At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

After the second presidential “town hall” debate, more than one Republican commentator was upset with Mitt Romney for not having put the lie to the misconceptions embodied in some of the questions with which he and his opponent had to reckon.

There was one fiction in particular that garnered its share of attention.  It pertained to the issue of gender inequality.

A young woman in the audience, exasperated by the idea that women get paid only 72 cents for every dollar paid to men, asked the incumbent and the challenger to account for how they planned on closing this “gender gap” in pay. 

Now, Romney could have noted that this woman may as well be upset over witches and ghosts.  He could have invoked plain old common sense by noting that if it was really true that employers could get this large of a discount on their labor force by simply hiring females, then men would be chronically unemployed.  He could have observed that not only is it not a fact that women are underpaid, but that, if nothing else, decades of gender-based discrimination in favor of women has guaranteed them decisive workplace advantages over men. 

In other words, Romney could have established, with the greatest of ease, that there is no gender gap.

But the Republican nominee didn’t do any of this. Instead, he played along, and proceeded to pander to female voters with a gusto that may very well have made even his rival, the Panderer-in-Chief, blush.

Romney did not tell the truth.  Neither, I am sure, did Obama speak honestly on this issue. 

And what is true of this issue is no less true for a number of issues to which neither Democrat nor Republican is willing to speak candidly.

Yet is there anything objectionable about this?

The famed Renaissance thinker, Nicolo Machiavelli, certainly didn’t think so. 

Machiavelli’s writings were intended to serve as a sort of instructional manual for rulers and aspiring rulers.  Among the first things upon which he insists is that “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”  Machiavelli ridicules those who “have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality [.]”

The successful politician is he who deals with reality as it is—not as he would prefer it to be.

Machiavelli’s reality is no different from our reality: this is the reality with which we must deal. That is, although we no longer refer to our “elected representatives” as rulers—we call them “leaders”—the fact of the matter remains that their quest for “dominion” is qualified by the same kinds of considerations with which the princes of five centuries ago were preoccupied.

What are these considerations?

First, the masses—we would call them “the people”—believe that “all the qualities that are reputed good” should be possessed by office holders.  

Machiavelli remarks that, “human conditions not permitting of it,” this is simply not possible. Nor, importantly, is it desirable.

Even if it was possible for a prince to possess those traits that are thought to be character excellences, Machiavelli says that “to possess them and always to observe them is dangerous,” for if observed, they promise to “lead to one’s ruin [.]”  On the other hand, it is “useful” for a ruler or aspiring ruler to appear to possess them.  He should “seem” to be “merciful, faithful, humane, sincere,” and “religious [.]”

Machiavelli states that “it is well” for a ruler to have these qualities and, more significantly, to seem to have them. Yet he is also quick to remind such a ruler that “you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.”  Rulers, especially new rulers, must recognize that they “cannot observe all those things which are considered good in men,” for they will be “often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion.” 

Thus, a ruler “must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate [.]”  He must “not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained.” 

The most successful ruler is he who knows how to be like both “the lion” and “the fox.”  Being powerful, the lion knows how to ward off wolves.  But he does not know how to escape traps.  The fox, in contrast, is powerless against the force of a wolf, even though he most certainly is adept at evading traps. 

While the best ruler is both fox and lion, “it is necessary” that he “be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler [.]”  Since “men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities,” he “who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”

This last point is especially telling, for what it demonstrates is that the situation of the ruler hasn’t changed in the least from Machiavelli’s day to our own precisely because we—the populace—haven’t changed.

Granted, we live under a representative theory of government—“Democracy!”—under which we “choose” our rulers (our “leaders”).  Yet as theorists from Gaetano Mosca to Joseph Schumpeter long ago observed, the citizenry in such a system is no more immune to the manipulative machinations of rulers and aspiring rulers than were the masses under kingship (or any other constitutional arrangements). 

Actually, the citizens of a democracy are much more susceptible to being manipulated precisely because they are democrats.  Those who would rule need the votes of those over whom they wish to preside.

As Schumpeter said, the voter’s will, far from being “determinate” and “rational,” is actually “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions” thrust upon him by “pressure groups and propaganda[.]”  For the average voter, “mere assertion, often repeated” is much weightier than “rational argument” could ever hope to be.

“The will” of “the people” that politicians claim to champion is an “artifact.”  Along with the issues themselves, it is “manufactured” similarly to the ways in which the desires and wants of consumers are manufactured by “commercial advertising.”  As Schumpeter explains, in politics:

“We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious.  We find the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are.  We find the same evasions and reticences [sic] and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people.”

Upon reading the great political theorists of the past, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the more things change, the more they stay the same.



Whatever anyone else says, Mitt Romney scored but another decisive victory in his third and final debate with Barack Obama on Monday night.

Beforehand, Republicans tended to speak as if they thought that it was all but a foregone conclusion that their man would crush the President on foreign policy.  Obama, after all, is an “appeaser” and an “apologist.”  He is an opponent of “American Exceptionalism” and insufficiently warm toward Israel.  With the recent revelations regarding the scandal that is the attack on our embassy in Libya, Republicans were that much more confident that Romney would decimate his rival.

None of this came to pass.

And it is a good thing too.

You see, the country is fatigued with Obama, yes, but this most certainly does not mean that it has yet exorcised the specter of George W. Bush. 

If Republicans know this, they seem to forget it. 

As his performance in last night’s debate amply demonstrated, at least one Republican is well aware of it.

Romney knows that it was largely because of what most Americans viewed as their exceedingly aggressive foreign policy that they cashiered Republicans in 2006 and 2008.  He knows that for however much some of his fellow partisans favored Bush, only 30% of the rest of the country did by the time Bush left office. 

Americans are weary of Obama, it is true, but they remain at least as weary of Bush.

Romney knows this.

So does Obama.

And Romney knows that Obama and his surrogates have wanted for nothing more than to convince the electorate that the resurrection of Republican dominance promises to augur in the return of a hyper-aggressive foreign policy. 

In other words, Romney knows that Obama has been chomping at the bit to scare the country into thinking that a vote for the former Massachusetts governor and his party is a vote for war. 

The third and final debate would have been Obama’s last real chance to cast Romney into the mold of the reckless, stupid cowboy that Democrats have been imposing upon Republicans for decades.  Time and time again, the President tried to do just that.

Time and time again, he failed.

Romney did not accept Obama’s bait—and his self-restraint paid off.

Stylistically and substantively, Romney came across as strong, definitely, but also peace-loving.  Conversely, on both accounts, it is the President who appeared to be the aggressor.

Romney needed to distance himself from Bush—and he did it in spades. In fact, with his cheery demeanor—a demeanor that was that much more noticeable on account of its juxtaposition for 90 minutes with his opponent’s visible anger—Romney was more reminiscent of Ronald Reagan than anyone else.

It is worth noting that distinguishing himself from Bush isn’t the only bird that Romney hit last night.  His stone landed dead upon another: in making himself look good, he shed a not so flattering light upon Obama.  

Obama was aggressive and angry.  He would have appeared as such even if his countenance wasn’t juxtaposed with Romney’s chipper and affable persona.  Given the stark contrast between the two though, a visitor from another planet could be forgiven for thinking that if anyone seemed prone to launch another war, it was the current occupant of the White House—not his challenger.

To repeat, the verdict on the final presidential debate of 2012 is unambiguous: Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama handily.  








Sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough.

Thus says Batman to Jim Gordon in the concluding scene of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.   

Americans disagree.  To know anything at all about our public policies and discourse is to know that Americans hold that the truth is never good enough. 

Plato long ago referred to “convenient fictions,” untruths that every society needs in order to preserve itself.  Surely, however tempted we are to think otherwise, there is no society in the annals of history that is as dependent upon convenient fictions as is contemporaryAmerica.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our political-cultural existence is nothing more than a house of such fictions.

Take fiction #1, what the early 20th century political theorist Joseph Schumpeter once called the “classical doctrine of democracy.”  Americans still speak as if they believed that there is something privileged, even sacred, about democracy, for it is only within a democracy that human beings are free to choose their elected representatives. 

Or so goes the fiction.

As Schumpeter and others long ago noted, there is all of the difference in the world between the democratic ideal and the actual practices of voters under a democratically constituted government.  In reality, voters don’t choose their representatives as much as their representatives choose them.  What we call “the will of the people” is not “the motive power” but “the product” of “the political process,” Schumpeter informs us. 

The average voter’s will, far from being “determinate” and “rational,” is actually “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions” thrust upon him by “pressure groups and propaganda[.]”  For the average voter, “mere assertion, often repeated” is much weightier than “rational argument” could ever hope to be.

Gaetano Mosca wrote that voters don’t choose their representatives but, rather, “the representative has himself elected by the voters [.]”  More exactly, “his friends have him elected.”  However unbelievable we may find this, the truth is that life under so-called representative government or democracy is no different than life under any other form of government in that it is always an “organized minority” that runs the show by imposing “its will on the disorganized majority.”

If the truth was good enough, we would have to admit that the voter exists to be manipulated by politicians and their supporters in media.

Another fiction, never more loudly proclaimed than during a presidential election season, is that there are dramatic differences between our two national political parties.

The truth is that is that there are far more similarities between Republicans and Democrats than there are differences.  Take any issue, domestic or foreign: if there are any differences at all between their positions, they are difference in detail, not in kind.  Republicans are every bit as much in favor of a large, centralized national government as are Democrats. 

At the very least, the vision of government held byAmerica’s founders and embodied in the Constitution is eons removed from the government that both Republicans and Democrats are fighting to maintain today.  Jefferson and Madison would look aghast at George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike.

If the truth was good enough, we would admit that life under one party is not bound to be all that different from life under the other.

A third fiction is that America remains the freest country that has ever existed.  In reality, America ceased to be a free country probably as early on as 1865.  The liberty for which our founding fathers wagered their lives was not some abstract idea.  It was inseparable from the federalized government guaranteed by and delineated in the Constitution.

More directly, American liberty, as our founders understood it, consisted in a wide dispersion of authority and power.  And it consisted in a national government that, with respect to most matters, was required to defer to the individual states that produced it.

Beginning with the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, this vision of liberty began its retreat toward the dustbin of history.  Today, it is as much a relic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as are the musket ball and the horse-and-buggy carriage.

That life is more pleasant in America than in most of the world is neither here nor there. As students of the institution of slavery have long noted, some slaves lived far more pleasantly than others—and far more pleasantly than many freeborn men.  Those slaves who were closest to the Sultan all but ruled the Ottoman Empire, and even in the antebellum South, there were slaves whose masters allowed them to establish their own businesses (as blacksmiths, say) and residences miles away from the plantation.

But however pleasant their lives may have been, slaves were still slaves because, even if only legally, they were subject, not to law, but to the wills of their masters.

If the truth was good enough, we would admit that the size and scope of our national government has long ago divested us of our liberty.

Sadly, for Americans, the truth is never good enough.






At the second presidential debate, Barack Obama claimed that within hours of its occurrence, he referred to the September 11th attack on the American embassy inLibya as an “act of terror.” When Mitt Romney proceeded to challenge the President’s veracity on this score, moderator Candy Crowley insisted that Obama was correct. 

This brief exchange is now being treated as the single most important event of the evening.  Today, Crowley is as much at the center of media attention, of controversy, as are Romney and Obama.

Crowley and Obama are both correct that, within 24 hours or so of the murder of our ambassador and three others, the latter did indeed use the expression “act of terror” in connection with the Libya incident.  From the Rose Garden, Obama said that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

This is fine and well.  Every American can sleep just a bit easier knowing that the Obama administration will not tolerate acts of terror.  But Mr. President, we were still left wondering, is this act such an act?   

Grammatically and logically, there is all of the difference between those propositions that are universal and those that are particular.  Knowing a thing or two about all acts of terror is not the same as knowing whether any particular act deserves to be treated as a member of that class.  

Objectors will claim that even though he didn’t explicitly identify the Libyan attack as an act of terror, given the context of Obama’s remarks, it is clear that he implicitly described it as such. 

The problem, though, with this line of reasoning, is that not only is it not clear that this is what Obama did; the context makes it pretty clear that he did not identify the Libyan attack an act of terror.

An analogy may help here.  As a college instructor, I give my students writing assignments. Now, suppose that one of my students, Bill, say, submits work that is suspiciously similar in wording to the work of another one of my students, say, Joe.  It is possible that neither Bill nor Joe acted inappropriately, but it is also possible that they either plagiarized one another or a third person.

Now, I stand before my students and indignantly declare: “No acts of plagiarism will ever shake the resolve of this great institution of higher learning, alter the character, or eclipse the light of the values that it stands for.” 

Given this context, all that an observer is justified in inferring is that I have zero tolerance for plagiarism and that I suspect that plagiarism may have occurred. 

No one would be justified in concluding that I hold either Bill or Joe to be a plagiarist.

Similarly, all that the President’s remarks established is that his administration has zero tolerance for acts of terror and that he recognizes the possibility that the Libyan attack was an act of terror.

They most decidedly do not establish that he was convinced that it was an act of terror.

There are other considerations that render Obama’s andCrowley’s claim even more suspect.

For one, for a couple of weeks following the Libyan attack, the President’s administration insisted that it was a “spontaneous” reaction to an amateurish “anti-Islam” video made by some obscure American.  This was the line regurgitated on multiple occasions by Obama’s UN ambassador, Hillary Clinton, Jay Carney, and the President himself.  In fact, when Obama addressed the world via the United Nations, he mentioned this video six times.  He called the Libyan attack an act of terror not once.

A spontaneous reaction, an uprising or revolt, is not an act of terror.  The attack in Libya could be one or the other, but it cannot be both.  Obama clearly made his choice before it was no longer possible for him to stick by it.

But there is another consideration that may be lost upon commentators.

The President has repeatedly castigated Romney for jumping to conclusions.  Romney, he once said, tends to “shoot first and aim later.”  Recall, Romney was excoriated by the left-wing media for pronouncing the Libya attack a terrorist attack shortly after it transpired.

Yet if Obama beat Romney to the punch and called it a terrorist attack at roughly the same time, as he and Crowley now maintain, then, we are compelled to ask, didn’t Obama shoot before aiming?  Wouldn’t he be guilty of doing what he has been warning all of us against by drawing premature conclusions?

Granted, this wouldn’t be the first time that the President’s preaching contradicted his practice.  But in this case, I think the more likely explanation for such a glaring contradiction is that he simply isn’t telling the truth when he said that he called out the Libya attack as an act of terror on September 12th.