BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 16 APR 08

Best Before 1995 - Part 2

Editing the Bush administration; the second part of Ronald Jones’ essay on language

BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 16 APR 08

Over two terms, members of the Bush administration have become remarkably adept at adopting the language of relativism. In 2002 President Bush received a memo from Frank Luntz, an Oxford Ph.D. and Republican lobbyist, titled ‘The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America’. There he writes:

‘The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science […] Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.’

Creating disbelief in scientific certainty is a job tailormade for relativism, and the White House knew it. The decision was made to ridicule the possibility that a given White House policy towards global warming might actually have adverse consequences. Then in 2005 it came to light that, when he was chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Philip A. Cooney edited reports on climate research written by government scientists with the effect of casting doubt over their findings. He made dozens of changes in language, often subtle. For example, Cooney – who, before moving to White House, was not a scientist but an oil industry lobbyist – inserted the phrase, ‘significant and fundamental’ before the word ‘uncertainties’, while in a summary of US government climate research he added ‘extremely’ to this sentence: ‘The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult.’ Crossing out a paragraph describing the reduction of mountain glaciers as a result of global warming, Cooney noted in the margin that such a conclusion was, ‘straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings.’

Science has a history of becoming politicized, but is it reasonable to suspect that the objective truths (relativism’s italics) expressed by climate scientists are intentionally deceptive, designed to throw us off the track that would ultimately lead to their cache of foregone conclusions? Are doubts sprouting from the conditional language that Cooney implanted, and apparently believes in, to be given the same weight as so-called (relativism’s italics) scientific certainties? Are we to bypass critical judgment in order that we include and appreciate (relativism’s italics) the motives on both sides of the global warming question, just as we are asked to impartially embrace the beauty of the ballet and the Javanese bedoyo dance? No? But if it’s OK for art and not science, what must that say?

The language of relativism, an instrument of the culture wars designed to dismantle objective truths and the intolerance they mask, is a two-way street. Who could be surprised to learn that Ann Coulter’s rightwing denizens abandoned absolutism for relativism and the chance to influence real-world perceptions? When the right picked up on relativism, it was the epitome of using the master’s tools to take apart his house. How far have things gone? Cultural theorist Bruno Latour, alert to the likes of Luntz and Cooney, has decided far enough. His extraordinary essay, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, wonders about the continued usefulness of critique:

‘While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?’

Has relativism lost its relevance? I think so, and some time ago – but there is no disgrace in this. It was never more than a methodology, one whose time has now passed. Like the critical avant-garde, it has become one more historical relic without the teeth to determine future agendas. What relativism did best was shape perception, but if the perceptions you influence become increasingly entangled in discrepancies it quickly becomes a zero-sum game. The politicians know this; once exposed in the press, Cooney left the White House to work for Exxon Mobil, but he had already injured scientific objectivity by flying the colours of relativism. The Catholic church knows this; when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI infamously claimed: ‘We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.’ Cooney could only agree.

One must watch the company one keeps, and yet it seems that the art world has a great deal to learn from rightwing politicians and the Catholic church. The expiration date on relativism reads ‘best before 1995’, but, once again, it seems that the art world will be the last to realize. In 1983, philosopher Hilary Putnam admitted in Reason, Truth, and History that, ‘We all know that cultural relativism is inconsistent.’ That was a quarter of a century ago, and it appears, that like a slow-moving truth, inconsistency has finally caught up with relativism. The first part of ‘Best Before 1995’

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.