My friend and fellow Anthropoetics board member Matt Schneider had an interesting take on the first OJ trial, the outcome of which he predicted from the beginning. As he saw it, the acquittal wasn’t so much a matter of race as of moral flaccidity: in the absence of an unimpeachable eye witness, we do not dare judge someone guilty of an act he baldly denies having committed.
O. J. Simpson, who is capable of denying under oath that he wears his own shoes, is clearly a special case. But the current occupants of the White House make use of the same technique. Whatever the accusation, the rule is never to admit guilt. Next to Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, the most reviled of American presidents, is clearly an outdated model. Nixon belongs in those 30s crime films where the criminal admits and pays for his criminality, not in the 90s variety where, if he smiles nicely, he gets away with the girl and the loot. The contrast makes us realize that our confidence in the other’s guilt depends, even in the absence of confession, on what we perceive as the traces of a guilty conscience. The reason why the general public remains supportive of Clinton despite the daily scandals is not our oft-cited cynicism, but our inability to discern in him any such traces. This was already true in 1992. No one really believes that Clinton didn’t have an affair with Gennifer Flowers, or that he didn’t expose himself to Paula Jones. Not his denial, but his utter lack of guilt for these acts paralyzes the accuser. As a journalist remarked recently, when Nixon lied, we could see beads of sweat on his upper lip, but nothing can put beads of sweat on Clinton’s–or on OJ’s–upper lip. Conservatives blame the liberal press for neglecting or playing down these scandals, but the press is surely more critical than the public itself.
My point is not to score political points against the president, but to expand on Matt’s original insight. It is not uncommon for thinkers on the right to denounce the current state of public morality as corrupt, even to the point of questioning the legitimacy of the American “regime” to govern. But such denunciations are so constant throughout history ancient and modern that they are of little use in revealing real historical watersheds. Ritual is always already in decline, and each new stage of decline seems to guarantee the collapse of the social order. Occasionally, however, social orders do collapse. We cannot afford to neglect our Cassandras; they cry wolf many times, but the wolf does come eventually.
Lying has always been an option of representation. Where verification is in principle impossible–for example, in accounts of revelation–we cannot speak of truth and lying, only of a genuine or spurious revelatory experience. Even when the speaker seems to be making up his revelation as he goes along, we can only judge it on its moral content, not its form: language is always potentially divinely inspired. One might consider reports of revelation as a negligible function of language. But the link between language and transcendence is originary and indelible. Metaphysics, by turning its back on the ostensive or revelatory source of language, has made possible the empirical sciences of nature. But it can never comprehend or eliminate the spiritual dimension of linguistic usage without which language itself would never have come into being. Language is our everyday model of transcendence, and we cannot affirm that the transcendental realm is a hypostasis of language with any more confidence than we can claim that language is a gift of the transcendental.
When David Koresh (remember him?) claimed to be a messenger of God, he wasn’t lying any more than Jesus was lying. That the “truth” of his word was the basis of a community, however pathological, should remind us that the creation of community through the deferral of violence is the originary function of language. Jesus’ superiority to Koresh was that of his doctrine and example for this purpose. A religious doctrine is like a hypothesis; it is never false in itself, only in comparison to a truer one.When we lie, we are aware of the truth, which is to say, of the possibility of its being formulated in discourse by ourselves or others. When we reach the stage of denial, we refuse to recognize this possibility. At that point, it is useless to ask whether we “know the truth”; true or not, it is something we cannot permit to be formulated. To the extent that factual evidence of this truth is available, denial is irrational; but many facts are known only to ourselves and for all practical purposes inaccessible to others. One of the problems of contemporary public life is that facts which would meet this criterion in normal circumstances no longer do so. Thus deeds we deny because we classify them as deniable may be unexpectedly revealed by a curious reporter or a disaffected former confidant. Where Clinton has innovated is in continuing to maintain denial even after the revelation has been made.
The traditional source of conscience is God, the transcendental Being who guarantees the meaning of our words in their originary function of deferring violence. The proof that this guarantee is not altogether defunct even in the age of “the death of God” is given by the relative success of lie-detection. Freudians attribute our fear of lying to the Superego or Name of the Father, which is inexplicably implemented–albeit often defectively–even in the children of single mothers. But like all attempts to understand culture through individual psychology, psychoanalysis never tells us where the Superego came from in the first place. (Freud’s own pioneering attempt at originary anthropology in Totem and Taboo has been generally ignored.)
Has the sacrality of language been lost? Has lying become as natural as telling the truth? The conservative critics who make this claim should realize that its implications are anything but conservative. To assert that the fundamental traits of human character are subject to corruption is to espouse the radicalism of Rousseau, who historicized the Fall of Man by teaching that we are corrupted by the social order. The real burden of the moral critique is sacrificial: to point a finger at the group that has perverted the general consciousness. In this vein, Commentary’s March 1997 issue contains an entertaining diatribe by David Gelernter against the intellectuals. I shudder just a bit to see a Jewish journal attacking the–cosmopolitan?–intellectuals. No, if we have all really become antinomians and liars to boot, there is nothing to blame but the originary constitution of humanity.
But rather than proposing that we kill ourselves off and start over, I prefer to think that the extension of denial to everyday political life–thus far, at least where the president is concerned, in relatively minor matters–is not a new norm but a temporary aberration, an extreme swing of the pendulum. It is at just the point where public discourse becomes indistinguishable from fiction that the transcendental guarantee of discourse becomes visible. The current return to traditional values of family and church is not merely a reaction against the age of denial, but a direct consequence of it. Faith in the inventor of a discourse independent of facts is, like romantic love in the late Middle Ages, a prefiguration of faith in a transcendent source of all discourse.
The consciencelessness peculiar to our times is a consequence of the postmodern proliferation of victimary discourse, a phenomenon guaranteed by the Holocaust that put an end to the arrogance of modernism. Victimary discourse makes resentment an absolute guarantee: if I feel I am a victim of injustice, then I am. Whether justified or not, any accusation, by putting me in the place of the victim, is ipso facto victimization. In these circumstances, denial is the victim’s righteous defense against his persecutor. Performing the victimary role with conviction is a skill that Clinton has mastered much better than OJ.
But victimary discourse is not permanently ingrained in our culture; it is on the defensive, and on the wane, within that very trend-setting intelligentsia that Gelernter fears. The most serious risk to the postmodern social order comes not from moral decline but from the uncontrolled spread of the means of violence to societies that define themselves by resentment of this order. We should be less concerned with the administration’s truthfulness about accepting foreign campaign contributions than with what accepting these contributions reveals about its attitude toward this risk.