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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Ron Paul’s Libertarianism Revisited

posted by Jack Kerwick

For as frequently as I have defended Ron Paul against his detractors, it may surprise some readers to discover that while I consider myself to be something of a libertarian, philosophically speaking, I am poles apart from the libertarianism of which Paul is such an impassioned supporter.

In contemporary politics, and, indeed, contemporary life, it is not at all uncommon to hear partisans speak of the “philosophical differences between themselves and their opponents.  Few people, though, really understand what philosophy is.  This is no criticism; even those of us who make our living as philosophers have not infrequently found ourselves divided as to the character of our craft.

However, whatever our differences, one thing seems certain: that two (or more) people disagree over any given policy or set of policies might indicate that they are philosophically at odds with one another; it does not entail this. Just the slightest reflection upon a couple of examples readily bears this out.

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Take the issue of the death penalty.  Joe favors the use of capital punishment while Bill opposes it.  We have, then, a conflict over policy.  But if Joe endorses capital punishment because he believes that it deters potential murderers from becoming actual murderers, and Bill opposes capital punishment because he does not believe that it is the deterrent that Joe thinks it is, then far from there being a philosophical divide between Bill and Joe, the two are actually of one mind.  Whether they recognize it or not, inasmuch as both Bill and Joe evaluate the moral worth of the death penalty in terms of its results alone, they are proponents of the moral philosophy known as utilitarianism.  From this perspective, the moral permissibility of any action is determined solely by its consequences.

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Let’s now consider another scenario.

This time, Bill and Joe are in complete agreement that capital punishment is a good thing that should be regularly implemented.  However, they support it for different reasons.  Bill defends capital punishment on retributive grounds.  Along with the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, he argues that justice demands that, the consequences of the practice of the death penalty aside, every murderer must be made to part with his life.  Joe, in stark contrast, continues to support capital punishment because of his belief that its administration will ultimately deter murder.

Here we witness nothing less than an unequivocal clash between two mutually antagonistic philosophical standpoints. 

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In short, in order for there to exist a genuinely philosophical dispute, the formal suppositions underwriting the substance of one discussant’s position must be incompatible with those informing that of the other’s.

When it comes to most issues, I find myself generally in agreement with Congressman Paul.  That is, if Paul is a libertarian, then insofar as I tend to sympathize with the bulk of his positions on the topics that concern him, then neither, I suppose, is it inappropriate to ascribe the “libertarian” label to my views.  The difference, though, between us is that Paul’s libertarianism is a doctrine.  My “libertarianism” is not.  In other words, I have a libertarian disposition; I do not subscribe to some comprehensive creed called “libertarianism.”

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The distinction between Paul’s thought and mine can be cast in other, perhaps clearer, terms.  I am disposed to be a libertarian because I am disposed to be conservative.  In this regard, I am no different from David Hume, Edmund Burke, or any number of thinkers associated with the conservative intellectual tradition.  This tradition, we must recall, originally emerged precisely in order to combat the rationalistic excesses of an alternative Enlightenment tradition—a tradition of which Congressman Paul and virtually every other contemporary political actor are heirs.

Hume and Burke are “libertarians” (“liberal” in the classical and best sense of the term) in that they affirmed and defended the liberty of their fellows as emphatically and consistently as anyone of their generation (or ours).  But they are conservatives because, unlike their rationalistic peers (and ours), they were acutely aware that this liberty, far from being the trans-historical, trans-cultural abstraction to which every human being who has ever lived has an “inalienable right,” was in fact a concrete, historically and culturally centered phenomenon or “inheritance,” as Burke described it.  Indeed, they recognized that, ultimately, there is no liberty; there are only liberties. 

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Hume and Burke, for as different from one another in many regards as they undoubtedly were, knew that the universalistic and rationalistic rhetorical fictions of “The Rights of Man,” “the social contract,” and the like, though intended to reference timeless, “self-evident” truths, were nothing more or less than sloppy distillations of the English tradition.  This isn’t to say, of course, that this tradition couldn’t be shared with others.  Yet the rights to habeas corpus, free speech, and all of the other liberties of which this system consists and which was centuries in the making is as English as the English language itself. 

When Hume, Burke, and the conservative theorists who they inspired set their sights on “liberty,” it was something local with which they were concerned. 

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Contemporary political discourse proves that the liberty that engages the affections of Ron Paul as well as, interestingly enough, his opponents, is a very different sort of object.  This liberty is a “Human Right” that, as such, owes nothing to the contingencies of place and time, culture and history.  Preceding all human societies, it is the standard by which each is to be measured.  The institutional arrangements of society embody or express liberty; they do not, as they do for Hume and Burke, constitute it.  I believe it is this ubiquitous negligence of the culturally-specific grounding of our liberties that accounts for Ron Paul’s (and mostly everyone else’s) sore neglect of our immigration-related problems.

Still, in spite of my theoretical disagreements with him, practically speaking, Ron Paul is a true champion of our liberties.  For this reason, I will, I am sure, continue to defend him against the unfair attacks with which he has been bombarded.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

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Open Letter to a Tea Partier

posted by Jack Kerwick

Dear Tea Partier,

These are indeed exciting times.  Not much more than two-and-a-half years ago, the movement to which you have given life was nonexistent.  Since its birth, you have succeeded in arresting the attention of the entire country while acquiring a well deserved reputation for being the most formidable grassroots entity in contemporary politics.  At this juncture, at any rate, everyone—Republicans and Democrats; conservatives, libertarians, and “liberals”; “independents” and “moderates”; rightists and leftists—knows that you are a force with which they will have to reckon.

In the summer of 2009, you bombarded the establishment with shock and awe with your “town hall meetings” and massive demonstrations.  Considering the ecstatic reception with which Barack Obama’s substantial victory over John McCain was greeted by over half ofAmerica, no one, least of all the president and his fellow partisans in congress, could have had any inkling that they would have to contend with such relentless opposition to his gargantuan socialistic schemes.  

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Unfortunately, there simply were not enough office holders in congress to block the passage of Obamacare and other pieces of the Democrats’ redistributive plans.  Yet refusing to be disheartened, you availed yourselves of the momentum accumulated by your earlier efforts to resist the Leviathan that your elected representatives sought to impose upon you: on Election Day 2010, in exchange for their pledge to repeal Obamacare and revoke much of the Democrats’ agenda, you succeeded in affecting a historically unprecedented victory for Republicans.

Many Americans have loudly and passionately articulated their concern for the well being of their country.  To your eternal credit, you distinguish yourself from them inasmuch as you have seen to it that your passion does not degenerate into zealotry. To this end, you have insured that the greatness of your love for country be matched only by the greatness of your civility toward your opponents.  In so doing, you have supplied an emblem of fine citizenship for all to witness.

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However, your virtues promise to bring out the worst of vices in your foes.  Of this, I am sure, you are well aware.  But you may not always be so well aware of who these foes are. 

The Democrats, clearly, are your adversaries.  They despise you and everything for which you stand.  Given the many attempts on the life of your character that they have been making for as long as you have existed, you know that this isn’t mere hyperbole on my part.  They have charged you with being an “extremist,” an “anarchist,” and even a “terrorist”—a description that they refuse to apply to Islamic fundamentalists who routinely murder innocent men, women, and children (including Americans).  Yet as bad as it is to be accused of “terrorism,” even this epithet doesn’t compare with the charge of “racism” that they have made against you.  This is the most dangerous of contemporary slurs, the nuclear bomb of all ad hominem attacks.

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I would like to make a suggestion as to how you might consider going about meeting this accusation in the future—for you know that it will be made ever more as we enter into the next election cycle.  Point out the obvious: if the Tea Party movement is “racist” because it consists mostly of whites, then the “movement” that brought about the composition of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution must also be “racist” because it consisted exclusively of whites.  Granted, academic leftists—or, what amounts to the same thing, academic Democrats—already believe that the founding of America was incorrigibly “racist”; but mainstream Democrats in Washington and the media are too fearful of saying such things aloud.  Push them on this.  While I can’t see them forgoing their weapon of choice, the “r” word, altogether, they just might be more reluctant to use it if they know that it will lead to the exposure of their real views ofAmerica’s origins and its founders.

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The real danger to you, though, doesn’t come from the Democrats, for they are wolves for all to see. Much more perilous to your well being are those wolves wearing sheep’s clothing.  Of course, I refer to those Republicans who are as much obsessed with enlarging the federal government as are any Democrats, but who realize that lest they lose your support, they must conceal their true designs.

Guard yourself vigilantly against the manipulative machinations of Republicans who would have you think that they genuinely believe their own rhetoric of “limited government.”  Sadly, this means that you must guard yourself against most Republicans, both career politicians as well as, I hate to say it, their supporters in the so-called “conservative” media.  You have every reason to be skeptical regarding their sincerity.

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For one, these Republicans are painfully cognizant of the fact that if you choose to erect a third party rather than seek your goals by revamping theirs, then you will all but guarantee that the GOP forever remains the minority in power.  That is, you know that these Republicans need you. 

Second, even as I write this, an opinion piece appears on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal recounting George W. Bush’s fiscal recklessness—a phenomenon on which far too many of his supporters remain, to this day, deafeningly silent.  Our last Republican president did indeed contribute to an exponential expansion of the federal government by way of his foreign and domestic policies alike.  And all along, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their colleagues not only lent him their enthusiastic support; they were particularly friendly with his administration.

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Today, though, in spite of having singularly failed to specify any of their prior mistakes in these regards, these same Republicans claim to share your objectives.  Maybe they really have, at long last, realized the need to reconcile their rhetoric of “limited government” with the kinds of policies that they endorse. Or maybe, as I have already suggested, they just know that they need you if they are to prevent their party from disintegrating.

So that you may get a better idea as to their intentions, consider posing to them questions of the following sort:

Was George W. Bush a proponent of “limited government?”  If you believe that he was, please explain how this could be?  If you acknowledge that he was not a real champion of “limited government” or, in other words, conservatism, then why did you insist upon supporting him so staunchly?

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How is the declaration of “war” on an abstraction like “terror,” the democratization of the Islamic world of which this war consists, and the ever expanding military necessary to wage it compatible with “limited government?” 

As even leftist television personality Jon Stewart recently observed, Congressman Ron Paul is the only “ideologically consistent” GOP presidential candidate, the only politician in both national parties to consistently conduct himself in accordance with the Republican Party’s stated theme of “limited government.”  Paul virtually tied Congresswoman Michele Bachmann for first place in the Iowa Ames Straw poll (the latter beat him by but 200 something votes), engages in fundraising with a prowess comparable to that of multi-millionaire Mitt Romney, invariably provokes explosive applause in the primary debates, and appeals to those much sought after voters, “independents” and “moderates.”  Yet when he isn’t being ridiculed by them, both “mainstream” and “conservative” media personalities ignore him.

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Even if you do not think that Paul is electable for cosmetic reasons—age, style, image, etc.—why, you may want to ask Republicans, do you persist in treating this full throated champion of “limited government” with such disrespect?  Do you not really believe in “limited government” yourself?

These questions are not intended to be exhaustive, obviously.  But those Republicans who are now suddenly Tea Partiers need to have questions of this kind put to them.

Keep up the good work.  Do not relent.

Sincerely,

Jack Kerwick  

 

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To All Logophobes

posted by Jack Kerwick

Since I began this blog of mine at Beliefnet.com, “At the Intersection of Faith and Culture,” it hasn’t taken me long to elicit a not insignificant number of visitors.  And even though the overwhelming majority of comments that some of these visitors have taken the time to leave have been negative in nature, I am nevertheless as thankful as I can be, and for two reasons. 

First, the more traffic that my blog attracts, the better it is for me.

Second, for however adverse to my thoughts my detractors undoubtedly are, that they have seen to it to expend energy in responding to my writings, in many cases over and over again, proves that they find it worthwhile to respond.  

The satisfaction I’ve received from all of this is not, however, unqualified.  It is, in fact, accompanied by some measure of disappointment. You see, it has only been in a minority of instances that any of my respondents have challenged the substance of my arguments, and even then, the challenges have been delivered as part of a package that consists of ad hominem attacks. 

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To sum this up, my disappointment stems from the realization that the people from whom I have heard lack either the intellect or the will to articulate their disagreements with others in a manner that is at once intelligent and civil.  Perhaps many of them lack both capacities.  But judging from the quality of some of their comments, I am more inclined to think that, for the most part, it is the will that is lacking.

In order to argue well, you must first understand your opponent. It is clear to me, though, that my interlocutors have taken little time to actually read what I have written.  Instead, they recognize from early on—possibly as early as the title of the post—that I approach the issue from a perspective that they do not share.  As a result, like the proverbial bull in a china shop, they rush in—not really to critique, for a critique is supposed to be aimed at the content of the position to which it is directed—but, well, to have to their say.  And like the bull for which the sight of the matador’s red cloth induces in it a furious, irrational rage, my respondents appear similarly incapable of resisting the raw emotions that my postings ignite in them.

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I find myself in something of a dilemma.  On the one hand, for however downright ugly and foolish some of these commentators can be, it is my blog posts upon which they are commenting.  That is, while there can be no question that this is the last thing that they intended when they indulged their obsession with the ad hominem fallacy, in doing so they are helping me, and in ways that they haven’t been able to imagine.  So, I confess, I feel almost obliged to at least answer them. 

On the other hand, not being the best tempered person myself, I am well aware of the temptation I face to reply in like fashion to every smug, confused, arrogant, hate-filled comment that I receive.  This, I do not want to do, for my religion—Christianity—identifies arrogance, cruelty, and hatred as vices, sins, and, thus, demands of its adherents that they repent of them.  God counsels as well against folly.  But by responding to folly, I become the fool.

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What’s a guy to do?

I think I have found something of a way out of this troubling situation. My solution is two-prong.

First, unless I find a comment to be totally beyond the pale, I will, all things being equal, approve of it.  This way, the person who composed it can at least enjoy that small satisfaction for which he yearns, the satisfaction of having others be able to read his “thoughts.”  This will be my way of repaying him for reminding me that my articles are being read.  With this token of my appreciation, I should think, my logophobic respondents should be well pleased, for it is a foregone conclusion that except for at my blog, no one will ever read his thoughts again. This goes without saying.  Those who do nothing but hurl insults at those who dare to assert and defend their views are too fearful to do the same.

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Second, with all of the writing I do (not to mention my other responsibilities), I simply have neither the time nor the patience to reply to many of the comments I receive.  Even if some of them warranted a response—clearly, I do not think that most of them do—I wouldn’t have the time to supply it.  So, I will try to address some of the points—when they are discernible—in future articles, not comment threads.

One more thing.  To show how grateful I truly am for those who take the time to comment, I will happily link to or otherwise mention their blogs.  For some reason, however, for as brilliant as many of these people presumably think they are, I just don’t see them being nearly as eager to state their blogs as they are to state their insults. 

The reason for this should be obvious.

Jack Kerwick

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Intellectual Dishonesty and Republican Pundits

posted by Jack Kerwick

Intellectual dishonesty isn’t a vice peculiar to any one group of people or another; it is a human problem.  But nowhere is it more salient than in the field of politics. 

Intellectual dishonesty isn’t identical with dishonesty proper.  It is not altogether accurate, then, to characterize the intellectually dishonest person as a liar.  Liars set out to deceive others.  In contrast, it is doubtful that the intellectually dishonest person sets out in advance to deceive anyone, save perhaps himself, and even then, this act of sabotaging truth is not likely to be inspired by any conscious strivings. 

The intellectually dishonest individual refuses to pursue, not those lines of inquiry that appear intellectually unpromising, but those that have the potential to make his life more difficult.  He is constrained by extra-rational considerations, whether of a psychological, emotional, or social character.  Neither the tension between the ideas he holds nor the cogency of the arguments that exist for positions that he rejects move him to consider new possibilities, for he is unaware of both the tensions and the considerations that militate against his vantage point.  Yet this obliviousness is the product of his own choice, a choice that, in turn, is the offspring of his desire to preserve the benefits that he’s reaped from the worldview that these new candidates for belief threaten to unravel.

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Another difference between the intellectually dishonest person and the liar is that the former is a more sympathetic figure than the latter.  This, I think, is because the more we think about him the harder it is to escape the impression that, at bottom, he is afraid.  In no small measure, intellectual dishonesty is a function of fear.  The fear that the world may be more unpleasant than he would like for it to be lurks in the heart of every intellectually dishonest individual.  Indeed, it isn’t hard to understand why: who cares to think of himself as cowardly or, for that matter, driven by fear to any extent?  If the world isn’t free of the uncomfortable truths that he heretofore resolved to ignore, then, conceiving himself, as he does, as being a champion of truth, the intellectually dishonest person knows that he will now have no option but to address these truths. 

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This, however, is no option at all, as far as the intellectually dishonest is concerned.  So, the intellectually dishonest person simply follows the lead of the proverbial ostrich and buries his head in the sand. 

There is no topic with respect to which intellectual dishonesty runs more rampant than that of race.  That leftist thought epitomizes this dishonesty goes without saying; at any rate, it goes without saying as far as readers of this column are concerned.  For this reason, it is “conservative” dishonesty on this matter to which I would like to draw the reader’s attention. 

Establishment Republican or “conservative” voices routinely—invariably—affirm “personal” or “individual responsibility.”  To this even the most casual of observers of, say, FOX News and talk radio can readily attest.  When these Republican personalities invoke personal responsibility it is in order to resist the leftist dogma that, whether for good or ill, government is responsible for peoples’ fates.

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Now, personal responsibility is a wonderful thing, to be sure, and those who never tire of proclaiming its virtues deserve praise for so doing.  Yet at the very same time that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and, well, virtually all of their colleagues in the so-called “alternative media” are singing hosannas to personal responsibility, they are blaming the pathological dysfunction that is the essence of the black underclass, not on the persons that constitute that class, but on the government.  More specifically, it is at the feet of Democratic politicians and their policies that these champions of personal responsibility lay the blame for the barbarous conduct that has rendered black communities across the nation uninhabitable. 

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Of course, government policies are far from irrelevant to human conduct. But the apostles of personal responsibility in “the alternative media” are saying more than this.  At the very least, their refusal to treat the members of the black underclass as agents by refusing to hold them personally responsible for their actions can only be read as an endorsement of the deterministic or fatalistic view of government that, in other contexts, they claim to abhor. 

Notice, these same Republican pundits not only refuse to attribute Islamic terrorism of the sort with which America has had to contend to government policy, whether the governments in question are located in the Middle East or right here at home; they adamantly reject any such notion that Muslim terrorists could be driven by anything other than their own irrational hatred of all things other than themselves, especially American freedoms. And just the suggestion that 9/11 may have had something to do with our policy in the Arabic world promises to be met by a mixture of disdain and ridicule by Republican commentators.

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So from whence springs this inconsistency between, on the one hand, the reaction of the prophet of personal responsibility to black pathology and, on the other, his reaction to Islamic pathology? 

At present, the costs of being overtly critical of blacks, whether poor or not, are dramatically higher than the costs of being comparably critical of Middle Eastern Muslims.  In other words, it is a fear of suffering penalties that accounts for the Republican pundit’s intellectual dishonesty on this issue. 

Intellectual dishonesty is obvious to spot in our opponents.  It is those professing to be our friends, and who may very well be our friends—self-proclaimed “conservatives”—in whom we must look hard to recognize it.  But the reward for our efforts promises to be handsome, for in searching out this dishonesty among us, we strengthen ourselves against it. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

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