Ira Chernus  



The killers in Madrid left no calling card. Killers usually donít. Maybe the groups that claimed responsibility really did it. Maybe not.

Amid the fast and furious search for the truth, it is easy to forget the most important truth of all: We will probably never know for sure who blew up those commuter trains. Just like we will never know, for sure, who destroyed the World Trade Center towers or the Oklahoma City Federal Building. All we will have are different stories, competing versions of the truth.

But the idea that there is a single objective truth out there Ė just search long enough and you will find it Ė dies hard. When Nietzsche announced its death, some 130 years ago, he predicted that the news would take a long time to reach our ears.

For the United States, it took until November 22, 1963. On that day, we lost far more than the life of John F. Kennedy. We began to lose our belief in a single, simple, verifiable truth that everyone could know with certainty. That comforting illusion was taken by the assassinís bullet. Or was it assassinsí bullets? We shall never know for sure. Thatís the whole point.

When JFK died, "the Ď60s" began. The essence of that era was the discovery that there is never a single, simple truth about anything. What we call truth is just a perspective, a point of view. And there can always be another one.

The Ď60s taught us how to see the same thing from many different points of view Ė not just one viewpoint after another, but all at the same time. Itís like one of those nifty optical illusions, where you can choose to see the same figure as two different things. (My favorite is the fancy wine goblet that you can turn into a profile view of two faces approaching each other, about to kiss.) After a while, you can learn how to see both things simultaneously.

Ď60s people understand that you can see the Madrid train bombings, or the 9-11 attack, as the work of Muslim "terrorists," if you want to. Or you can see them as gestures of national liberation, if you want to. Or as conspiracies perpetrated by right-wing governments, if you want to. The most honest view is too see the event from all those perspectives simultaneously. Each perspective reveals its own truth.

Ď60s people understand why this is so liberating. There is no limit to the number of truths you can learn to see. And if all truths are possible, all things are possible. Every time you take a new perspective, you relate to the world in a new way. You become a new person. If you can constantly transform your truth, you can constantly transform yourself.

That is just why the Ď60s delighted so many people Ė and scared so many others. Millions of Americans are still fighting to undo the Ď60s revolution, because they know whatís at stake. If there is no single truth, there is no escape from ambiguity. The same act can be both right and wrong. The same person can be both good and evil. In fact, everyone turns out to be both good and evil.

The old-fashioned morality that made life seem so simple is gone, forever. Liberals as well as conservatives are struggling mightily to get it back. Thatís why we have to have a "war on terrorism" -- to maintain the illusion of an old-fashioned world of good guys versus bad guys, with an undeniable chasm between the two because (as Bush put it) "God is not neutral."

Liberals and conservatives promote the "war on terrorism" so fanatically because they know, deep down, that they can never recover that simple old-fashioned world. When the JFK assassination sparked the Ď60s, it also ushered in the larger and more permanent cultural revolution we call postmodernism.

In postmodernism, we are all stuck with reality seen from many different viewpoints. (The jargon term is "multiperspectival.") Itís a "see your own thing; do your own thing" world to the Nth degree. But a truly pomo person doesnít have the Ď60s passion for peace, justice, and a more meaningful life. When the pieces of our experience are as fragmented as those Madrid commuter trains, how can we even think about searching for meaning? Why should we worry about the growing gap between reach and poor, much less engage ourselves to close it? Itís all Seinfeld, all the time.

The great diagnostician of pomo, Fredric Jameson, understood this clearly. He taught us to see our pomo society both ways at the same time. The loss of a single truth liberates us. We can each discover our own values and our own unique path in life. The loss of a single truth also imprisons us. We are stuck in a superficial society devoid of the quest for meaning, a society where questions of value are rarely asked because the almighty dollar rules all. Postmodernism condemns us to ambiguity because it is itself completely ambiguous. (Read all about it at )

The Spanish may tolerate this ambiguity better than we do. Their greatest artist, Picasso, figured out how to portray it on canvas a century ago. So they needed no clear answer to the question, "Who did it?", in order to flood the streets in massive protests, even bigger than their huge demonstrations against the Iraq war.

True, most Spaniards have no political analysis to offer. They poured into the streets simply to scream: "Stop the killing!" They were confused about exactly what had happened, and why. But that did not stop them from taking their confusion into the streets.

Here in the U.S., itís just the opposite. We mask our confusion with simplistic, moralistic beliefs. But we are far more passive. Most Americans are content to be politically paralyzed, because they have struck a deal with their government. In the wake of 9-11, the government gave us a simplified world, where we can believe once again in absolute objective truth and absolute objective goodness. In return, we gave them a license to hunt down evil, by any means necessary, while we sit quietly at home, watching the hunt on our ever-bigger-screen TV.

That deal wonít make our commuter trains any safer than those in Madrid. But it holds out a hope of being saved from the Ď60s. For too many Americans, unfortunately, that seems to be enough. Perhaps the Spanish response to tragedy can move us a bit closer to embracing the challenging combination of ambiguity and activism.