This commencement address delivered at the College of William and Mary
May 15, 1994

"Commencement at the College of William and Mary"
a speech by George Will

"Concerning these [postmodern] ideas, let us not mince words. The ideas are profoundly dangerous. They subvert our civilization by denying that truth is found by conscientious attempts accurately to portray a reality that exists independently of our perception or attitudes or other attributes such as race, ethnicity, sex or class."

      Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is, on occasion such as this, plain politeness. And it is prudent. I am the last impediment standing between you and the world that is, you are sure and I hope, to be your oyster. I do not want to be trampled in a stampede, so I shall confine my remarks to a subject of manageable scope.

      My subject is the nature of knowledge and the nature of our nation. This may seem like a subject sufficiently broad to consume this afternoon and many more, but fear not. I know the rules of academic ceremonies such as this.

      I am, or at least I once was, what used to be called a "faculty brat." Which is to say, I am a child of a professor - of philosophy, retired, at the University of Illinois. Worse still, obedient to the current practice of ruthless full disclosure, I confess to being a former professor - of political philosophy, at Michigan State University and the University of Toronto. I mention this part of my checkered past diffidently because in recent decades the public has come to look askance at the academic community. The public's suspicions is that campuses have become incubators of intellectual strangeness, and worse.

      I well remember an evening in 1976 when I saw how much of a problem the professoriate had. That night in 1976 was when Pat Moynihan, late of the Harvard faculty, won the Democratic nomination to run against the incumbent U.S. senator from New York, James Buckley. Over at Buckley headquarters Jim said he looked forward to running against Professor Moynihan, and he was sure Professor Moynihan would run the kind of high-level campaign one could expect from a Harvard professor. A few minutes later, back at Moynihan headquarters Pat met the press. A reporter informed him that Jim Buckley was referring to him as "Professor Moynihan." Pat drew himself up to his full, considerable height and said with mock austerity, "Ah, the mudslinging has begun."

      Pat Moynihan was being droll. But beneath his wit there lurked a sobering point: Something has caused a dark lowering cloud of suspicion to gather over the academic community. Today the could is larger and darker.

      Is the educated, temperate public right to wonder about the temperateness of many educators? Is it reasonable to wonder whether many educators are remaining faithful to their traditional mission? That mission is the conservation, enlargement and transmission of the ideas, understandings and values on which a society such as ours - a society based on persuasion and consent - depends.

      I believe the educated public is rightly worried. The problem is that a particular cluster of ideas, and a concomitant sensibility, have gained currency in some academic circles. If the ideas are not identified, understood and refuted, they can seep like slow, cumulative poisons into the larger society, with large and lasting consequences in our politics, our governance and our tradition of civility.

      The ideas advance under the banner of "postmodernism." That is a faith with many factions, but it claims to have had one founding prophet. His name was Nietzsche. He proclaimed the words that postmodernists have made their core tenet. His words were: "There are not facts, but only interpretations."

      Now, Nietzsche is here conscripted as a prophet without his permission. In fact, regarding Nietzsche the postmodernists are guilty of philosopher-abuse. They are saying something silly: Nietzsche was no. He was not asserting, as postmodernists do, a kind of epistemological despair arising from a radical indeterminacy about reality. Rather, he was making a sober epistemological point. It was that facts are never only facts, naked and pristine and self-evident and immediately apprehended by all minds in the same way in all circumstances and contexts. Rather, he said knowledge is conditioned in complex ways by the contexts in which what we call facts are encountered, and by mental processes, not all of them conscious mental moves, that can be called interpretations.

      The postmodernists' bowdlerizing of Nietzsche distills to a simple, and simple-minded, assertion. It is that because the acquisition of knowledge is not a simple process of infallible immediacy, there can be no knowledge in any meaningful sense. Therefore, we are utterly emancipated from rules of reasoning and may substitute willfulness for rationality. All interpretations are let loose to play in a theater of unrestrained semantic egalitarianism.

      Not that postmodernism has an almost comically unpromising beginning in its understanding of Nietzsche. Postmodernism is erected on the rickety scaffolding of what is less a paradox than an absurdity. It is the assertion that it is a fact that there are no facts. Unfortunately, the fact that something is absurd does not mean it is inconsequential. Indeed, much of modern history is a sad story of absurdities that managed to become cloaked with power.

      Postmodernism is all about the wielding of power, because it is not - it cannot be - about anything other than power. It has no content other than the assertion that the content of any proposition, any book or any mind is arbitrary, or the result of race or ethnicity or sex or class, and deserves no more respect than any other content of any proposition, book or mind.

      It may seem to sensible people that I must be caricaturing this idea of postmodernism, or exaggerating its prevalence. As evidence to the contrary, consider a pamphlet issued by the American Council of Learned Societies. The pamphlet baldly asserts that "the most powerful modern philosophies and theories" are "demonstrating" that "claims of disinterest, objectivity and universality are not to be trusted, and themselves tend to reflect historical conditions." The phrase "local historical conditions" is generally understood to mean "power relations."

      Now, "the most powerful modern philosophies and theories" demonstrate no such thing. Nevertheless the crux of postmodernism is the postulate that any supposedly disinterested deliberation actually is merely self-interest disguised. And, postmodernists say, it is a duty of "realists" to "unmask" the "power relationships" and "power struggles" that are the reality beneath every pretense of reasoned persuasion.

      Concerning these ideas, let us not mince words. The ideas are profoundly dangerous. They subvert our civilization by denying that truth is found by conscientious attempts accurately to portray a reality that exists independently of our perception or attitudes or other attributes such as race, ethnicity, sex or class. Once that foundation of realism is denied, the foundation of society based on persuasion crumbles. It crumbles because all arguments necessarily become ad hominem; they become arguments about the characteristics of the person presenting a thought, not about the thought.

      Once a society abandons its belief in facts and truths, and its belief in standards for distinguishing facts and truths from fictions and falsehoods; once intellectuals say, "We are all Nietzscheans now, and there are no facts, only interpretations"' once this occurs, then, as Professor John Searle says, "it seems arbitrary and elitist to think that some theories are simply true and others false, and that some cultures have produced more important cultural products than others."

      Searle, a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley, knows what follows form the postmodern fallacies. If there are no standards rooted in reason, if there are only preferences and appetites arising from "solidarity" and interests, then there can be no education as education has traditionally been understood.

      For example, until recently it was believed that, Searle says, "the study of the great classics of literature gave the reader insights into human nature and the human condition in general." But nowadays many intellectuals consider it arrogant folly to speak of the "classics" or "great works." Indeed, as Searle says, many people avoid the word "works," preferring to speak merely of "texts." That word has the "leveling implication that one text is as much a text as another." Therefore the works of, say, Walt Whitman or Walt Disney are all, and equally, texts.

      Clearly some of the ideas of postmodernism, by infusing academic life with politics and frivolity, subvert the function of, and dissipate the social support for, colleges and universities. And when the relationship of such institutions to the surrounding and sustaining society becomes problematic, those institutions swiftly learn a painful lesson about the perishable nature of prestige.

      A few years ago I stood with a friend, a teacher at Brasenose College, Oxford, looking out from his study window at those "dreaming spires" of the University. My friend, worried about the decreasing public support for that University, said: "This is the prettiest view in Oxford. Hence the prettiest view in the south of England. Hence the prettiest view in Europe. Hence the prettiest view in the world. And yet," my friend continued, "the time may come when young people and scholars will no longer beat a path to our many doors." "Remember," he said, "three centuries ago everyone wanted to go to the university of Padua."

      Who in a future shaped by the postmodern sensibility will want to attend any college or university steeped in the idea that "there are not facts, but only interpretations"? What society will devote scarce resources to the support of institutions that regard the intellectual life as a sublimated - a barely sublimated - power struggle over competing political agendas of racial, ethnic or sexual groups asserting solidarity against one another?

      I ask these warning questions as an admiring friend of academic life. I write a syndicated newspaper column; I write a column for a national weekly news magazine; I appear every week on a network television news program. Yet no matter how much journalism I do - newspaper, magazine and broadcast - the more certain I am that a fourth mode of communication matters more than those three. It is books I have in mind. And books are the business of colleges and universities.

      Or should be. Unfortunately, we are witnessing, on campuses and throughout society, the displacement of books and all they embody - a culture of reason and persuasion - by politics. And it is politics of a peculiar and unwholesome kind, called "identity politics." The premise of such politics is that the individual is decisively shaped, and irrevocably defined, not by conscious choice but by accidents. The premise is that people are defined not by convictions arrived at by processes of reason and persuasion, but by accidents of birth and socialization - by their race, ethnicity, sex or class. The theory is that are whatever our group is, and that we necessarily think and act according to the circumscribed mental makeup of the groups' interests. This theory is starkly incompatible with, and subversive of, the premises of American democracy.

      More and more intellectuals are receptive to the idea that all politics is, or should be, "identity politics," and that all intellectual life is really politics. The idea is that intellectual life is really politics. The idea is that intellectual life may be unconscious politics, but it is politics nonetheless - a struggle for power, for power - and should become conscious politics. Furthermore, we are told it is simple honesty to get the struggle aboveboard, front and center, by calling every intellectual distinction and dispute what it is - a political move in a power game.

      We see such thoughts institutionalized in our politics, in the doctrine of "categorical representation." That doctrine holds that people can be properly represented, and their values can be truly understood and empathized with, only by people who are from the same "category" of people - women by women, African-Americans by African-Americans, Hispanics by Hispanics, homosexuals by homosexuals, and so on. This doctrine fuels the fracturing of the American community into mutually suspicious and truculent factions, each proclaiming itself irremediably at odds with - ever incomprehensible to - all persons who are not members of that faction.

      Often nowadays we hear a question posed that is not really a question. It is an oblique assertion of what the ostensible questioner considers a self-evident truth. The question is: Should we not all respect and honor one's differences? The gravamen of the "question" invariably is that differences of race, ethnicity and sexuality all should be "respected" and "honored."

      I disagree. Why should respect and honor accrue to accidents of birth? Given that they are accidents, what, precisely, is there to honor? Surely, respect is owed to, and honor should flow to individuals, for their attainments of intellectual or moral excellence, not merely because of any membership in any group.

      Professor Searle draws the correct, and dismaying, conclusion about the idea of organizing society around, and basing politics on, "respect" for group "differences." If identity politics is valid, then "it is no longer one of the purposes of education.. to enable the student to develop an identity as a member of a larger human intellectual culture." If the premise of identity politics is true, then the idea on which America rests is false. If the promise of identity politics is true, then there is no meaningful sense a universal human nature, and there are no general standards of intellectual discourse, and no possible ethic of ennobling disputation, no process of civil persuasion toward friendly consent, no source of legitimacy other than power, and we all live immersed in our groups (they once were called tribes), warily watching all other groups across the chasms of our "differences."

      No sensible person wants to live in such a society. Therefore all sensible people should be worried.

      I am temperamentally inclined to worry. That is why I am a conservative. Proper conservatives subscribe to the "Ohio in 1895 Theory of History" - so named, by me, because of this: In 1895 there just two automobiles in Ohio - and they collided. Conservatives expect trouble and are rarely disappointed. They understand the universal application of the Buttered-Side Down Law, which is: The chance of the bread falling buttered-side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.

      Still, even discounting the conservative propensity for worrying, reasonable people of all persuasions, conservatives and liberals alike, should see that there is a clear and present danger in the sprouting of "identity politics" in the social soil fertilized by postmodernism. The result of such politics can eventually be the Balkanization of our nation.

      Note the word "Balkanization." What that term derives from is much in the news just now. A geographical expression has become a political pathology. And if you want to see the world that the postmodernist sensibility could make, look abroad.

      If you want to what happens when all differences immediately become power struggles and nothing but power struggles, look at the Balkans. There "identity politics" is practiced with the ruthlessness that comes with the belief that there can be no other kind of politics - no disinterested politics of ideas and persuasion. When groups assume that they are locked in their mutually unintelligible differences, you get the nasty and brutish state of nature that Hobbes depicted. Odd, is it not, how the postmodern sensibility seems suited to, and conducive to, a world of postmodern tribalism.

      A society steeped in postmodern sensibility will have an uneasy conscience about teaching certain great truths, values or works because it will wonder: Who are we - who is anyone - to say that anything is greater than anything else? And a postmodernist community cannot long remain a community. It will lose the confidence necessary for the transmission of precious things - tested ideas and values - held in common.

      This subject is endlessly fascinating. However, a speaker should never use the word "endless" when addressing a restive audience. Every such speaker should remember the story of White Sox manager Jeff Torborg's trip to remove pitcher Jim Kern. Kern told Torborg he wasn't tired. Torborg said, "I know, but the outfielders are."

      I am not tired, but you have every right to be tired of me holding up your just reward for four years well spent at this splendid college which has prepared you well for success in our magnificent nation.

      Our nation is, I passionately believe, the finest organized expression of the Western rationalist tradition, the tradition that is the soul of what we call Western civilization. I do not describe our nation because it always behaves reasonably. Rather, I do so because our nation incarnates steady confidence in the capacity of people to guide themselves by deliberation.

      Three hundred and one years ago this institutions embarked upon its great work. That work involved conserving and conceiving and refining and transmitting the ideas and understandings that nourish freedom. This institution's early work helped give rise to this Republic that remains the most important thing that ever happened in all of mankind's quest for the good life. Many people around the world remain unconvinced of, even hostile to, the meaning of our Republic. Therefore William and Mary's work for freedom is far from done. Neither is yours, Class of 1994, as you bear this college's high standards into the world.

      But, you will doubtless be delighted to learn, my work, for today, is done. Thank you for letting me do it.

May 15, 1994