The Postmodernist's Progress

Ian Hunter
National Post
Thursday, February 03, 2000

In what was probably his final State of the Union address last week, Bill Clinton tried to focus attention on his legacy. What will his legacy be? Clinton will be remembered as the first post-modern president. His obvious disdain for truth ("the ultimate relativist," Gail Sheehy called Clinton) would make that an appropriate description. But while modern Americans may share some of Clinton's indifference to old verities, no one likes being lied to quite so blatantly. Was there anything at all that Bill Clinton truly believed in? Well, perhaps tolerance.

Only a fool would deny that tolerance can be a virtue. There are issues on which we should be broad-minded; there are circumstances that require forbearance. In matters inessential, live and let live is wise counsel.

What is anathema to modern sensibilities is that there are other circumstances that call not for tolerance but for condemnation and rejection. Tolerance often comes at a price, and that price can be the abandonment of conviction. As G. K. Chesterton put it: Tolerance is the virtue for those who do not believe much.

We are tolerant today of delinquency but not of deportment; tolerant of pornography, but not of prudery; we hearken to the lies of the advertiser but mock the words of the preacher. The very fact that Bill Clinton remains in office demonstrates how tolerant we have become of what the Bible calls "wickedness in high places."

Universities are tolerant of ideology but intolerant of truth. In the humanities and social sciences, the idea of truth is passe. "You have your interpretation of reality, I mine..." One reason that academic standards are lax is because, in the absence of objective truth, there are no evaluation criteria. After spending a year teaching in a Canadian university in the 1970s, Malcolm Muggeridge was heard to remark: "Education has become the process of casting fake pearls before real swine."

But in what we regard as the serious business of life, we all remain closet absolutists. I realized this on a transAtlantic flight when the pilot invited me into the cockpit. Faced with a bewildering array of instruments, dials and switches, I realized that my opinions were not equally valid and worthy of consideration as his. I wanted no broad-mindedness, no pluralism. I wanted a pilot rigorously trained to follow the one procedure that would bring this massively dangerous mass of airborne metal safely to the ground. Likewise, the sailor adrift does not promote diversity; he wants his compass to focus only on magnetic north.

The shortest distance between two points remains a straight line even if the geometrist who tells you so is a white male. Canadian law may force us to talk metric, but water still freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Jean Chretien may bluster and fulminate, but a majority is 50% plus one.

In other words, we live perforce amidst what an old southern baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney, called "the factitude of things." Tolerance is sometimes incompatible with truth. Oh yes, we can play make-believe about equality, and human rights commissions can even clap dissenters in irons; but our play-acting alters the factitude of human inequality not at all.

In John Bunyan's enduring allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, two men, Christian and Faithful, are on a pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Neither pilgrim is tolerant; both would be considered offensively honest by Clinton's standards. As they trudge along, two other men, Formalist and Hypocrisy, from the town of Vainglory, tumble over a wall and into their path. These new men are no narrow-minded bigots; they believe there are many paths to truth and all should be equally respected. At first their conversation is pleasant and the day is fair. But when the pilgrims reach the hill Difficulty, where the way is steep and the woods are dangerous, Formalist and Hypocrisy decide to follow a different path, an easier way, a path that slopes down into what seems a pleasant valley. And so they go, but this way ends in a swamp, and they are never seen again.

How important is tolerance? In diplomacy, critical; in smoothing out the daily clash of human ego, invaluable; in politics and secular pursuits, handy. But as a guide in matters of truth, faith and conscience, no. Or, so say I, begging your tolerant indulgence.

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.