At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

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.

Facebook and Narcissism

posted by Jack Kerwick

For quite a while, I contemplated opening an account with facebook.  A few months ago, I set aside what reservations I entertained and decided to go for it.

Admittedly, neither the desire to “reconnect” with old acquaintances nor any other such sympathetic desire figured at all in helping me arrive at my decision.  Rather, I had just launched a blog and was hopeful that through facebook I could increase traffic to it.  But lest my motives come under fire, let us be honest with ourselves: there isn’t one of us who participates in facebook merely for the sake of reestablishing lost relationships.  For that matter, very few of its users care a lick about restoring old relationships at all.

Unquestionably, there is a complex of motives that drive facebook users.  Yet from what I have been able to gather in the short amount of time that I have counted myself among their number, the desire to be acknowledged, to be heard, is most fundamental.

Now, not only is this by itself not a vice, it is not infrequently the spring of virtue.  But lest this all too understandable, even justifiable, longing to be heard be conscripted into the service of an insatiable ego, lest it be consumed by an inflated sense of self-importance, we should attend to it with all of the care that we would show an infant, for this aching for affirmation is on perpetually perilous ground.

Regrettably, it is my considered judgment that we have been not just careless, but reckless, as far as our treatment of this desire is concerned. 

Good manners demand that upon being granted the hearing from others that one seeks, one repay this good turn with something worthwhile saying.  What constitutes “worthwhile” utterance is, of course, going to vary with context; but however it is determined, worthwhile utterance is the coin we pay for the hearing we’ve achieved.

Yet the problem with facebook, though, is that this hearing is no achievement at all; nor is it viewed as such by those who obtain it.  There are facebook account holders with hundreds and, in some instances, thousands of “friends.”  At least as obvious as the fact that the vast majority of such “friends” are not true friends at all is the fact they aren’t even genuinely known: most of these “friends” never communicate with one another at all. 

We are all impressed with the fact that the creators of facebook were only college-aged when they gave birth to their brain-child.  But I now wonder whether their invention of facebook occurred, not in spite of their youth, but because of it.  After all, outside of high school kids themselves, who better than kids barely out of high school have such a keen awareness of the intensity of the desire for popularity?  In other words, the phenomenon of “friending” was born, not from any sort of philosophical reflection on the longing to abate one’s loneliness that dwells within the breast of every human being, but of the facebook creators’ intimate knowledge of the pride of place that their peers gave to being popular.  Their genius, however, was to recognize, or to assume, that regardless of how old people get, this adolescent impulse to achieve popularity never altogether leaves us.

Granted, it can be used for multiple purposes, some of which are innocuous, if not valuable in their own right; but the “friends” option intrinsic to facebook and the unmanageably large lists of names that it is utilized to accumulate render it exceedingly difficult to circumvent the conclusion that if not for the union of an inordinate love for popularity and a hyper-inflated sense of self-importance, facebook never would have seen the light of day. 

Like the “reality television” that is its counterpart and, for all of that, countless other features of our generation that promise to reserve for it an unprecedented place in the annals of narcissism, facebook boils down to a celebration of me. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Obsession with Physical Well Being

posted by Jack Kerwick

For quite some time now, such representatives of the conservative movement as, say, Rush Limbaugh, have charged the environmentalist left with insincerity.  Far from having a genuine concern for the environment, as he claims, the environmentalist is motivated, rather, by a desire to assume unto himself as much power as possible, the power, that is, to achieve his true objective: the destruction of “capitalism” as we know it. 

For however pervasive it may be among my brethren on the right side of the political divide, this notion that the environmentalist is, at heart, Machiavellian, is not altogether correct.  In fact, there are a couple of considerations that militate decisively against it.

Over the last few decades, Americans have grown exponentially more health-conscious, and in no respect more so than with respect to their bodies.  From counting calories and trans-fats to spending hundreds of dollars each month on “supplements” of various sorts, the obsession that legions of Americans have with perfecting their bodies knows no bounds.  This phenomenon is both idolatrous and, from the perspective of traditional Christianity, blasphemous: it is idolatrous because the body has eclipsed all potential competitors—including God—for the health zealot’s focus of attention; it is blasphemous because it presupposes that, by their own efforts, individuals can arrest their own mortality.  Granted, everyone grasps intellectually that one day will be their last here on Earth, but the health zealot speaks and acts as if as long as he does this and avoids that, he will live indefinitely. 

The obsession with physical health reflects the growth of a secular, materialist culture.  Yet the environmentalist movement is also a product of that very same culture.  In other words, the environmentalist is as much moved along by our culture’s impulse to ever greater safety and health as anyone.  The difference between him and those whose central concern is the perfection of their own bodies is that the environmentalist centers his attention on the safety and health of the planet. 

This is the second reason why I take issue with the conventional analysis of environmentalism.  While I do indeed agree that the environmentalist craves lots of power, I doubt that there is any self-conscious desire on his part to undermine “capitalism”—i.e. an economic system.  Regrettably, his aims are much more troublesome than that.   The environmentalist is the enemy, you see, not merely of a peculiar set of economic arrangements, but of just those political arrangements delineated in the U.S. Constitution. 

He is the enemy, that is, of civil association. 

Since their emergence near the beginning of the modern era, there has been much confusion regarding the character of the “nation-state.”  America is no exception here.  But given our Constitution’s numerous restrictions on our government, “checks and balances” within the interstices of which the individual’s liberties are to be found, there can be no quarrel with the verdict that America was at least originally conceived as a civil association.  The Constitution refrains from specifying, not only grandiose purposes for the country, to say nothing of the world, but even actions for citizens to perform.  What it does establish are laws, conditions that citizens are obligated to observe while pursuing their own purposes, the engagements of their own choosing.

The environmentalist is at once bored and frustrated with this idea of America.  He would never come right out and say this, of course, but the environmentalist is a visionary, and neither the Constitution nor the idea of civil association that it embodies can be anything but anathema to the visionary.  The environmentalist, like all visionaries, sees the nation-state, with all of its resources in citizens’ time, energies, and money at its disposal, not as a civil association, but—as Michael Oakeshott described it—an enterprise association. 

An enterprise association derives its identity from the ends to which the eyes of its members are focused.  For the environmentalist, the end of the enterprise that is the United States is the well being of the environment of the entire world. 

This longing for community, a world community, is something with which most of us can sympathize.  The problem, however, is that it is fundamentally at odds with something else for which many of us have developed quite an affection: individuality.  The individuality that many of us prize and that is presupposed by the U.S. Constitution is neither innate nor eternal; it is an historic achievement made possible by the indefatigable efforts of our European, especially English, ancestors.  This individuality is, then, an inheritance, an artifact of a sort that, like any other, can be lost if we are careless with it.

The environmentalist, like every other ideologue who seeks to impose upon the United States the character of an enterprise association or community, has no appreciation for any of this.  His dreams can come true only at the cost of throwing this inheritance to the wind.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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