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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 177-188

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Explanation and Exoneration,
or What We Can Hear

Judith Butler


Since the events of September 11, we have seen both a rise of anti-intellectualism and a growing acceptance of censorship within the media. This could mean that we have support for these trends within the general population of the United States, but it could also mean that the media function as "public voices" that operate at a distance from their constituency, that both report the "voice" of the government for us, and whose proximity to that voice rests on an alliance or identification with that voice. Setting aside for the moment how the media act upon the public, whether, indeed, they have charged themselves with the task of structuring public sentiment and fidelity, it seems crucial to note that a critical relation to government has been severely, though not fully, suspended, and that the "criticism" or, indeed, independence of the media has been compromised in some unprecedented ways.

Although we have heard, lately, about the abusive treatment of prisoners, and war "mistakes" have been publicly exposed, it seems that neither the justification nor the cause of the war has been the focus of public intellectual attention. Indeed, thinking too hard about what brought this about has invariably raised fears that to find a set of causes will be to have found a set of excuses. This point was made in print by Michael Walzer, a "just war" proponent, and has worked as an implicit force of censorship in op-ed pages across the country. Similarly, we have heard from Vice President Richard Cheney and Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, among several others, that the time to reassert not only American values but fundamental and absolute values has arrived. Intellectual positions that are considered "relativistic" or "post-" of any kind are considered either complicitous with terrorism or as constituting a "weak link" in the fight against it. The voicing of critical perspectives against the war has become difficult to do, not only because mainstream media enterprises will not publish them (most of them appear in the Guardian or the Progressive or on the Internet), but because to voice them is to risk hystericization and censorship. In a strong sense, the binarism that Bush proposes in which only two positions are possible—to be for the war or for terrorism—makes it untenable to hold a position in which one opposes [End Page 177] both. Moreover, it is the same binarism that returns us to an anachronistic division between "East" and "West" and which, in its sloshy metonymy, returns us to the invidious distinction between civilization (our own) and barbarism (now coded as "Islam" itself). At the beginning of this conflict, to oppose the war meant to some that one somehow felt sympathy with terrorism, or that one saw the terror as justified. But it is surely time to allow an intellectual field to redevelop in which more responsible distinctions might be heard, histories might be recounted in their complexity, and accountability might be understood apart from the claims of vengeance. This would also have to be a field in which the long-range prospects for global cooperation might work as a guide for public reflection and criticism.

1. The Left response to the war currently waged in Afghanistan has run into serious problems, in part because the explanations that the Left has provided to the question, "Why do they hate us so much?" have been dismissed as so many exonerations of the acts of terror themselves. This does not need to be the case. I think we can see, however, how moralistic anti-intellectual trends coupled with a distrust of the Left as so many self-flagellating First World elites has produced a situation in which our very capacity to think about the grounds and causes of the current global conflict is considered impermissible. The cry that "there is no excuse for September 11" has become a means by which to stifle any serious public discussion of how U.S. foreign policy...