Lynne Cheney vs. deconstruction twaddle

October 29, 1995|By Marc Arkin | Marc Arkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense - and What We Can Do About It," by Lynne V. Cheney. Simon and Schuster. 255 pages. $23 America is in trouble. The humanities have been hijacked by radicals addled from overexposure to French deconstructionist thought; these postmodern intellectuals believe that objectivity is nonexistent and power is everything. Worse yet, their ideas have permeated every corner of American life from freshman English composition to high school history, from art museums and movies to government itself. Truth, like Tinkerbell, is in danger of fading away because no one seems to believe in it anymore.

This is the thesis of Lynne Cheney's book, "Telling the Truth." In 1986, President Reagan appointed Ms. Cheney to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Still dewy with idealism from her doctoral dissertation on Matthew Arnold, a Victorian man of letters, she believed that humanistic studies were a "disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." It left her unprepared for the postmodern intellectual landscape. After six years on the frontlines, Ms. Cheney announced her resignation; she told Congress the humanities were so hopelessly politicized that the only solution was to dismantle the NEH.

This book is Ms. Cheney's revenge on her critics. Although it contains little that is new to a follower of the current spate of cultural jeremiads, it still has much to offer. It is rich in anecdote. Its style is lively; its approach is moderate. And, when you have finished it, you are apt to agree with Ms. Cheney that something has gone seriously awry when words like "excellence" are viewed as code for a right-wing agenda of Anglo-protestant patriarchal hegemony.

After some preliminaries dishing the usual suspects-from Catharine MacKinnon to museums that display sculpture depicting fecal matter - Ms. Cheney warms to her real subject, the effects of academic fashion on the wider culture.

Postmodernism, she argues, has robbed people of their history and, with it, of any standards to judge the present. Ms. Cheney is at her best when analyzing how this plays out in American public life, although sensitive readers may detect a whiff of partisan politics here - her husband is Richard Cheney, former secretary of defense.

Nevertheless, her description of Bill Clinton as the first postmodern president is truly astute. As she says, the difference between Mr. Clinton and his predecessors is not that he changes his positions; it is that Mr. Clinton often makes it sound as though his previous positions never existed.

Some have traced this to the president's "wanton affability"; Ms. Cheney suggests that, as the archetype of postmodern man, he simply does not recognize any truth but that of the present moment.

Unfortunately, although the book promises to tell us "what we can do about it," it is notably short on solutions. Perhaps she is still modeling herself on Matthew Arnold, who once wrote that the business of criticism is "to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications."

Marc Arkin is a law professor at Fordham University in New York City. She has written extensively for general interest, legal and historical journals.

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