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Reviving the culture wars

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, September 15, 2006

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, Lynne Cheney joined a host of conservative pundits in calling for the renewed study of American History. She argued that, if Americans had a proper knowledge of the facts of their history, they would fall in love with the unparalleled greatness of our nation and become more confident, patriotic citizens than they are in our present milieu of “political correctness,” “white guilt,” and liberal relativism.

Cheney must hold a more optimistic opinion of the self-evident conclusions that follow from facts than do I. The leftist professors against whose unpatriotic programs she aimed her proposal draw on much the same facts available to her, but reach irreconcilable conclusions. Or rather, such academics insert the same facts into an opposed system of thought to explain their meaning.

This column will try to explore the vast field, which now looks like a waste land, where the facts of our experience are disputed in the name of any number of systems of thought. I have no hope of setting out “plain and honest facts” only to presume they necessitate one conclusion or another about the various questions many of us face as students and professors committed to the life of learning, as citizens of the most powerful country on earth, or as Catholics in a world torn by religious (and anti-religious) strife.

I wish, first, to draw attention not to idle facts taught in classrooms, but to the complex but debasing theories that increasingly make university teaching seem a crude oppositional activity. Often, university curricula seem committed to platitudes of “transgression,” “liberation” and “diversity,” which boil down to little more than the politicization of knowledge for a relativistic or hedonistic end.

The sad witness of universities, such as that bolus located in Ann Arbor, which have adopted hiring practices to guarantee job candidates with conservative (or, in one instance, pro-Israeli) sympathies will not find their way to the faculty, requires firm response. It seems appropriate to revive in more intelligent form the “culture wars” of two decades ago that sought to expose the absurdities of an academy that has become the patron of a narrow regime of “post-humanist” ideology hunting and token political gestures. These things hurt the communal quest of the intellect for which end universities were founded in the first place. When a fair portion of our professoriate believes that knowledge is a mere tool of power that must be excised if we are to liberate “subjects” from oppressive “discipline,” the purpose and identity of the university must either be accepted as dead – or defended and reconstituted.

Second, however, we shall confront those anti-intellectuals who capitalize upon the foibles of the academy simply to silence all criticism of the United States’ role in the world as a sometimes violent, frequently concupiscent, empire whose professed commitment to private ownership and equal justice is only skin deep. If too many academics believe knowledge but a tool, too many of these tub-thumpers try to con us that the “facts will set us free.” What a hard claim to tolerate in an age where left and the right alike distort supposed facts to justify the slaughter of innocents both at home and abroad.

Most of us appreciate that what I have called the “system of thought” by which we interpret our experience is not merely a delusion projected onto that experience. And most of us understand that the truths we discover in this life will be determined, in part, by whether we enter into the tradition of a better or worse system, and how we develop it.

That said, many balk at the notion of a right system, against which none other can stand. And yet, this is the necessary consequence of the above premises, in the same way that truth follows from the discovery of what is false.

The caricatures I have drawn of certain conservatives suggests that they are more than willing to proclaim the reality of truth and falsehood; but they evidently refuse the labor to reason them out. This has led to horrible arguments for good causes, and, finally to the support of evil causes. A small error of method in the beginning leads to grave one in the end. Likewise, my caricatured academics delude themselves and us alike by clearly condemning certain acts and policies as unjust, when their systems of thought agree only that “justice” is one lie among others.

In this space, we cannot puzzle out every problem. But, by relying on the reasoning and love of truth manifest in the Thomistic tradition and the long experience of the Catholic Church, I hope to set forth my own humble reasons for suspecting ideologues on both the left and right without losing certain belief that truth has been discovered, can be discovered, and can be shared by all.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin research fellow at Notre Dame. He can be reached at jwilson5@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.