At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

“Occupying” “the White Male Syllabus” at Berkeley

posted by Jack Kerwick

Upon witnessing the trials of Nazi war criminals in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt remarked that they shared in common one salient feature: “it was not stupidity,” she said, “but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”  This inability or refusal to think is on full display in a student editorial—“Occupy the Syllabus”—that was recently published by The Daily Californian.

Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret are Berkeley students who are none too pleased by—surprise, surprise!—the lack of gender and racial diversity among the canon of assigned authors in most humanities and social sciences courses.  In short, there are just too many white guys that students are expected to know about.

The students’ “call” for an “occupation of syllabi” was “instigated” by their experience in “an upper-division course in classical social theory.”  The syllabus for this course is scandalous, for it “employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men.”  Not “a single woman or person of color” was included.

Kazuo and Perret insist that it is “absurd” for these courses to “pretend that a miniscule fraction of humanity—economically privileged white males from…imperial countries…—are the only people to produce valid knowledge of the world.”  The authors convict the “white male syllabus” for “silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.”

These white theorists can’t relate to “the lives of marginalized peoples,” or “gender or racial oppression.”  In fact, they didn’t “even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas.”  When “race and gender” are mentioned in “the white male canon,” they “are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist.”

“The standardized canon,” Kazuo and Perret conclude, “is obsolete.” While their course in “social theory” purported to be “relevant” to the day’s issues, its failure to “address gender and racial oppression” belie that claim.

Yet the failures of the white male canon aren’t merely theoretical: they affect non-white, non-male students adversely.  The student writers allege that “the classroom environment [in their classical social theory course] felt so hostile to women, people of color, queer folks and other marginalized subjects that it was difficult for us to focus on course material.” Even worse, there were times “when we felt so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of a lecture.”  Kazuo and Perret offer as an example of such moments the time that their instructor, while lecturing on Marx, noted the plausibility of the latter’s theory of “the natural division of labor” between the sexes given that women tend to get pregnant.  When a student objected that this does not apply to transgendered people, the instructor replied that there will always be “’exceptions.’”  Then, presumably to lighten the mood, he joked: “’We may all be transgendered one day’.”  Kazuo and Perret warn that “mocking” and referring to transgendered persons as “’exceptions’ is unacceptable.”

In conclusion, the authors encourage other students to help them to “restructure the way social theory is taught.”  The white male canon is a “tyranny” that students must “dismantle [.]”  In its place, students must “demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer] authors on our curricula.”

Only in so doing can students hope to “break, systematically and explicitly, the epistemological assumptions on which this exclusionary education rests.”

Kazuo and Perret end their essay with a question: “Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?”

Given both the content and logic of their op-ed, our only reply to this question is a resounding no!  These poor students, like the vast majority of their peers in liberal arts departments around the country, have indeed been getting the shaft.  But this is because they are not receiving an education at all; rather, it is training, or maybe indoctrination, in an ideology, a doctrine or creed, of which they are the unfortunate recipients.

It is obvious, so painfully obvious, that these Berkeley students are paralyzed by “the inability to think” to which Arendt alludes. Their essay amounts to a caricature of the Politically Correct orthodoxy, i.e. the militant leftist ideology, for which academia has become known—and for which it is routinely ridiculed.  In an essay that can’t be more than a 1,000 words, there is scarcely a leftist stock phrase, cliché, or sacred cow that isn’t exploited.

The problem, though, is not that the students are incapable of thinking beyond leftist stock phrases and clichés; the problem is that they are incapable of thinking beyond stock phrases and clichés.  As Arendt writes: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”

Arendt admits that if “we were responsive to this claim [on our thinking attention] all of the time, we would soon be exhausted [.]”  In other words, we must trade, at least much of the time, in “standardized codes of expression and conduct [.]”  However, “the difference” between some of us and the average Nazi defendant that she observed is that the latter “clearly knew of no such claim” on his “thinking attention.”

And what was true in Eichmann seems equally true of these Berkeley students.

The latter can also be likened to some of Socrates’ pupils to whom Arendt refers, men who were not “content being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine,” a creed on which to hang their hats (italics added).  Yet the activity of thinking “is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed” (italics added).

Substantively, of course, Kazuo’s and Perret’s comments are outrageous.  The point here, though, is that even if there was truth to them, that they are framed in terms of all of the buzzwords of any orthodoxy—in this case, the prevailing orthodoxy at Berkeley and in academia generally—reveals the shallowness of their intellects.

Moreover, Kazuo’s and Perret’s op-ed serves as an indictment of the faculty and administrators of their institution.  Not only has Berkeley (like colleges and universities throughout the land) failed miserably to supply their students (in the liberal arts) with an education, the ability and willingness to interrogate their own most cherished doctrines.  Berkeley has actually supplied them with the doctrine that resulted in this essay: After all, can anyone really doubt that Kazuo and Perret are, from tip to tail, the children of Berkeley?

What’s ironic—richly ironic—is that it is largely their white male instructors that filled their heads with this conceptual claptrap in the first place.

Rather than occupying their instructors’ syllabi, the Kazuos and Perrets of the world would be much better served trying, for once, to occupy their own minds instead of allowing them to be fed with the dogmas and vapid slogans of their professors.



Questions For the Hero Worshippers of “the American Sniper”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper” who Clint Eastwood has immortalized in his latest blockbuster film, is widely being heralded by die-hard Iraq War supporters—i.e. neoconservative Republicans—as an unqualified “war hero.”  Some thoughts:

(1)Given that we ordinarily reserve the distinction of war hero only for those whose cause we value or share, Kyle is a war hero only if his cause was just.  Were German and Japanese soldiers in World War II war heroes?  After all, they too were fighting and dying for the sake of their respective countries?  But if, in spite of putting their lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves, these soldiers are not to be regarded as war heroes because that cause was unjust, then neither is Kyle to be regarded as a war hero—if the American cause in Iraq was unjust. 

And yet this is precisely what’s in question: Was the Iraq War just?

(2)That Kyle killed some evil people is beyond dispute.  But even if every single person of his 160 or so confirmed kills was evil to the core—they may very well have been—and even if, as I have no doubt, Kyle saved the lives of many of his comrades-in-arms, this still wouldn’t warrant celebrating him as a war hero.

Those media pundits on Fox News and on “conservative” talk radio who champion Kyle as a “war hero” don’t mean simply that he wasted bad guys and had other soldiers’ backs.  And they admit as much: Kyle was a war hero because he did all of this to protect our freedoms.

In other words, those singing hosannas to Kyle are to a man and woman the Iraq War’s staunchest defenders. By praising Kyle as a “war hero,” a soldier who did as much as anyone to “defend our freedoms,” their implication is clear: the Iraq War wasn’t just a just war; it was necessary in order to, well, protect American freedoms.

(3)We need heroes, but hero-worship—and that’s exactly what we witness in this case with the Iraq War’s staunch defenders and their obsession with Kyle—can be dangerous.  That this is hero worship can be gotten easily enough by the refusal of the worshippers (idolaters?) to engage in civil discourse with anyone who doesn’t share their own estimation of Kyle.  Anyone who doesn’t extol Kyle’s virtues as a great American patriot and war hero is dismissed, usually angrily, as an ingrate, a coward, or even anti-American.

This is bad.

(4)And this is bad because Kyle cast his own character, and his own motives for promoting himself as “the most lethal sniper in American military history,” into question.

Kyle, you see, told some brazen lies.

Upon his return to the states, Kyle said that he killed two would-be carjackers at a gas station in Texas.  However, attempts to verify this with the local police have proven as fruitless as attempts to verify Kyle’s claim that he was hired to shoot—and, in fact, did shoot—(some 30 or so) armed rioters in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Both stories have been discredited by sheriffs and military personnel.

Yet it was Kyle’s claim regarding his confrontation with Jesse Ventura that was verified—or should we say, falsified. 

Contrary to what some Kyle worshippers would have us think, one needn’t be a fan of Jesse Ventura—and I certainly am not—to face the fact and embrace the truth that Chris Kyle lied about knocking out Ventura in a bar, and he lied  about Ventura loudly expressing his desire for the deaths of more American soldiers in Iraq.

Those in the “conservative” media who deny this are guilty of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy.  Mike Gallagher is one host who really ought to know better.  When the Eric Garner jury decided against indicting the officer in question, Gallagher rightly took to task those who pretended to know more than the grand jurors who spent months canvassing exponentially more evidence than anything to which the rest of us were privy.

But a jury of ten people spent considerable time evaluating Ventura’s claim that he was defamed by Kyle.  In spite of the enormous bar that Ventura—a public figure—had to hurdle in convincing the jurors that Kyle had “actual malice,” i.e. that he knew that what he alleged was false and/or that he acted in “reckless disregard” for the falsity of his allegations, Ventura ducked the odds and did it.

The jury awarded him 1.8 million dollars in damages: $500,000 dollars for “defamation” and the remainder for “unjust enrichment” (Kyle, it was determined, monetarily benefitted from defaming Ventura).

Kyle, here, acted neither honorably nor honestly.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that Kyle didn’t act heroically while defending his fellow soldiers.  Much less is it meant to suggest, as some self-styled deep thinkers in some quarters would have us think, that Kyle was nothing but a liar and, worse, a “psychopath.”

Yet the man, who was doubtless damaged by both his own actions as well as the horrors that he witnessed in war, was flawed.

The Kyle worshippers—the Iraq War’s strident supporters—shouldn’t pretend that this isn’t true, let alone significant, for in doing so, they reveal themselves to be dishonest, self-interested ideologues.






Muslim-on-Christian Persecution Around the World

posted by Jack Kerwick

Since at least the time of the outset of the Iraq War—and quite possibly well before then—there has been much debate among those to the right over why Islamic militants have set their sights upon America and the West.

George W. Bush expressed the consensus among most Republican politicians and commentators when he remarked that they hate us because of our values.

Ron Paul, in contrast, represents most libertarians when he attributes to America’s enemies a hatred of, not American liberties, but American foreign policy. 

Both groups are both right and wrong.  For failing to see this, they argue past one another.

Paul, Pat Buchanan, and others are indeed correct when they note that jihadists in places like Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands despise America because of what has been called an “interventionist” foreign policy.  Yet they are mistaken—sorely mistaken—insofar as they assume that if only America disappeared from the Islamic world, so too would our problems with Islamic violence disappear 

Republicans too are correct in charging jihadists with despising American and Western values.  But they are incorrect inasmuch as they imply that Islamic militants have a problem with liberty, equality, etc. as such.   In other words, they are incorrect insofar as they imply that it is the specific content of these value that elicit the homicidal ire of jihadists.

The latter certainly do hate our values.  But that’s only because they are our values—and not theirs.

In short, they hate our values because they are not Islamic values.

And this gets to the heart of the matter: the “Bush” and “Paul” camps argue past one another because both fail to reckon with the role played by Islam—not “Islamism,” “Islamo-Fascism,” “Islamo-Nazism,” “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” or some other politically acceptable fiction, but Islam—in these violent clashes with Muslims.

Muslims around the world routinely engage in unspeakable acts of cruelty toward their neighbors in contexts that obviously have nothing whatsoever to do with American values, American foreign policy, or, for that matter, America.

The fierce persecution of Christians courtesy of their Muslim neighbors is an epidemic—and yet it is among the least talked about forms of contemporary oppression.  In Nigeria, for instance, the persecution is “extreme,” according to Open Doors, an organization dedicated to combating anti-Christian persecution.  There are 183 million Nigerians, of which 89 million are Christian.  Yet Boko Haram—an Islamic militant outfit—has rendered peaceful co-existence impossible. In northeastern Nigeria, Muslims have declared a caliphate.  Hundreds of children, boys and girls, as well as women have been abducted, and thousands more have been rendered homeless upon the destruction of their homes.  In the twelve northern Sharia states, Christians have been all but squeezed out.

Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri, a bishop and the head of a diocese in northeastern Nigeria, gave an interview with Catholic On-Line.  He relays how over the last five years, Muslims have all but reduced his diocese to ashes. Over 50 churches and chapel have been ruined, and hundreds have been abandoned.  Worse of all, more than 1,000 Catholics have been murdered. 

The Bishop reports that Catholics are forced at gun-point or knife-point to convert to Islam.  If they fail to do so, they are slaughtered.

For the sake of saving the lives of Christians, not just in Nigeria, but in the region, he pleads with “Western powers” to intervene.  Only something of a military onslaught against Boko Haram can stop it, he believes.

But it isn’t just the Christians of Nigeria that agonize at the hands of Muslims.  Nigerians have it bad: according to Open Doors, out of 50 countries worldwide, Nigeria is the tenth worse place for Christians.  And it’s true that Muslims aren’t the only persecutors of Christians.  But in 40 of the Earth’s 50 countries where Christians are made to suffer because of their faith, Muslims are the culprits.

Open Doors evaluates global persecution of Christians in terms of degrees.  The worst is “extreme persecution.” Eleven countries are named here.  In 10 of these, the persecutors are Islamic.  The second worst type of Christian persecution is “severe persecution.”  In 11 of 14 countries, the culprits are Islamic.  Next there is “moderate persecution.” In 10 of 14 countries, those responsible for the persecution are largely Islamic.  Finally, there is “sparse persecution.”  In nine of 11 countries, Muslims engage in the persecution of Christians.

In none of these instances of Islamic violence and oppression does “American values” or American foreign policy play a role.

Islam, however, most certainly does.


The American Sniper: A Symbol for All Ideologues

posted by Jack Kerwick

With all of the talk of Chris Kyle, the subject of Clint Eastwood’s latest blockbuster film, American Sniper, a politically naïve spectator could be forgiven for thinking that it really is Chris Kyle of whom people are talking.

But he would be mistaken all of the same.

The person Chris Kyle is of little to no interest to media commentators.  Rather, and as always, it is their own ideological fixations that preoccupy these partisans—and Kyle, courtesy of Eastwood’s efforts, has become a symbol, a prop, for their purposes.

The late Kyle was a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty in Iraq as a sniper with more confirmed killings—160—than anyone on record.  When he finally returned to the States, Harper Collins published his memoir: American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in American Military History. 

Neoconservative Republicans—i.e. those who ardently supported, and who continue to support, the invasion of Iraq and the decade-long enterprise to democratize it—have fallen in love with this film.  It is not hard to understand why they have every interest in canonizing Kyle.

The vast majority of Americans have long held that the war in Iraq was a mistake of epic proportions—a belief that they expressed in no uncertain terms in the elections of ’06 and ’08.  Today, Iraq is substantially more of a mess than it was at the time of the invasion in ’03.  For now, we needn’t debate why this is so; it is so, and everyone knows it.

But in promoting and convincing legions of enthusiastic movie goers that Kyle is this generation’s version of General Washington and Audie Murphy, that he is a war hero extraordinaire who risked his life in Iraq so that we can be free, the war’s supporters can hope to persuade Americans that Iraq wasn’t only a just cause; it was a necessary one: No Iraq War, no more American freedom.

American Sniper supplies the Iraq War’s supporters with one more opportunity to redeem themselves or, more exactly, the ideology that motivated and justified the project in Iraq.

This, in turn, also explains why neoconservative Republicans tolerate no criticism of Kyle—even when these criticisms are both sound and revealing of the man’s character flaws.

Yet it isn’t just the champions of the Iraq War for whom Kyle serves as an ideological symbol.  He has just as much symbolic significance for the war’s critics.

Those “libertarians” who tirelessly decry America’s robust “interventionist” foreign policy generally and the wars that this often entails especially reserve nothing but the severest comments for Kyle. The latter they’ve characterized as a “psychopath,” a “sociopath,” a “liar,” and, of course, a “murderer.”  And for good measure, upon quoting Kyle’s own derogatory remarks on Iraqis to the effect that they are “savages,” these “libertarians” insinuate that he is a “racist” or bigot, etc.

However, in blasting Kyle, it is crucial to grasp, it is ultimately the ideology and policy prescriptions of their political rivals who they attack.

Finally, for those on the recognizable left, Kyle has become the most potent of symbols, the single greatest threat to their agenda to “fundamentally transform” both America and the West.

It isn’t, of course, just that Kyle represents, or can be seen as representing, a vindication of the war that they (eventually) inveighed against. It is much more than this:

Chris Kyle was white. He was heterosexual—(with a wife and children to boot!).  Kyle was a professing Christian. And—get ready for it—he was a Southerner!

But it gets even worse for the left.

Kyle wasn’t just from any old Southern state: He was a resident of Texas, quite possibly the most conservative state in the Union.

So, at this moment, massive numbers of Americans, most of whom are white themselves, are heralding as a hero a white, heterosexual, Christian, Southern, married Texan man.  And they are praising him as a hero even though his heroism was earned while shooting and killing Third World, non-white Muslims.


To add injury to injury, as American Sniper becomes all of the rage, on this 50th anniversary of Selma, the film of this same title fizzled before it even got started.

Indeed, the real Chris Kyle is gone in more ways than one.  He is, for the moment, at any rate, a symbol for all partisans.

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