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The Great Refutation

The mind's eye holds a mixture of emotions, including anger, directed at primitive enemies from abroad, and at the faux sophistication of some homegrown thinking.

The thinking is as contemptible as, and more dangerous than, any foreign enemy, now or ever, because its agenda is to discredit ideas that make nobility intelligible and hence heroism possible. Last Sept. 11 was, among other things, the Great Refutation. And perhaps a catalyst of a sustained restoration.

Ideas have consequences -- indeed, only ideas have large and lasting consequences -- so history is, at bottom, the history of mind. The acts of war a year ago made up our nation's mind, as one restores order to an unmade bed. We made up our mind to fight, of course, but also to become virtuously intolerant of a certain kind of nonsense, including the notion that tolerance is everything because everything else is nothing -- nothing but opinion or chimera.

The postmodern plague of quotation marks -- the punctuation of disparagement that labels as superstitions "virtue" and "heroism" and most of the other things that make life worth living -- was erased by men running into burning buildings, men who had not been disabled by today's higher learning. The quotation marks remaining after the Great Refutation surround two words: "Let's roll!"

It's become one of the most popular cliches of the past year (and I'm sad to see a writer of George F. Will's caliber resorting to it) that September 11 somehow disproved postmodernism and cultural/moral relativism. But despite the popularity of the cliche, it's not true.

September 11 certainly discouraged a lot of people from being postmodernists. It put people in a position where they faced a choice between rejecting postmodernism (which argues that there's no objective standard of right and wrong) or accepting that the terrorist attacks are no more wrong than anything else. It's a tough choice for someone who is intellectually committed to postmodernism, because most people have, for lack of a better word, a conscience -- a deeply ingrained sense that certain actions are wrong. But the fact that this idea is in our brains doesn't make it right, any more than our deep-seated instinct to lash out angrily at the apparent perpetrators was right. To argue that September 11 disproves postmodernism, then, is to argue that instinct and emotion (which say the attacks were wrong) should triumph over reason (which, though it may have been used incorrectly in this case, is the source of postmodernism).

I'm no postmodernist. I agree that all manifestations of moral standards are socially constructed (truth has no more power than we give it). But I don't think that makes them all equally valid. And I remain skeptical about modernist claims to have found The Answer (as experience in social and environmental planning has shown that many of those claims were more hubris than substance). But I don't reject the ideas of good and bad, and I think the search for them is rewarding even if we never find The Answer. So my point is not to defend postmodernism, just to point out that the cliche about its death is not well-supported.


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