At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Lost Art of Conversation

posted by Jack Kerwick

Interestingly, in spite of the fact that our generation is probably as loquacious a generation as there has ever been, there is relatively little conversation to be found in it. 

We are a chatty people, to be sure, but we are not conversable.  Unfortunately, however, it seems that the more communicative we become, the rarer becomes this priceless craft.

Reflection on conversation discloses a number of respects in which it distinguishes itself as a species of discourse.  Since it is commonly confused with “the argument,” it would serve us well to attend to the differences between the two. 

While conversation can encompass passages of argument, it is not itself an argument.  The argument is an engagement of much value, certainly, but its end is that of victory. As such, its participants assume the personae of opponents and its terms are those of thesis and antithesis.        

Conversation, in contrast, has no end beyond itself.  Its motion is inspired not by the vision of some good—like victory—that has yet to be obtained, but by the satisfaction intrinsic to it, namely, the delight to be had from conversing with others.  The twofold opportunity it offers to gain a hearing for one’s voice while simultaneously providing that same hearing to the voice of another are the joys constitutive of conversation.  In it, we relish in the belief—too vivid to be denied—that the seemingly impossible has been actualized, that some distance has been traversed in bridging the apparently unbridgeable chasm separating persons: conversation is the greatest of consolations, for it at once arrests our fears that we are alone while abating our loneliness.

Unlike the argument, conversation relieves us of some of the contentiousness with which life is ridden.  This is no small feat, for whatever other functions they fulfill, every instance of conflict serves as a painful reminder of our finitude.  Thus, in granting us a reprieve, however temporary, from conflict, conversation supplies us with an intimation of immortality, a glimpse of eternity.  That there is considerable truth in this is born out by the ease with which time eludes those of us who have enjoyed the blessing of good conversation (“I just lost all track of time!”). 

And unlike the persona of an opponent demanded by argument, that required by conversation is one of friend.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that conversation is possible only if the interlocutors are literally friends; what it means is that because of the informality and relative intimacy of which conversation consists, it is an approximation of friendship.     

There are indeed shared virtues, excellences the exercise of which are as indispensable to the practice of conversation as to that of argument: e.g. civility and self-restraint, say.  But there are as well skills that are peculiar to each of these art forms.  

Argument requires analytical rigor, expertise in the issue upon which the argument centers, facility with language (i.e. articulation), and combativeness.  Matters are otherwise with conversation. 

Of course, it is true that at its best, conversation requires a measure of intelligence, but the intellectual prowess essential to argument is not only unnecessary for conversation, its exercise threatens to impede it.  The informality, spontaneity, and intimacy central to conversation are unsuited to a mind disposed to regard the utterances of its interlocutor as assertions to be analyzed and countered. 

Partners to a conversation need not have much in the way of knowledge of its topic; in fact, the less they know, the better the conversation is probably likely to be, for it is of the nature of conversation to encompass multiple topics, each of which springs effortlessly from the one that precedes it and all of which may, in principle, be treated with a casualness, even a playfulness, improper to argument.

Skill in explicit excogitation is not a prerequisite for conversation.  Relatively few can be said to be “articulate,” and so if articulation were required for conversation, the latter would be an engagement foreclosed to most. As we have seen, like every other activity, conversation presupposes the satisfaction of conditions; but it is vastly more inclusive than argument.  Both argument and conversation are possible only between peers, it is true, but only in conversation can any two (or more) people be peers: elderly women and small children, college professors and their students, sanitation workers and doctors, all can avail themselves of the delights of conversation with one another.

As for combativeness, it is as appropriate a penchant for the partners in a conversation as it is for partners in dance; there is no surer means by which to divest a conversation of its character than for one or more of its parties to become contentiousness.

Yet it isn’t only argument from which conversation separates itself.  The pseudo-conversation of which our television and radio air waves are replete bears only a superficial similarity to the genuine article. 

At any given moment during a conversation, one partner may take the lead, as it were, but the pseudo-conversations characteristic of the media—whether “conservative” or “liberal”—are marked by a glaring asymmetry of power between the host or moderator and the other participants.  Talk radio hosts, say, regularly and effortlessly select and silence callers depending on whether the callers satisfy the content and time restrictions that they impose upon them.  That is, the order of the pseudo-conversation is imposed upon it; it has none of the spontaneity and dynamism intrinsic to the conversation.

So great is the value of conversation that it is tempting—and perhaps impossible—not to think of Heaven as an eternal conversation.  Yet whether from an exaggerated sense of self-importance—the longing to be heard, rather than listen—or some other cause, the painful fact remains that conversation is becoming, if it hasn’t already become, a lost art.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

What Have the Republicans Learned?

posted by Jack Kerwick

The Republican Party against which the American voter cast his vote in ’06 and ’08 is the party of George W. Bush, the party of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  It is incumbent upon Republicans generally, and the next Republican presidential candidate specifically, to account for why a vote for the Republican presidential challenger in 2012 will not be a vote for “another four years of Bush.”

Bush’s vision of “conservatism” is by now anything but illegible. It would serve us well to revisit it at this critical juncture when the Republican Party is rising from the ashes and eyes are beginning to turn toward 2012.

First, from very early on in his first term, Bush, let us not forget, distinguished himself as the first American president to endorse federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.  This was only weeks prior to 9/11, so no sooner than the controversy began did it end; but it is remarkable that it wasn’t a president in the mold of a Barack Obama that took this unprecedented step, but a self-avowed champion of “life.” 

Second, Bush is the author of “No Child Left Behind.”  Both the utopian aspirations of this law as well as its assignation of an ever expansive role to the federal government in the sphere of public education establish beyond a doubt that it could only be anathema to minds touched with even the faintest of conservative and/or libertarian sensibilities.

Third, if not for Bush, we wouldn’t have witnessed the largest expansion of prescription drug benefits since Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Fourth, both before and after the attacks of 9/11, Bush promoted “comprehensive immigration reform,” what many of his legions of critics—almost all of whom belonged to his own party—correctly recognized as a de facto amnesty.

Fifth, our last “conservative” president determined that the United States’ goal would be to “rid the world of evil.”  To this end, he simultaneously launched two wars (or should they be understood as “battles” in “the War on Terror?”).  While Bush’s defenders have argued that our excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary responses to 9/11, means by which the government fulfilled its commitment to “national security,” it doesn’t require much thought to discern the weakness of this counter-objection. 

“National security” is an open-ended concept. That a course of action is undertaken in the name of “national security” no more justifies it than the fact that an action is done in the name of “love” justifies it: “national security” and “love” are compatible with unjust and foolish deeds no less so than with those that are just and wise. 

I have no doubts that Bush sincerely believes that it is in the long-range interests of the United States and the planet to deliver “democracy” to the Islamic world; but it is precisely this belief that betrays his commitment to a political-philosophical orientation that is not only alien, but antithetical, to the conservative temperament.  Whether the project to “democratize” Islamic peoples in Islamic lands is just, I won’t say; that it is folly, however, I expect all enemies of Utopian politics to unabashedly affirm.

Sixth, Bush promoted what he called his “Home Ownership Society.”  This sounds wonderful, but to bring this order to fruition, he continued the tradition, beginning with Carter, of using the resources of the federal government to pressure lending institutions to waive standard mortgage loan criteria.  This, as we now know, contributed in no small measure to “the sub-prime mortgage crisis” and “the economic crisis” that helped catapult Obama to the White House. 

Seventh, when the said “crisis” became a reality, Bush threw every ounce of his support behind the unprecedented bank “bailouts,” even going so far as to make a televised appearance in which he attempted to convince Americans that unless they too provided their immediate support of this massive expenditure of their monies, their economic system would collapse within days. 

These are just some of the highlights of the Bush presidency and the era of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  TEA Partiers and others need to demand of these repentant Republicans and the presidential contenders in particular to inform the rest of us, in no uncertain terms, which of these positions they now reject. 

Only then will we know whether they have truly amended their ways.        

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Freedom and Political “Leaders”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Over the last couple of weeks, many on the right have complained about President Obama’s lack of “leadership” vis-à-vis the current world scene.  Just the other night, while I was on the phone with him, a good friend of mine reiterated this position, what has now become a refrain among Republicans.  My response came as quite a surprise to him: “I don’t want a ‘leader,’” I declared.

At any rate, I am steadfastly opposed to the notion that holders of the offices of government are supposed to function as leaders.  Furthermore, to a man and woman, all who cherish the liberties that our forefathers bequeathed to us should be no less opposed to this view. 

First of all, if our politicians are our leaders, then the electorate consists of followers.  But those who consider their individuality a blessing are the followers of no government.  It is antagonism toward individuality, the belief that it is a burden to be lifted, that impels its enemies to seek out leaders.  And what better leaders are there than those who have at their disposal a monopoly on power?

Second, if politicians are leaders and citizens followers, then the country itself is a movement.  A movement exists, not for its own sake, but for the sake of realizing goals that are believed to be independent of it: Liberty, Equality, Social Justice, and the like.  It is the goals or ideals of a movement that distinguish it as the movement that it is.  This is the first characteristic of any movement to be noted.

There is something else, though, that mustn’t be overlooked. 

As Eric Hoffer wrote, the adherents of a movement are nothing less than “true believers.”  That is, they pursue the realization of the movement’s goals with a singularity of vision: their resources in time, energy, and, if need be, money—whether partially or entirely—are deployed in the service of the movement’s mission.  Those engagements that detract from the purpose of the movement are disallowed. 

Now, when a nation-state is conceived as a movement, liberty and individuality inescapably suffer.  The citizens of a state are citizens by law; membership in such an association is, then, compulsory.  What this in turn means is that citizens have no choice but to part with their resources in pursuit of the objectives that their leaders choose for them.  It also implies that only those actions that contribute to the movement are permitted, while those that do not are criminalized. 

It is during times of crisis that a nation-state assumes most obviously this character of a movement.  And since war is the emblem of all crises, it is during war more so than at any other time that politicians assume the persona of a leader and citizens that of follower. 

When Rahm Emmanuel said that politicians and ideologues should never allow a good crisis to go to waste, he knew full that of which he spoke.  That pet causes are not infrequently framed in terms of war—the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the Cultural Wars, the War on Racism, the War on Terror, and even the War on Christmas—is a function of this desire to conscript the agency of citizens in the service of the purpose favored by their “leaders,” whether self-appointed or elected.  When politicians call on citizens to “sacrifice” more for “the common good,” they manipulate language in order to conceal and justify what amounts to nothing more than a proposal for the further concentration of government power. 

Even talk of “the American” or “national community” is dangerous, for not only is it thoroughly misleading—given the staggering diversity of modern states, none can be said to be a community—it suggests that there is a common end for the sake of which citizens may be legitimately coerced to forgo their own self-chosen goals.  Members of a national community or, what amounts to the same thing, a movement, are not individuals; they are comrades or “joint-enterprisers,” as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott characterized them.

Those who love liberty and who relish in their individuality elect, not leaders spearheading a movement promising to usher in a new promised land, but governors who will strive to make ever more exact those conditions—laws—under which citizens will be ever freer to pursue the ends of their own choosing.  For the lover of liberty, the individual, government exists to secure peaceful co-existence between citizens engaged in a plethora of self-chosen enterprises. 

The liberty that he enjoys, however, is not some abstraction.  In fact, it is not inaccurate to say that, paradoxically, for the true lover of liberty there is no liberty: there are only innumerable liberties that, collectively, constitute a concrete, culturally-specific form of life.  These liberties in turn consist in a broad diffusion of power, a diffusion that can be found only within a government that, in a sense, is divided against itself.

This is the government that is delineated in the United States Constitution. 

And it has no place for leaders and followers.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.     

The Logic and Morality of Feminism

posted by Jack Kerwick

Now that he has successfully defended his thesis, a good friend of mine is scurrying to make final revisions so that his advisor can sign off on it.  Although considerations of race and gender seem to be conspicuously irrelevant to his project—a relatively radical exposition of the Genesis creation accounts in which he argues against the traditional Christian idea of creation ex nihilo—this didn’t stop his advisor and “reader” from castigating him for failing to address the “misogyny” informing orthodox interpretations of the Bible (and, presumably, its very composition?). 

There is one scholar specifically who they seek to thrust upon him, and while I can’t recall the exact argument for her position that my friend relayed to me, I immediately recognized that it is but a variant on precisely the same line of reasoning that feminist scholars generally have been relying upon for as long as they have been in existence. 

The argument usually first turns on a word or series of words that supposedly reveals a “sexist” bias against women.  Whether the terms are those of a text the gender-neutral or feminine affirming meaning(s) of which are said to have been obscured by subsequent translations, or whether they are the vocabulary of spoken discourse, the point is always the same: the language that is inseparable from the very life of our civilization is infected with “sexism.”  And since our language is irredeemably “misogynistic,” so the logic runs, the same must be true of the civilization with which it is bound. 

This argument, though, is invariably supplemented by another.  To strengthen their conclusion that our civilization is rife with “misogyny,” not only do feminists examine our language, they also allude to contemporary statistics that reveal either an “underrepresentation” of women in the most lucrative and prestigious of professions or lower pay for those women who work in the same professions as their more handsomely compensated male counterparts.

Neither the manipulability of her logic nor the leftist’s obliviousness to this fact ceases to amaze me.  If not for being forever surrounded by colleagues whose thought is, for all intents and purposes, identical to her own, our leftist would (we should hope) recognize as readily as she recognizes the nose on her face that the arguments from language and statistics that she makes to reveal the “misogyny” of Western civilization can just as readily be employed to disclose its “misandry,” its hatred or “sexism” toward men.

As my friend pointed out, if the masculine terms used to describe God in the Bible are proof of its hostility toward women, then the masculine terms in which it characterizes Satan must be proof of its hostility toward men.  Yet we can go further: if the Bible is a piece of “misogyny,” then why is Wisdom, which Christians later identified with God, feminine?  The name of “Judas” has for 2000 years been synonymous with unspeakable treachery throughout Christendom; so horrible is it that in spite of having once been fairly common, it has been millennia since any parent in the Western world thought to curse his child with it.  Indeed, Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ, is the Villain Extraordinaire in the Western imagination, and has been for thousands of years.  Why, we may ask, would the authors of a book (or collection of books) allegedly shot through with “misogyny” identify, not women, but men and male figures as the worst of monsters? Why would it not infrequently portray women as being the most loyal servants of God?

As for statistics, the task of demonstrating “misandry” or “anti-male ‘sexism’” is unrivaled for the ease with which it can be performed.  The feminist’s argument from numbers to substantiate the pervasiveness of “structural sexism” against women admittedly has an air of plausibility, but this is only because the statistics to which she alludes are divested of any and all context.  Numbers aren’t self-interpreting, and to paraphrase Hume, even the most patently erroneous theories can be made to appear plausible if they are sufficiently abstract.

Yet the numbers, or the number that we choose to select for our purposes, show that women, far from constituting an “oppressed” gender, are quite “privileged” relative to their male counterparts.  To put it another way, it would seem that it is men who are the victims of gender “oppression.” 

The most dangerous occupations like lumberjacking and coal mining consist solely of men, and men continue to constitute the front line in the slightly less perilous areas of fire fighting, law enforcement, and the military combat.  The high school graduation and college attendance rates of males are lower than those of their females, while their incarceration rate is exorbitantly higher, and the rate at which women fall prey to violent crime is but a fraction of that at which men are victimized. 

Most damning for the case for “misogyny” is the stone-cold fact that in the United States, men do not live as long as women. 

Of course, things are otherwise for women outside of the West—that is to say, among the world’s “people of color.”  But, though it should come as no surprise, the wrath of the feminist is reserved solely for men of European descent, a consideration that decisively establishes that her moral character is as weak as her logic.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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