Postmodernism after 9/11

Postmodernism after 9/11

le ;I front-page Washington Post feature vividly portrayed the suffering of a Palestinian famil!., no comparable attention was paid that month to Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks. Meanwhile, writes Vane, the online Palestine Media Watch urges readers to protest news ticcounts that use the words "retciliation" or "response" in describing Israeli actions, or that fail to refer to the Giiza Strip or the West Bank 21s "occupied" territories."Across the country,"...

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while a front-page Washington Post feature vividly portrayed the suffering of a Palestinian family, no comparable attention was paid that month to Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks. Meanwhile, writes Vane, the online Palestine Media Watch urges readers to protest news accounts that use the words "retaliation" or "response" in describing Israeli actions, or that fail to refer to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank as "occupied" territories.

"Across the country," reports Vane, "editors acknowledge they have made mistakes, but to a one maintain that there’s simply no bias shaping coverage. Yet the sheer volume of complaints raises the question: Can so many readers be wrong?"

Yes, they can, insist the editors. They maintain that much of the criticism is generated by the Internet, which speeds information and misinformation around the world with dizzying speed. Also upping the volume, notes John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew International Journalism Program, are the innumerable pundits now holding forth on the Internet and cable TV. A lot of the critics aren’t really interested in fairness and accuracy. They just want to see their views reflected in news coverage.

Religion & Philosophy

Postmodernism after 9/11

A Survey of Recent Articles

After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, some cultural commentators suggested that the attacks might at least do some salutary collateral damage to the doctrine of postmodernism. That voguish academic outlook’s disdain for universal abstractions such as justice, its denial that any objective warrant exists for moral judgment or truth, suddenly appeared terribly hollow. "This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective," columnist Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 22, 2001). "And even mild relativism seems troubling in contrast." Postmodernist superstar Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been eager to take up the challenge, speaking out in an assortment of venues: the Times op-ed page (Oct. 15, 2001), Harper’s Magazine (July 2002), and The Responsive Community (Summer 2002), where he is the main participant in a symposium that asks, "Can Postmodernists Condemn Terrorism?" Though he deems the word terrorism "unhelpful," Fish answers that question in the affirmative. The Fishian postmodernist— who may or may not be typical of the breed—appears like nothing so much as the quintessential Humphrey Bogart character: a cynic on the outside, impatient with highsounding abstractions and causes, and an idealist underneath, ready in the actual event to do battle for truth and justice. "I in fact do" support the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Fish avows.

It turns out that there are universals, after all, according to this prominent postmodernist. "I am not saying that there are no universal values or no truths independent of particular perspectives. I affirm both." It’s just that they can’t be independently proved to everyone’s satisfaction, Fish explains. So the postmodernist must fall back on his own convictions, about which, by definition, he can hardly be a relativist. "The basis for condemning what was done on September 11 is not some abstract vocabulary of justice, truth, and virtue— attributes claimed by everyone, including our enemies, and disdained by no one—but the historical reality of the way of life, our way of life, that was the target of a massive assault." Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, one of the dozen participants in the Responsive Community symposium, hails Fish’s postmodernist as "a mature, imaginative, and open-minded individual. His large human sympathies make him impatient with facile

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The Periodical Observer

rhetoric" and doubtful that "justice is entirely on our side. But Fish’s postmodernist is no wimp: He can vigorously defend our way of life and oppose that of our enemies."

It’s the two relativist "siblings" of the Fishian postmodernist—the empty-minded "freshman relativist," who thinks all opinions equally valuable, and the destructive relativist, who sneeringly debunks others’ lofty claims, oblivious to his own intellectual limitations—that "have brought the relativist family into disrepute." They shrink from convictions and causes, and from "politically incorrect" expressions of opinion. "Fish is right to disown them," Blackburn says, "but wrong to pretend that they are figments of right-wing imagination."

Fish is guilty of "rank sophistry," charges Peter Berkowitz, a professor of law at George Mason University, writing in The New Republic (June 28, 2002). "Either Fish is confused about exactly what postmodernism means, or he is willing to say anything—no matter how internally inconsistent—to win an argument. Or maybe both." As Fish now presents it, Berkowitz says, postmodernism stands for "the sensible though innocuous proposition that not everybody will always grasp what universal standards require. Now, if this is what postmodernism teaches, it is hard to understand what all the fuss has been about." But "the guiding theme of postmodernism is that objectivity, especially in morals, is a sham—in other words, precisely the definition Fish was disavowing."

Benjamin R. Barber, author of A Passion for Democracy (1998) and a participant in the Responsive Community symposium, agrees. "We can’t have it both ways: the courage of skepticism, the boldness of anti-foundationalist reasoning, the novelity of irony—but all without consequences. Yet Fish has it both ways."

"A commitment to the very abstractions that Fish wants us to drop is, for some of us, the most appealing element of ‘our way of life,’ " observes another symposium participant, Joshua Cohen, a professor of philosophy and political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The country, Lincoln said, was conceived in an idea, and dedicated to a proposition. Drop those (contested) abstractions, and you lose what is arguably best in the American tradition."

Revisiting the Crusades

"The Real History of the Crusades" by Thomas F. Madden, in Crisis Magazine (Apr. 2002), 1814 1⁄2 N St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Thanks to Osama bin Laden, the Crusades have been getting a lot of bad press lately. The terrorist warlord has often alluded to them—denouncing the U.S. war on terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam, for example—and some Westerners seem to accept his notion that the West committed a grievous injustice.

All this talk leaves Madden, a Saint Louis University historian, dumbfounded. The notion that the Crusades were "brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world" smacks of historical revisionism. Yes, the Crusades were bloody and the Crusaders at times merciless, but far from being wars of aggression, the Crusades were defensive measures taken to protect the Christian world from overthrow by warmongering Muslim rulers.

Following the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, Muslim conquerors rapidly spread their faith with the sword, toppling Christian regimes in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. By the 11th century, Islam had replaced Christianity as the dominant world religion, spreading across most of the Middle East, as well as North Africa and Spain. After Muslims conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), vastly reducing the extent of the Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II convened the Council of Clermont in 1095 to rally "the knights of Christendom." Their mission was to liberate Jerusalem and other holy

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