Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


January 16, 2001

Of elections and 'knowledge'

Bobby Paul is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

If we as scholars do not mine the 2000 presidential election for lessons of both immediate and lasting consequence, I think we shirk our duty. After all, isn’t it our job to find meaning in this mess? I think it is.

And it is for that reason that I find myself deeply distressed by the alacrity with which the media, the courts, the politicians and even the candidates themselves have rushed to suture together the rips in the facade of orderly succession that gaped so disturbingly during our five-week national ordeal. It seems to me symptomatic of a rush to suppress our consciousness not of a constitutional crisis (for there was none), but rather of an epistemological crisis of potentially enormous proportions.

The outcome of the Florida vote and, hence, the result of the election turned out to be, in the most radical sense, unknowable. There was literally no way to determine who actually won insofar as the margin of difference between the votes for the two candidates was smaller than the margin of error inherent in any method of counting them. There was, and is, no such thing as the “real count.”

What there is instead, in all its nauseating and unsettling epiphany, is an intolerable glimpse of the Lacanian Real. The crisis that threatened during our recent electoral debacle was, I want to propose, primarily an epistemological one, and the possible descent into chaos that many media observers feared arose not from any constitutional issues—but rather from the revelation of the uncertainty of all knowledge. Commentators tried gamely to describe the outcome as a tie, but a tie is a determinate score, albeit a problematic one. Our reality was that it was not a tie, but simply and absolutely not knowable.

We had relied on such deus ex machina arbiters as vote-counting machines (which, as was repeatedly intoned, “are neither Republican nor Democrat”) or otherwise meaningless deadlines, and they had failed us. Into this profoundly troubling situation stepped the Supreme Court to put a quick end to the whole mess by declaring the vote “decided” in the same way an umpire makes a close pitch a ball or a strike by his authoritative call (even if some fans watching the replay are convinced the ump was off by a mile).

The narrowly divided vote of the Supreme Court did not produce closure, as the majority intended. On the contrary, it revealed an even more agonizing epistemological abyss. In the bald relief of disputation we learned that there is no such thing as a disinterested perspective or an impartial observer. Every actor in this drama had poked a chad or pulled a lever for one or the other of the litigants and thus could be seen to have some “interest” in the outcome of the case.

Why is it essential to restate this fairly obvious point? Because, as Justice John Paul Stevens remarked so poignantly in his dissent from the decision that made George W. Bush president: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

What he meant was, the prestige and hence the value of the Supreme Court, and with it the prestige and integrity of every lesser judge, was grievously wounded the moment other interests—indeed, political interests—seemingly attached to the majority and the minority opinions. The judgment of judges, along with that of ordinary citizens, stood rebuked by the oft-repeated mantra that divining the intention of the voter was not a task that could be left to human judgment.

And all the while it was perfectly plain to everyone that all opinions expressed about what was or was not a proper method for counting votes rested as much on a preference for one particular outcome or another as on any pretense of sound judgment. Few partisans on either side could deny that, if the tables were turned, they might read the evidence differently.

Long after partisan passions fade, we will be haunted by the unacknowledged yet real sense that our judgment—no less than the interminably long parade of political pundits and “expert” commentators—is subject to the vagaries of interest and influence. As scholars, we sometimes hold ourselves apart from and above the rough-and-tumble world of politics and special interests. But the election of 2000 should serve as a cautionary tale. What threatens the integrity of our own system of judgment, whereby it is we and we alone who decide whether ideas do or do not have currency, is entanglement with any other system for assigning value.

Scholars will take many meanings and derive many lessons from recent events. Perhaps the most important lesson is a simple one. We search for meaning in the chaos of nature, and we teach our students techniques and methods of research and analysis. While we cannot hope to deliver absolute knowledge, we must commit ourselves to the search, fully cognizant that the process is a continual one. We cannot sift and promulgate knowledge once and for all. Instead we must be willing to re-examine our methods, our preconceptions and even our conclusions in the face of new knowledge and contrary evidence.

In short, we must uphold the values of the one institution that sets as its purpose an exploration of ideas and values that is not driven by ideological or monetary interests. The robust health of the University and most especially of its core, the arts and sciences, is vital to the society and culture it serves for that very reason.

In the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, we train the next generation of scholars who will ask the questions, weigh and test the evidence, formulate and apply new theory to rediscovered and newly discovered problems. These scholars will in turn train the next generation of citizens and scholars who will confront hard truths and wrestle with uncertainty and never, I hope, settle for easy answers.

If not here, then where can we look to an authority that sets aside self-interest, or at least makes an honest and self-conscious attempt to do so, in order to exercise the clearest human judgment possible?

If we don’t, who will?


Back to Emory Report Jan. 16, 2001