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Relativism misunderstands reality

By Patrick O'Hannigan
web posted June 24, 2002

For pundits as for realtors, location matters. The California town where I write a monthly column for a weekly newspaper hosts a state university, a state prison, and many different festivals, so every mutt of an idea roaming the national scene eventually ambles past my door. More than a few of these strays can be traced back to a misunderstanding of human nature that has been popular since the philosopher Rousseau swooned over noble savages. Following news reports about the first Palestinian woman to explode herself and a handful of bystanders, for example, a music critic at the newspaper to which I contribute echoed some of his syndicated brethren by asking whether Americans could judge the morality of suicide bombing.

The critic reasoned that because war is hell and U.S. foreign policy can be incoherent, the slaughter of innocents is sometimes a legitimate response to feelings of helplessness. He also implied that anyone who thinks murder should never be confused with therapy lacks sympathy for oppressed people.

Envision a sled dog race where the only dog actually in harness is the big dog in the star-spangled collar, and you have a sense of the mindset to which many of my neighbors on the soft-boiled left subscribe. In that view, no other dog on the world scene is leashed, harnessed, or held to the standard of the American dog.

The rationale for this posture as described and endorsed by my colleague is that if the United States changed places with the rest of the world, our notions of right and wrong would change, too. This illogical assertion is nothing more or less than relativism, a defect in or perversion of the democratic impulse that passes for wisdom among people unnerved by any dogma not their own. History and theology teachers might have inoculated the rest of us against such silliness, but for the most part they have what a telegenic Cuban-American bandleader famously called "a lot of splainin' to do."

Why history and theology should answer for the influence of a flawed philosophy may not be apparent at first glance, so let me set the table for that argument by noting that one problem with calling morality portable and relative rather than fixed and absolute is that such thinking inevitably degrades into the nihilism of might makes right.

Exhortations to treat other people as we want to be treated cannot by themselves ensure civilized discourse or keep angry people from flirting with the ethic of the militiaman in the movie "Black Hawk Down" who explains that "in Somalia, murder IS negotiation."

Had my colleague argued for armed neutrality as an alternative to global peacekeeping, I might have cheered, but the man took more exception to America's alleged ignorance than to its foreign policy. Like many journalists, he believes we could understand other cultures better if we paid more attention to them, and this is good because understanding leads to peace. In other words, to understand all is to forgive all.

That popular view makes insufficient allowance for the corruption of human nature. Here on earth, peace is not the only possible fruit of understanding.

Consider domestic violence, where people who understand each other very well still assume the roles of victim and victimizer. A similar dynamic applies between nations. As National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg explains, "Whatever you think of the differences between Palestinians and Israelis, you would be a fool to think they don't understand each other better than the average American diplomat understands either." Not only that, he points out, "If mutual ignorance were the font of war, Mexico would be at war with [the former Soviet republic of] Moldova."

Many people are bothered by the fact that James Clavell's prisoner-of-war novel King Rat has as much to say about human nature as anything in the self-help section of your local bookstore. But as essayist Florence King observes with characteristically vivid understatement, "shunning insight while noisily proclaiming that we 'care about people' is awkward, however."

Christians who contrast the church militant with the church triumphant or beseech the Queen of Heaven from behind what one Catholic prayer calls this "veil of tears" know very well that conflict is part of life. Astute pre-Christian philosophers reasoned their way to the same conclusion even without Moses, or settled knowledge of the human inclination to evil defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as "concupiscence."

Unfortunately, traditional Catholic and Classical Greek thought are shadows of their former selves. Two classics professors writing about hard times in their academic specialty put the case well: "Believers in modernism (who do not know Thucydides, Plato, and Euripides) have misunderstood the nature of man and the role of culture, and the proper balance between the two. As a result, they have not proved that we can empathize, excuse, counsel, talk, nurture, OK, or chicken-soup the demons out of any of us."

With that indictment and the chronology of history in mind, the dismal record of relativists surprises only people unfamiliar with what Christians call Original Sin. Among that crowd are forgetful bishops, therapists who cannot distinguish between mental, emotional, and spiritual problems, and pundits who think moral clarity belongs only to fanatics. None of the aforementioned people understand G.K. Chesterton's quip that the world is always complicated for those who lack principles.

A friend of mine framed the choice eloquently this past Lent. "Either you believe that human nature is badly flawed or you do not," he said. "The question is realistic, not idealistic. It is empirical. Human nature is demonstrably flawed." My friend then buttressed his conclusion with personal testimony: "As someone who has not attended a proper church service in over a decade, but who nevertheless just bought tickets to [a performance of] Saint Matthew's Passion on Good Friday, I am truly disgusted with bloodless postmoderns who pretend to be smarter than Saint Augustine."

Amen to that. In all fairness, however, such malaise as we traditionalists rail against comes not only from selective preference for the new over the old but also from misapplication of civil rights rhetoric and reflexive rejection of hierarchy. Together these mistakes turned discrimination of any kind into a bogeyman of the modern left. As any honest history of 20th-century American thought will demonstrate (see, for example, the work of Thomas Sowell or Heather MacDonald), well-meaning attempts to give the all- too-discriminatory world a makeover can warp impressionable minds.

One need not fear the Death of the West to see that this kind of thinking bodes ill for our republic. When an elementary school in my town celebrated "International Day," for example, it was with the support of parents who firmly believe that the subset of relativism called multiculturalism is an unalloyed good. Many of them assume that Americans are uniquely deficient in learning about the rest of the world, and a few voiced the hope that learning about different cultures would make their children more accepting of those cultures. To broaden young minds is exhilarating, but we should deepen them, too.

Given that the United States is the world's only remaining superpower, wouldn't it follow that citizens of other countries should be learning about us, rather than the other way around? But when I wondered in print how many kids celebrating International Day knew more about falafel and Oktoberfest than about James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, I was called an ignorant jingoist and worse.

Speaking to another bromide of multiculturalism with which I take issue, Internet diarist James Lileks debunks the theory that children who celebrate different cultures are necessarily better for it. His take on multiculturalism rebuts the moral equivalency according to which respect for life is different from but no better or worse than eating a dog, stoning a homosexual, or mutilating a clitoris.

Over to you, Lileks: "Some cultures suck, if I can put it in the frank terms of Kids Today. Of course Kids Today wouldn't dare say that, having been taught that such a judgment is, well, judgmental. But [any] value-free tour of the globe Disneyfies humanity into a theme park of costumes and ethnic foods."

"In order to respect all viewpoints, no actual viewpoints may be professed, let alone examined," Lileks continues. "Religion is turned into a sparkle-flecked gruel of good intentions that curdles the moment it comes in contact with reality." The misguided reverence for tolerance that accompanies this malnourished (sin-free) view of religion ensures that every idea is equally empty. At that point, Lileks warns, "tolerance becomes abolition, where Good has an infinite number of cheeks to present to mass murderers who had bad childhoods, and no one has the ability to shove the flag in the dirt and say THIS is where I stand without being mocked by those whose cleverness barely conceals their loathing."

Lileks is angry, eloquent, and right. His words affirm the wisdom of the warning in section 407 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, wherein we are reminded that, "Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals."

Playing an uptown riff on the same theme, historian Victor Davis Hanson declares relativism and multiculturalism both antirational and amoral. Those who agree with Hanson may also salute Time magazine alumnus William A. Henry III, who wrote before his death in 1994 that the quest for peace through multicultural education fosters "a pseudo-racial pride not far from hatred."

In short, we would all do well to remember who and how we are. If I may use a musical metaphor to speak theologically: To hear the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation, we must first be humble enough to recognize discordant notes in the old creation. This thesis has practical applications. Curriculum reform and repentance are not different means to the same end, for example, but different means to different ends.

Similarly, any credible recipe for peace in the world involves more than walking a mile in someone else's moccasins. Those who think differently ignore ancient wisdom and court disaster by misunderstanding human nature.

In philosophy, theology, and politics that is penalty enough, but columnists on the arts beat pay an even greater price for writing mash notes to Lady Relativism and the psychopaths in her service who blow innocent people up for want of enough skill to wreak havoc on hard targets. As one of the better songwriters in Nashville famously observed following a moment of Trinitarian inspiration, country music can be defined as "three chords and the truth." Journalists with a weakness for politically correct homicide forfeit the ability to see the second half of that equation, and consign their work to the remainder bin next to forgotten recordings by that multicultural patsy and relativist extraordinaire, Pontius "What is Truth?" Pilate.

Patrick O'Hannigan is a self-described paragraph farmer in Central California and a columnist for New Times (San Luis Obispo).

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