[Before I completed this and posted it on my own blog I was informed that Kevin Drum made a similar point. Haven't seen Drum's post yet, but great...or at least adequate...minds think alike at least much of the time...]
The Blogosphere’s been abuzz about Suskind’s “Without a Doubt.” Many people, including me, have suggested that the Bush aide quoted in the piece was expressing a version of alethic or epistemic relativism or some such view. Even as I wrote my short post on this subject, I already doubted that it was true, but, foolishly, elected to put the post up anyway. But I was wrong. Here’s why:
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
What did the aide mean? I’ll bet you large amounts of money that he didn’t mean anything very precise at all. Few people who speak like this have a very clear idea of what they are trying to say. For example, very few people believe in a clear and carefully thought-out way that reality is dependent on our representations of it (our beliefs about it, claims about it, etc.). Most people who say seemingly relativistic things like this hold some vague and/or ambiguous, half-understood thesis. For example, leftists who argue that moral obligations are culturally relative really have little idea what they are saying; they are usually just trying, in a vague and stumbling way, to urge people to respect other cultures. Again: it’s not that such people have a clear thesis in mind but express it unclearly, it’s that they don’t have a clear thesis in mind.
But more to the point: “We create our own reality” could mean at least two different things. First, it could mean something philosophically interesting though rather obviously false—roughly that our thoughts about reality directly alter the nature of non-mental parts of reality. (Thoughts can apparently affect reality, of course, but only by directing the movements of our physical bodies, which can then alter other parts of the physical world, and that’s clearly not a relevant phenomenon here.) But the aide almost certainly does not believe that the actual, physical nature of the world depends on our representations of it. That is, it is highly unlikely that he is some strange kind of relativist or anti-realist. He is also probably not a Kantian transcendental idealist, nor a subjective idealist who, like Berkeley, thinks that the world is composed entirely of mental phenomena.
So, to the extent that he means anything identifiable, what does he mean? Probably something like this:
You people are basically in the grip of the academic, scientific mentality. You’re thinkers. You want to know ‘is A true?’ ‘is it reasonable to believe that B?’ ‘What conclusions can we draw from C?’ But we are doers. We want to act. We want to bring it about that X, make Y so, change the world so that Z. While you’re wondering whether such-and-such is true, we’re making thus-and-so the case. While you are pondering the world, we are changing it.
(This reminds me, incidentally, of Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Maybe the Bushies are Marxists…)
Now, it is good to be both a thinker and a doer, and one can err by moving too far in either direction. The thing is to know when and how to think and when and what to do. To think when action is called for or act when thinking is called for is a defect. The aide in question probably thinks that anti-war folks wanted to keep thinking past the point of diminishing cognitive returns.
The aide–as we now know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt–is wrong. More thinking and less action would have revealed to us that our reasons for acting were insufficiently good. The problem in Iraq was, in fact, too much action and too little thought. There was no imminent (immediate, looming, real and relevant, etc.) threat. It was not a time that called for quick action, it was a time that called for collecting and analyzing data.
The above is very rough of course. It wasn’t so much that there was an insufficient amount of thought by the administration—it was, rather, that the quality of their thought was so poor. Instead of honestly inquiring into the matter of possible WMDs in Iraq, they sought to make their case like lawyers. That is, they acted in a sophistical manner. They argued like hired dialectical guns, their conclusion already in place. They tweaked and twisted and kneaded and nipped and tucked evidence to conform to a conclusion they had already irrevocably accepted, and ignored any evidence that didn’t fit. They did not genuinely reason at all, they simply argued. Half the problem was that they acted when they should have been reasoning; the other half was that they pretended to reason instead of really reasoning.
With regard to Iraq, there was plenty of time to think, and the administration did not utilize it. Worse, they did not really think at all, they engaged in sham reasoning, selling us a bill of goods as if they were common hucksters. They seek to portray their own foolhardy and thoughtless actions as decisive; they seek to portray those who correctly counseled thoughtfulness and prudence as ditherers, cowards, bumbling intellectuals. These are the actions of fools. Or villains. Or foolish villains.
So, no, Bush’s aide is probably not a relativist, and probably neither is Bush. Almost no one is really a relativist. What they are is foolish ideologues with no respect for reason, evidence, or honest inquiry.
That is, they aren’t relativists, they are a different breed of idiot entirely.