Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nothing is truth therefore anything goes.

Again we turn to Sarah Palin and her frequent associations with Ronald Reagan in her apparent quest for the presidency. Palin recently spoke at a fundraising event at California State University, Stanislaus. The invitation generated considerable controversy over her speaking fee and contractual demands, but it seems to have paid off for the university.

The content of the speech has attracted some interest as well, as have the accidentally recorded comments made by technicians and reporters after the speech. Most reported has been her comment: "perhaps it was destiny that the man who went to California’s Eureka College would become so woven within and inter-linked to the Golden State". Eureka College is, of course in Illinois. It does seem an odd mistake if Palin is really considering Eureka as the place to launch her presidential bid next February.

The speech, though, makes some more explicit associations with Reagan, and his view on education. A transcript, which has been written to emphasise Palin's chaotic, rambling delivery, can be found here. Firstly, she recalls Reagan's confrontations with California's revolutionary student body in the 1960s, comparing them to her own attraction of protest and scrutiny on campus. More broadly, however, she echoes Reagan's belief in the need for patriotic, civic education, and the basis of freedom in the generational transfer of American values and wisdom.

And some might say there is a contradiction here perhaps. They’d argue that academic freedom is incompatible with our need for a civic education that instills in young people the wisdom and the patriotic grace necessary for the survival and the success of liberty but I think that they are wrong. I think that they are dangerously wrong. The fact that we allow, or should allow for, a healthy and free academic debate of all ideas doesn’t mean that we have to believe that all ideas are equally valid. Unfortunately, too often, that turns into just one small step away from claiming that, well there just isn’t just one right answer to the question what is right what is good or just or true. To saying that well, uh, there are no right answers to these questions there’s, that’s where relativism comes into play and that turns into nihilism. And then we find people saying well then nothing is truth therefore anything goes. Just, just do it, every things permitted. There’s no truth.

If this cultural relativism is confined merely to just a few individuals, the exceptions to the norm, well that’s one thing but we have seen before what happens when whole sections of society fall into that trap. Take note of this, uh, consider that would the brutality of communism have lasted as long as it did if there hadn’t been a large group of people here in the west who were willing to essentially accommodate it for fear of daring to even condemn it. For a long time, folks it was kinda consider, considered sophisticated to take a position somewhere between freedom and communism.

And it took a supposedly unsophisticated graduate from lowly Eureka College to bring Communism to its knees. And he did it by simply calling an evil empire what it was, evil. There’s an important lesson here for us today. A free republic can only survive if its citizens are willing and able to defend it ideologically and to stand up for its founding principles.
Reagan made a call for the reinstitutionalisation of patriotism and "more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual" in his farewell address. In 1971, he also wrote to his almer mater's newspaper, the Eureka Pegasus, defending his record on education and the importance of tradition:

True ed[ucation] is societys [sic] attempt to enunciate certain ultimate values upon which individuals & hence society may safely build. When men fail to drive toward a goal or purpose but drift the drift is always toward barbarism. You have every right to ask the reason behind the mores & customs of what we refer to as civilization. Challenge we can afford. You have no right & it makes no sense to reject the wisdom of the ages simply because it is rooted in the past.
Palin gave her address in front of the university's motto, "Vox Veritas Vita": "Voice, Truth, Life", or, as wikipedia has it, "Speak the Truth as a way of Life". Irony aside, the concept of truth was a theme of this speech.
Ask parents what they want in their child’s education and they’re probably gonna tell you that they don’t care much for all this political stuff. What a parent desires for their child’s education it’s basic you know they want the three R’s and they want true history taught. Our country, our laws, our traditions, our arts, and our literature, and our heroes, and our statesmen.

This is an appeal for a democratic approach to the content of higher education, not dissimilar from Reagan's stance when he ran for governor. Palin does not ask for an overhaul of the curriculum, though, (nor indicate in any specific way what is wrong with what is being taught) but assumes that "common sense" will result in the identification and promotion of "true history" and the resultant eradication of scepticism and "relativism". I trust that Palin, like Reagan, will be satisfied with merely encouraging the adoption of "common sense" in academia, and not attempt its enforcement.

Incidentally, Palin lambasted nameless "politically correct intellectuals" for considering Osama bin Laden a "freedom fighter". The highest profile person I can think of who considered the mujahideen in Afghanistan "freedom fighters" was Ronald Reagan.

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