The President of Wonderland

06 October, 1998

By Ronald J. Pestritto
CNS Commentary and Analysis from The Claremont Institute

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean– neither more or less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master– that's all.'"

Lewis Carroll, "Alice in Wonderland"

In a recent column, George Will made a particularly astute observation about the Clinton scandal–one which helps us to reflect on the much broader crisis of political principles of which this most recent scandal is but a mere symptom.

Will noted that our President's use of hairsplitting legalese to explain away his perjury demonstrates the growing influence of postmodernity in our politics. Will referred to President Clinton's now infamous argument that the veracity of his sworn statements depended upon what one understood the word "is" to mean; or how one might define the word "alone."

To normal people, "alone" means alone. "Is" means is. But to a postmodernist, "alone" and "is" mean whatever the person using the words wills them to mean. And Bill Clinton never lied, because there is no principled or sustainable distinction between truth and non-truth. For those of us in the academy, who are familiar with what passes for high learning and intellectual thought today, this idea of postmodernity is all too recognizable.

One need only look at the work of Professor Richard Rorty, one of the most admired intellectuals in the academy today, for the essence of the postmodern argument. Rorty writes of the "contingency of language," by which he means that the meaning of language is contingent upon the individual using or authoring it. Rorty argues that what is needed is "a repudiation of the very idea of anything...having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented." There can be no distinction between a "true" meaning of words and a false one, because "truth is not out there."

Sound bizarre? Perhaps. But this is all from the widely acknowledged and praised work of one of America's foremost intellectuals. The political emergence of this idea of postmodernism under Bill Clinton indicates how far our President and his defenders–and an alarming portion of our political culture–have departed from the principles of the American Founding.

America's Founding rested entirely on a dedication to universal, immutable laws of nature. The argument of the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable on this point.

The Declaration states that there are certain truths that apply to all human beings, regardless of the particular circumstances in which they exist. This is why the rights listed in the Declaration are "unalienable." In other words, the meaning of the Declaration's truths does not vary depending upon who is reading the document. By the logic of postmodernism, King George III could have argued that his government was not, in fact, despotic depending upon what one really understood the words "life" or "liberty" or "equality" to mean.

This is why Bill Clinton's legal hairsplitting has a broader significance. If the President's postmodernism is to be believed, if the meaning of words really is relative to the individuals using them, then America's principles are untenable and our Founders didn't know what they were talking about.

The Clinton administration's attack on America's Founding principles has not been confined to this most recent bout of scandal and perjury. Very early on in the administration, Mrs. Clinton promoted Michael Lerner's "new politics of meaning" as a key theme of her husband's policies. The "new politics of meaning" was really about abandoning the principles that have defined our nation for more than 200 years, in favor of new ones that would justify the Clinton policies.

The Clinton administration has needed from the outset to define away the permanency and universality of the Declaration's language because that language devotes government to securing the rights inherent in the "laws of nature." Such a permanent understanding of rights–and limited government which exists to secure our rights– interferes with the preferred policies of modern liberalism, which require government to do away with natural rights under the guise of social justice. Thus, more recently, Bill Clinton remarked that we must "redefine the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning."

Redefine what is immutable? Sure, if language means what any individual says it means, anything is possible. Postmodernism argues that the person who is strong-willed enough to have his language accepted by everybody else is the person who defines truth for a particular age. Like Humpty Dumpty said: "'The question is, which is to be master–that's all.'"

It is for us, therefore, to decide if Bill Clinton's morally vacuous politics will define truth for us, or if we will re-affirm the immutability of our Founding principles.

Ronald J. Pestritto is an adjunct fellow at The Claremont Institute

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