Derrida, Dame Edna, and George W., Postmodernist

1) On the Losing Side: It was like the Spanish Republic and the Prague Spring.

“Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

–Justice Kennedy, on the meaning of “intent.”

I can’t believe it’s coming to an end. By the time you read this, it may be over, thanks to the sudden spurious concern for “equal protection” by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court (a concern which no one has extended to all the black voters Florida managed to disenfranchise). And so the time has come for perspective–and payback.

Perspective first: I’ve been trying to assess just how Re-count-o-Rama ranks with two other comparable national crises on the Presidential level, Watergate and the Clinton impeachment. I covered those two in person, on the scene. I was there in the Supreme Court chamber when the Nixon tapes case was argued, and there in the East Room of the White House when the Trickster made his teary farewell before coptering off to exile. And I was there in the Senate for the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, for that immortal moment when “breasts” and “genitals” were first uttered in that august chamber.

But I found it completely satisfying watching this one at home–watching (or listening to) close to 300 hours of coverage. In a multicentered crisis like this, where it’s impossible for one individual to be in Tallahassee, Miami, Washington and Austin at the same time, I feel 24-hour cable–in particular MSNBC’s wonderful single-minded, multifocused devotion to the story–gives one a far better perspective than one could get on the ground chasing chads.

Anyway, to the question of comparisons: Does Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre trump last weekend’s Saturday afternoon Supreme Court stay? They’re similar in the sense that they were both attempts to prevent the examination of evidence, by Nixon and Bush respectively. But the nod has to go, I think, to the Saturday Night Massacre, because it was all so new back then–that frisson of illegitimacy, if not coup.

But the one thing Re-count-o-Rama has over past Presidential crises is the relentless pace of dramatic turnarounds, whammo stunners and whiplash reversals. That 22-hour interval between the Florida Supreme Court’s decision and the U.S. Supreme Court’s sudden stay was amazing. A brief interlude of hope for those of us who have become re-count partisans. (Not pro-Gore, but pro-finding-out-who-really-won.) After being behind in the count for so long, that brief shining interval was our Paris Commune, our Prague Spring, our Spanish Republic moment. But while those lasted months, sometimes years, this lasted less than a day before being brutally crushed. I got a call in the first few hours of it from Jim Dwyer of the Daily News , who’s done some of the best stuff in the dailies on Re-count-o-Rama (his piece comparing George W. to Timo Perez–entitlement queens who didn’t feel they needed to actually run the bases to get the home run–was brilliant). We spoke of the way we both couldn’t stand Al Gore before the election but had come to grudgingly admire his grit, his refusal to submit to the nannies of the punditry, who kept demanding he concede–concede to them , to the media nannies’ notion of propriety and national unity.

And after the Scalia stay crushed it all the next afternoon, I thought of Murray Kempton’s lovely advocacy for “losing-side consciousness.” The tragic beauty of lost causes–from the Spanish Republic to the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox–draws more of the kind of people you want to be with than the sterile triumphalism of the Yankees of history.

The Gore re-count struggle was one of those lovely losing causes, one that had far more than Al Gore’s ambition to it.

I’d like to articulate the principle behind it, a principle that goes beyond Al Gore’s ambitions and George W.’s inadequacies: a belief in the value of getting to the bottom of things. Of pursuing the facts and evidence in historical controversies–in this case, the votes–to the bitter end, even if the process is difficult, inconvenient or inconclusive. Not merely because “the truth shall set you free,” although that’s a powerful argument in itself. But because the alternative is the triumph of conspiracy theory.

For nearly four decades now, America has suffered from having key moments of its history obscured by doubt, clouded by a plague of conspiracy theory, because investigations of great national controversies have been badly conducted, riddled by error and, most damagingly, not carried through to a conclusion. Time after time–in the investigation of the J.F.K. assassination, Watergate, the C.I.A. mole allegations, Iran-contra and the like–the investigation stopped short of getting to the bottom of things, did not (to use a re-count metaphor) count all the ballots, sift all the evidence. And left a vacuum of uncertainty for conspiracy theorists to rush in and fill.

These failures are far more destabilizing to the legitimacy of American polity than any delay required to accomplish a full and fair re-count would be, despite the Chicken Little hysteria of Bob (“Turncoat”) Torricelli, the wannabe “statesman” who recently told the Times how “frightened” he was at the idea that the Florida process might proceed to its judicial and legislative conclusion. (Get a grip, Bob.)

And I would argue that the plague of conspiracy theory is not primarily the fault of the conspiracy theorists, but more the fault of the so-called legitimate organs of government, who failed time after time to pursue an investigation to a conclusion in order to eliminate the doubts that give rise to conspiracy theories. The fault of the nannies in the media who, time after time in a timid, shortsighted way, urge that problems be papered over in the name of national unity, of “closure.”

One egregious example of this involves George Bush the Elder and Iran-contra: the way he was allowed to pardon the chief potential witness against himself, Caspar Weinberger, the man whose diaries indicate that Bush the Elder may have lied about his knowledge of the illegal arms-for-hostages (actually, arms for terrorists) deal authorized in his presence.

If Weinberger had been brought to trial, we would at least have gotten a full and fair hearing on just how high up complicity in illegality went in Iran-contra. The short-circuiting of the investigation and trial, the cover-up of potential Bush guilt, may have saved the political career of George W. from the collateral damage that the full truth might have caused the family.

So the Bush dynasty has benefited from an impulse to keep things secret, to keep the full truth in a “lockbox,” that stretches back to their clandestine group therapy in the tomb of Skull and Bones.

But I think you could make a case that there’s more than self-interest in George W.’s frantic attempt to prevent examination of the disputed ballots in Florida. I’ve come to believe that there’s an extremely serious philosophical stance behind his position. I’ve come to believe that, in the same way the re-count has shown us a new Al Gore, it’s shown us a new intellectual sophistication on the part of George W. It has given us …

2) George W. Bush, Postmodernist

I feel a little bad now, having called him “the Austin pinhead” in a previous column, because it has become obvious that my Yale classmate George W. was not sleeping through his classes to a gentleman’s C. Clearly he was auditing advanced seminars on linguistics and comparative literature at Yale, the place where the postmodern movement in America first took root.

George W. a postmodernist? Yes! It’s there in the Bush team’s furious opposition to any examination of the best attempt to look at the facts in the re-count dispute, the so-called undercount ballots, the ones that didn’t register a vote for President when they went through the inadequate, error-prone machines. It’s there in the Bush team’s astonishing contention that we would be better off if we did not know–now or ever –what those ballots reveal. It’s right there in the relentless attack on the attempt to look at the facts by W.’s team, ranging from James Baker and the Bush appeal lawyers to his supporters on the U.S. Supreme Court and certain of his yapping lapdogs in the media. It’s the signature attitude of postmodernism: distrust of knowledge, of evidence, of the possibility of ever knowing the truth, the futility of the search for “facts.” An attitude that bears all the hallmarks not of “strict constructionism” but of deconstructionism .

Bear with me as I try to elucidate the profound philosophical principles that are clearly guiding W. and his team in his judicial war to prevent anyone from seeing those ballots. On the surface, it might seem that they have been arguing against examining the ballots–the crucial facts in the case–and going so far as to tell the American people (as Justice Scalia did) that we are better off not seeing them ever, in effect saying to us: “You can’t handle the truth.” But in fact, it’s much deeper than that: The Bush team’s argument isn’t “You can’t handle the truth”; it really is “There’s no such thing as truth.” Or as the great Roman philosopher Pontius Pilate, the first postmodernist, put it: “What is truth?”

When you think about it, it all comes down to the schism between modernism and postmodernism on the nature of facts and ambiguities. The schism that was emerging between the New Critics and the Deconstructionists at Yale just about the time W. and I graduated. (Could Jacques Derrida have cracked a keg at Deke with George W.? Did Roland Barthes sneak into Skull and Bones?)

The New Critics were obsessed with ambiguity, the fact that words and phrases in texts could yield–just like the chads on undercount ballots–different, even conflicting interpretations. New Critic classics such as William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity celebrated ambiguity, celebrated the beauty of resonant variants as an invitation to greater attentiveness, to closer examination, to “close reading.” They celebrated the active engagement of critical intelligence with facts and ambiguities. It was a belief that critical intelligence can discern and expound the range of possibility just as a jury does with evidence and doubt.

But the postmodernists can’t handle ambiguity and doubt. In a puritanical rage against the messiness and complexity of ambiguity, of truth, of life itself, they flee to a position of nihilistic absolutism: There ‘ s no such thing as historical truth, there are no facts, there are only texts , the interpretation and “construction” of which can not be separated from the hidden agenda of those doing the “constructing.” All such judgments thus need to be de-constructed , delegitimized. There is no point in acquiring further knowledge, more facts, such as might be acquired from examining the disputed Florida ballots, because votes are texts too , and there are no truths about texts, just interpretations.

You can see this attitude in one of the Bush team’s mantras: The Florida Supreme Court order to hand count disputed ballots in all Florida counties was fatally flawed because there would be “no consistent standard.” When, in fact, the Florida Supreme Court’s order explicitly defined a single consistent standard, the one set out by the Florida legislature: canvassing boards were to determine “the clear intent of the voter.” The Bush team might not have liked the standard; they might have been concerned that the standard would produce results they didn’t like. But there was a standard– one set out, as the U.S. Supreme Court insisted, by the legislature, not the courts.

Some might call the repeated declaration that there was “no standard” just a blatant, self-serving lie. But I prefer to believe that it can be seen as arising from George W.’s principled devotion to the tenets of postmodernism. To the belief there can be no such thing as a valid interpretation of intent. It’s, like, all subjective , dude.

In fact, it’s an aspect of the postmodernist condemnation of the attempt to interpret the intent of the author. George W. and his team seem to have adopted Roland Barthes’ postmodernist “death of the author” ideology–that works of literature are not “produced” by writers and authors, but rather are the product of eddies in the linguistic “codes,” the “floating signifiers” that use the apparent authors like ventriloquists’ dummies. Because the Bush team has delegitimized, in a postmodernist way, another kind of authorial intent: For the “death of the author,” they have substituted the “death of the voter.”

One should also acknowledge the important influence of Michel Foucault on the Bush legal team: To look at the ballots would give only the illusion of more knowledge, because there is no such thing as knowledge beyond perspectives and constructions. Which are themselves the product of the power relations in a society.

The Florida Supreme Court majority–the ones who voted for the re-count–were clearly onto this Foucauldian attitude towards principles on the part of the Bush team. In fact, they devoted a long footnote in their majority opinion to an awestruck elucidation of the Bush team ‘ s postmodernism. In the footnote–which I commend to anyone as the key text in the case–the four justices describe “a substantial and dramatic change of position after oral arguments” by the Bush team. In their original argument against extending the Katherine Harris certification deadline to include the manual re-counts, the Bush team had argued that the so-called protest phase (after the election, but before certification) did not permit time for hand counts, which were more properly done in the “contest phase,” the phase we’re in now. At which time, one Bush lawyer said he didn’t ” think there would be any problem in producing … that kind of evidence [the manual re-counts] in an election contest procedure .”

Those italics, by the way, are not mine; they are the italics of the Florida Supreme Court majority, stunned by the reversal of the Bush legal position, which has now done a 180-degree flip: Where once they said it was fine to look at evidence and have court-supervised re-counts in the contest phase, now they revile this as utterly impermissible. Some might say they were just using what George W. calls “legalistic language” in their original position to pull a bait-and-switch deal; some might say this argues a complete lack of principles, that the Bush team lied and deceived the courts.

But I’d argue that it’s a product of their touching devotion to the principles of postmodernism, which insist that there are no such things as principles except as convenient opportunistic masks, cat’s-paws of power–disposable, reversible, dispensable.

One can see this consistency of attitude in the U.S. Supreme Court justices who have supported the Bush position. Yes, it’s true that they’ve devoted themselves and their careers to resurrecting and protecting the doctrine of state sovereignty, states’ rights, deference to state courts. And it’s true that in staying the re-count, they totally trashed and dispensed with these principles in order to arrive at an outcome which will ensure a President who has praised “strict constructionism,” and is likely to appoint more colleagues who will agree with them. And it ‘ s true that (as Jim Dwyer points out in the Monday, Dec. 11, Daily News ) Antonin Scalia told a magazine that he would quit the Court if Bush didn’t win the Presidency, because that would end his hope of being promoted to Chief Justice. But I’m sure this has nothing to do with Justice Scalia’s unseemly zeal to promote the cause of the man who could promote him . It ‘ s not political opportunism trumping principles, but in fact what you might call strict deconstructionism . Power trumps principle, and words can be redefined to mean their opposite in the service of sucking up to power.

Antonin Scalia, meet Michel Foucault! Jacques Derrida, come on down! George Bush has a place in his Cabinet for you.

3) Dame Edna Explains Her (His) Principles

Speaking of principles, prejudices and politics, the distinctions among them are worth examining more closely. An examination prompted by some recent Dame Edna-like effusions in these pages.

“I don’t really have any politics, what I have are principles,” the Dame Edna fellow grandly declared last week.

I am always deeply moved when a writer is so impressed by his own virtue that he just comes out and tells us what a fine fellow he is. Just in case this valuable insight had somehow escaped our notice.

“I don’t really have any politics, what I have are principles.” While some might see this as pure self-inflating self-approbation, I admire the willingness to risk ridicule in order to boldly declare, in effect: I don’t have faults, I have virtues. After all, who would know better?

I so much loved the sheer fearlessness of this declaration that it moved me to reconsider a recent pronouncement by the same writer during the Presidential campaign, in which he warned his readers that electing Joe Lieberman as Vice President would make it more likely that America would get involved in a Middle East war. I’m hoping he’ll explicate further for us. Because–and he’s not hesitant to say so himself–we have much to learn from this highly principled fellow.

Of course, it’s frequently true that when people declare they have principles, not politics, what they’re really saying is that their politics and prejudices are based on principles, while your professed principles are merely politics and prejudices.

I was fascinated to see that, just a couple of days after Dame Edna made his grand pronouncement, the very same sentiments were echoed in–of all places–the household of that cornpone Dame Edna, Judge N. Sanders Sauls.

His wife described the judge to a New York Times reporter as someone who “would rather stand up for … principles than simply go along to make friends or curry favor …. ‘My husband,’ she added, ‘is not a politician.'”

Everyone else is, but not him. It’s interesting that the politics-principles distinction assumes that all politics, all politicians, are utterly unprincipled. As opposed to the possibility that politics and politicians could be a mixture (like all of us) of both self-serving and self-less instincts.

Those who make the I-don’t-have-politics-I-have-principles grand statements view the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield, who insists that everyone is a phony, except him.

4) In Praise of Illegitimacy

From the very beginning, all the nanny pundits have had their knickers in a twist over the fear, the deep, direful dread of “illegitimacy.” The terrible fate that will befall us if the American people have doubts about their government’s “legitimacy.”

Frankly, I’m in favor of doubts about the legitimacy of those in power. Anyone who doesn’t, at some time or another, doubt the legitimacy of government authority ought to have his head examined.

In fact, come to think of it, the way things look, either a Republican or a Democratic victory will inspire half the country to doubt the legitimacy of the Presidency. Which means the real victory will go to my party, the Party of the Illegitimate. Bastards rule .