At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

What Does Obama Really want for America?

posted by Jack Kerwick

Among pundits on the right, there has been disagreement for quite some time over the fundamental motives informing President Obama’s agenda.  Essentially two schools of thought on the matter have emerged.

One school insists that while the president’s policy prescriptions are indeed ultimately destructive, he nevertheless genuinely believes that their implementation is what’s best for the country.  This is the position taken by the likes of, say, Bill O’Reilly and nationally syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved. 

Members of the other school are convinced that Obama is resolved to weaken America.  Only a determination on his part to diminish the country’s military and economic preeminence in the world and traditional liberties at home can account for an agenda that is so obviously destructive of the nation that we have always known.  Among the most illustrious exponents of this view is Rush Limbaugh.

Adherents of the first position think that the adherents of the second line are idiotic, if not “crazy” (although, interestingly, they haven’t dared to call out by name “the King of talk radio” who has been in the vanguard of advancing it); champions of the latter believe that the former are naïve and confused.

This may come as a shock to both sets of apologists, but a synthesis of their perspectives is attainable.

Though there have been more than a few thinkers who have quarreled with it, the thesis that no one ever chooses evil for its own sake has an impressive pedigree stretching back into antiquity.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Christian theorists up to the present day have affirmed that evil is always done for the sake of some perceived good—pleasure, riches, power, fame, love, and so forth.  It is in light of this principle that we can hope to go some distance in reconciling these two competing positions on Obama’s intentions.

The idea that the president of the United States wakes up each morning scheming over how he may ruin the country over which he presides is, of course, the stuff of fantasy.  Contrary to what the Michael Medveds insinuate, however, I don’t think for a second that either Rush or the legions of people who share his view of Obama entertain this view.  Still, given the baldness with which Rush and others have stated their position, I suppose it lends itself to this caricature.  

But it is similarly foolish to think that it is from nothing other than the union of an ignorance of the most basic economic principles and a comparable ignorance of history that the president’s obviously destructive policies are begotten.  Regrettably, to hear O’Reilly and Medved speak, one could be forgiven for concluding that this is what they really think.

While discussing this issue with a friend of mine recently, he reminded me of C.S Lewis’ argument regarding the Jesus who is presented to us in the pages of the New Testament: either Jesus was the Son of God, as He claimed, or else He was an egomaniac or a mad man.  Given the self-referential remarks that the Biblical authors attribute to Jesus, there is simply no other alternative.  Likewise, my friend continued, Obama’s utterances and deeds are born of either an invincible ignorance of their consequences—in which case he is without question the most incompetent president of all time—or a plan to ruin America—in which case he is indeed guilty of the designs that Rush and others ascribe to him.  There is no third possibility.

Maybe there is. 

Obama knows that his economic policies are productive of neither liberty as traditionally conceived by Americans nor prosperity.  He would have to be, not just the most incompetent president ever, but among the most dense of human beings, for given the extensive exposure that he has had to both Keynesian and neo-Marxian philosophy—anyone who takes the time to read his memoirs, particularly his first, and who considers the worldview of the people around whom he has surrounded himself for most of his life would know this—he could only know by now full well the fruits that these policies promise to reap.

But from this it doesn’t follow that Obama anticipates the ruination of America as such.  There can be no doubt, I don’t think, that he wants to preside over an America that is morally superior and, hence, better, than the country that elected him two years ago.  The problem, though, is that the America of Obama’s imaginings is radically unlike the America to which most of its citizens have an acquired affection and even more unlike the America within which their ancestors made their home.  That is, the “fundamental transformation” that Obama wants to visit upon America demands nothing more or less than the death of America as it is currently constituted; only once America as a living reality is eliminated can America as Obama’s ideal be substituted for it.

The philosopher Ronald Dworkin once said that “a more equal society”—a society the resources of which are equally “distributed”—is better than the contrary, even if its citizens prefer inequality.  Anyone who has paid any attention at all to Obama must know that he couldn’t agree more with this thought. 

So, our president does indeed think that as a people, Americans will be “better” in the wake of the “fundamental transformation” that he wants to impose upon us. So the O’Reillys and Medveds are correct in this respect.  However, neither Rush, myself, nor the large numbers of Americans who love the liberties for which our forefathers labored indefatigably to bequeath to us are likely to receive much consolation from this. After all, the fact remains that his intentions aside, our president is determined to see the historic nation that is the real America go the way of the dinosaur.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.     

Western Delusions and the death of bin Laden

posted by Jack Kerwick

A few weeks ago, President Obama informed us that Osama bin Laden, the internationally recognized founder of Al Qaeda who will be forever associated in our collective consciousness with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, had been killed in a clash with American troops. 

The news was greeted by a chorus of cheers and tears from crowds throughout the country.

Unfortunately, while there are few people as richly deserving of death as bin Laden, I partake of none of the jubilance that has enraptured my fellow countrymen and women. 

Let me be blunt: contrary to what many now seem to believe, the killing of bin Laden is anything but a game changer in favor of the United States.  Symbolically, it is a huge victory for our country, to be sure.  But substantively speaking, in reality, it is actually a potential loss. 

As usual, and in spite of all of our railing against the evils of “ethnocentrism,” we in the West refuse to come to terms with the stone cold fact that the Islamic perspective on the world and our own are not only mutually distinct, but mutually antagonistic.  Make no mistakes about it: the killing of bin Laden is most certainly not being viewed as a setback for his numerous disciples and comrades both within Al Qaeda and beyond.

For well over a decade, for the sake of Allah and in the same courageous spirit of the Prophet, bin Laden has devoted every quantum of his energy to combating the Mother of all infidels, the Great Satan herself, the United States.  Now, after all of this time, the most powerful agent of evil in our planet’s history has finally—finally!—slain him. 

At this moment, less than 24 hours after news of his death erupted, this is the narrative regarding bin Laden’s fate that is already well on its way to ensconcing itself in the minds and hearts of Muslims the world over.  To be certain, this ever evasive terrorist is unimaginably more of a danger in death than he ever was in life.  During his time on Earth, Muslims viewed bin Laden’s as the face of Islamic resistance to Allah’s enemies.  Now, his persona will emblematize the highest martyrdom.  

Observing the reaction to this event, it is hard to escape the sense that I have been hurled into an alternative reality of a sort.  The very same motley crew of leftists in Washington and the media who continually decried as “imperialist,” “immoral” and “illegal” our previous president’s efforts to prosecute “the War on Terror” are now as giddy as schoolgirls.  Even mobs of college students—characteristically the most outspoken agents of “imperialism,” “intolerance,” and “militarism”—have suddenly become unabashed jingoists as they feverishly chant “USA!” from the rooftops (they can’t all be Young Republicans, can they?). 

Particularly ironic is that those leftists who complained that President Bush’s foreign policy prescriptions were actually instruments for recruiting more terrorists fail to see that even our (admittedly foolish) military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan will not prove as alluring to aspiring jihadists as the killing of Osama Bin Laden for which President Obama is now taking credit. 

In fact, few people on either side of the political divide appear to grasp this. 

If ever we needed proof that Obama is not a Muslim, his remarks concerning the killing of bin Laden is it, for no one remotely familiar with the nature of the Islamic psyche could for a second seriously entertain the thought that bin Laden’s death signifies a weakened Al Qaeda or even the slightest advance in the “War on Terror” (or whatever we’re calling it these days).  And this is the point: nearly ten years after 9/11 those in both of our national political parties remain in willful ignorance of the painful fact that, President Obama’s contention to the contrary notwithstanding, we most definitely are at war with Islam.  This isn’t to say that we are at war with all Muslims; but those with whom our conflict consists are most definitely not aberrations from an otherwise dovish religion. Rather, they are acting in accordance with a literal, not radical or extremist, reading of their faith.   

Osama bin Laden did not highjack an otherwise peaceful religion, and he is not a proponent of “radical Islam” or “Islamism”; these are categories that Westerners created in order to avoid the reality that bin Laden is an orthodox or traditional Muslim.  And his legions of followers are no different in this respect.  As such, they will be no more deterred by his death than the first Christians were deterred by the crucifixion of Christ.  In fact, just as the early Christians were actually inspired by both the passion of their Lord as well as the example of martyrdom set by other Christians, so bin Laden’s disciples will be inspired and emboldened by his example. 

Considering the corruption that the Christian mind has suffered in our secular, materialist age, it is not surprising that the religious conviction of a bin Laden should be foreign to contemporary Westerners.  Yet the sooner we grasp that, unlike our twentieth century conflicts, the present conflict is fundamentally religious in character, and unlike that of our previous enemies, the motivation of bin Laden and company is theologically-centered, the sooner we may recognize that as long as Islam remains with us, so too will the violence that attends it.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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.

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