbitrary commitments win.

Those unwilling to go the way of Rorty must hold something fixed. That’s your normative standard. The trouble I’m having with folks who seem obsessed with the problem of specious stability is that I can’t quite make out what they’re using as the standard by which they wish to evaluate the quality of our present preferences.

I think Rorty has it right that, in the end, it largely comes down to rhetoric and arbitrary commitments. But Rorty and fellow travelers are a bit too quick in dismissing the Stephen Pinkers of the world, whose evolutionary psychology provides some form of constraint to our arbitrary rhetoric.

The real paradox, though, and what I've never gotten about the post-modernists, post-structuralists, post-fill-in-the-blank-ists is this: if everything is socially contructed and entirely relative, why lean left? Why oppose free market transactions? Why say that the employer-employee or salesman-customer relationship is any more oppressive than the community-individual, democracy-voter relationship? I've got no huge objection to the po-mo's other than their strange preferences for social democracy, which, apart from a small handful like Rorty, they aren't willing to admit is any more arbitrary than anything else. And even Rorty is not so great when it comes to things like "democracy" reinforcing its own legitimacy. But as Will nicely puts it, why should we treat their preferences as any less socially contructed than our own?

So after mulling all this over, I was glad to see Timothy Burke's post on the Ward Churchill controversy. Burke writes that Churchill's identity politics represents

a very small tradition of anticolonial, pseudo-nationalist radicalism that eclectically and often incoherently grabs what it needs from Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and even conservative thought now and again (though often in unacknowledged ways).

It is also a tradition that is completely unable to face its own contradictions. Churchill’s much-cited remarks on 9/11 are an indication, for example, of the underlying moral incoherence of his writing (and writing like his). The principles that are used to value some lives (Iraqi babies dying under sanctions) and not others (people in the World Trade Center) have no underlying ethical or moral foundation: they’re purely historicist and instrumental. The original sin of modernity is seen as the expansion of the West; it is perceived as a kind of singularity that utterly destroyed or erased historical experience to that point. The only moral vector, the only capacity to act immorally or to commit evil, descends from that original sin. If you’re associated by social structure with that expansion, you are bad. If you are a victim of it, you are good.

This perspective on history and contemporary global politics is incapable of explaining its own existence. How is it possible to value life in a world produced by the expansion of the West, even the lives of the victims of colonialism? What are the sources, in a purely historicist account of ethics, of a belief in the sanctity of human cultures, or a belief that it is wrong to colonize or practice what Churchill would call genocide? Churchill, like others who write within his intellectual tradition, has no way to explain the genesis of his own political and ethical position. He can in fragmented ways claim an authenticity rooted in Native American traditions—but if it is possible today in the here and now to construct and disseminate a whole ethical practice founded in those traditions, then his claim of genocidal eradication by the West is clearly false. If on the other hand, the West contains within it the seeds of its own critique, then the expansion of the West is itself a much more complicated phenomena than it would appear to be in Churchill’s writing.

Churchill, like others, constructs the hegemony of global capitalism and Western domination as being near-total. The unmitigated and simplistic totalizing that suffuses Churchill’s writing makes it impossible to explain his own existence and professional success or anyone like him. He is incarnated impossibility of his own analysis.

Again, I've got no big beef with relativists of all shapes and sizes, but the least relativists can do is remain consistent with their own relativism.

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