John Ashcroft: Postmodern Bureaucrat

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For the past several weeks, congregants in our church during the evening service have been watching a series of films by the evangelist Ravi Zacharias on the effects of postmodernism on modern culture. (For those who don’t know, postmodernism is a line of thinking that denies any possibility of Truth, and is the dominant “guiding light” — darkness? — in academe these days.) We know it also as a form of “relativism,” or what Ludwig von Mises described as “polylogism” in his classic book Human Action.

Of course, Zacharias made the point that the Christian faith and postmodernism are incompatible, as Christianity asserts that God is Truth and that it is manifest through the Church and through the Scriptures. During the discussion that followed, one of our members, a local doctor, asked how what Zacharias was saying had anything to do with how we really lived in society. In other words, he was wondering if the reality of postmodern thinking was just something limited to the esoteric climes of the academic world.

My reply to him was that the increasing numbers of laws that are choking his work and leaving him increasingly vulnerable to the whims of federal prosecutors who might decide one day to charge him with 160 counts of “fraud” or “racketeering” was an example of postmodernism in action. While my answer was not satisfactory to him, I tried to explain things more cohesively, and the more I thought about my statements, the more John Ashcroft came to mind.

One does not immediately associate John Ashcroft, the national government’s attorney general, with postmodernism. Ashcroft, as we know ad nauseum, is a Christian Pentecostal, known for his belief in God and Absolute Truth. In fact, many members of Congress and the “non-partisan” groups that help pull their strings objected to Ashcroft’s appointment precisely because of his religious beliefs. (No matter that the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids a “religious test” for government officials. Congress gives us one, anyway, and no one pays a price for it.)

On the surface, it would seem that Ashcroft is the polar opposite of someone who practices postmodern beliefs, but, as I shall point out, whether or not he believes in postmodernism — and I don’t doubt his claim that he does not — he is a postmodernist through and through. Let me begin, then, with a further explanation of how postmodern thought plays out in our society.

Those influenced by postmodern thinking do not simply inhale these ideas, and then live as though they did not exist. Indeed, in the vacuum created by the absence of belief in God, people substitute other things, and in modern America, that substitute is the raw exercise of power, and especially political power. Since there is no Truth in their minds, there is only the acquisition of power that gives one meaning.

Now, such people will say that they wish to use their power to do those things that are good; I know of no political animal that openly asserts they wish to do evil. However, the exercise of power without a polestar of Truth ultimately becomes the tool of ambition. Bill Clinton, often nicknamed our country’s “first postmodern president,” was a master of using his powers to further his own political fortunes. I would add that most members of Congress pretty much do the same. In the name of doing good, they do much evil, and even much of the so-called good that they do is little more than the forced transfer of wealth from individuals who do not have adequate political support to those who do.

Where the absence of a guiding light of Truth is really felt is in the creation and administration of law. When I replied to the doctor’s question that evening in church, I mentioned the new privacy law that has his profession utterly perplexed. This is a law, I said, that no one in Congress actually read (it is true, few members of Congress actually read the laws they pass) before or after its passage, and that leaves wide discretion of enforcement to law enforcement bureaucrats and prosecutors.

How does this play out in the legal arena? First, I give you Rudy Guiliani. As has been shown on the recent pages of LRC and Mises.org, Guiliani made a name for himself by prosecuting alleged “white collar” criminals on Wall Street during the 1980s, his biggest prize being the guilty plea of Michael Milken, the so-called Junk Bond King.

As Paul Craig Roberts and others eloquently have pointed out, it never was clear that Milken actually committed any crimes. Many others who Guiliani prosecuted in his high-profile activities as U.S. attorney for Manhattan also fell into the same category.

Yet, guilt or innocence did not matter with Guiliani. What mattered was fingering people who easily could be demonized in the press and who could easily be rolled by the wheels of the “justice system.” Enlistment of the media was a key element of his strategy, as people accused were so vilified that they never stood a chance, even though they actually were not guilty of the charges made against them. (In general, most pleaded guilty to charges not listed in the indictment and that were crafted by lawyers to give the appearance of crimes having been committed.)

Fast forward to Ashcroft. In his recent prosecution of John “Taliban” Lindh, Ashcroft began by charging the young former Californian turned Islamic radical with charges that indicated the man was a major threat to the well being of this nation, as though Lindh himself had been the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.

However, in the end, Lindh pleaded guilty to “carrying a weapon” and a grenade, which hardly would constitute a crime, since it happened in a nation not under the jurisdiction of U.S. law. While it would have been good had Lindh actually contested these charges in a trial, the truth of modern jurisprudence is that one cannot receive a fair trial today in the federal system. (The state systems have their own problems, and there are a multitude of examples that show the same problem exists there, but the problem is not as great, I believe.) Prosecutors would have been hard-put to have been able to portray Lindh as a terrorist in a courtroom setting, but most likely would have charged him with a few crimes, saving others for future trials in case a judge or jury actually had acquitted the young man.

Furthermore, one wonders, given the demonization that Lindh had undergone in the media when he was arrested, if he could have faced any jury that was not ready to convict him as soon as they took their seats in the jury box. In other words, actual guilt or innocence did not matter to Ashcroft; what we were left with was the raw use of power, something that the framers of the U.S. Constitution said they were trying to prevent, but has now become the norm for government.

This, I must say, is true postmodernism on steroids. Ashcroft’s announcement that his minions had arrested someone who was about to be a “dirty bomber,” Jose Padilla, was the same concoction of lies that accompanied the arrest of Lindh and others who are convenient targets for the AG, be they “suspects” in the September 11 atrocities or Wall Street executives who are convenient fodder for an administration that does not wish to appear too “pro-business.”

Ashcroft, a former governor of Missouri and defeated U.S. Senator from that state, is a veteran of political wars. He makes decisions calculated upon their political effects, whether they be the announced opposition to a judicial appointment allegedly “soft on crime,” or his pursuit of people who run afoul of the drug war. Anyone who sees modern political advertisements, especially the “negative” ads, knows instinctively that politics is hardly the pursuit of truth, especially when the advertisements contain half-truths or outright falsehoods dressed up to appear as being true. (Not having seen any of Ashcroft’s political ads, I cannot comment on what he might have done, but my guess is that his political advertisements were the garden-variety air pollution that moves through the airwaves.)

Most people are totally unaware of what occurs in the federal system of “justice.” Roberts has been a lonely voice, but most people still cling to the myth that Congress passes real laws that are aimed to satisfying universal norms of justice. They have no idea of the absolute arbitrariness of modern federal law and its enforcement, or the fact that Congress and its bureaucratic underlings have used the law to criminalize behavior that under any standards of historical justice has never been regarded as a crime.

Ashcroft has chosen to be part of this postmodernist morass, as he once helped write the legal abominations he now enforces. I do not hear him calling for the end of prosecution of innocents, the end of the abuse of the guilty plea, and an end to many of the tactics of federal prosecutors, including the creation of “hybrid” law — the morphing of civil law into unwritten but “enforced” criminal law, the suborning of perjury, and other such things that have turned the courts and law enforcement into a house of horrors. Instead, Ashcroft uses these tools for the furtherance of his own career and the careers of federal prosecutors.

Thus, while claiming to be a believer in Truth, Ashcroft simply has been using postmodern legal tactics and disguising them as tools to pursue real justice. As Nixon once declared, “We are all Keynesians, now,” Ashcroft and those who attend his weekly Bible study and regular prayer meetings at the DOJ can proudly proclaim, “We are now postmodernists.”

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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