Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

A couple of weeks ago, in lamenting the future generations of Americans that will be forced to shoulder the burden of our government’s fiscal irresponsibility, Sarah Palin likened their condition to one of slavery.  MSNBC host Martin Bashir blasted her for her “rank ignorance.” Moreover, he suggested that she deserved to undergo the same brutal punishment as that dished out to a couple of Jamaican slaves in the eighteenth century.

Palin, Bashir contended, deserved to have someone urinate and defecate in her mouth.

Last week, after pressure was brought to bear upon his employer, Bashir expressed regret over his remarks.

If ever there were any doubts that conversation truly is a lost art, Bashir should dispel them once and for all.

Those wise men of the eighteenth century Anglo world knew all too well that a Republic of liberty is impossible unless its citizens were “conversible.”  That is, unless the members of a “free society” were educated in those virtues essential to conversation, liberty would promise to perish from the Earth, for unlike the subjects of tyrants who labor under coercion, conversation is the coin in which free citizens trade.

Yet conversation is possible only between men and women who are mutually truthful, respectful, and, in short, civil.  Just as importantly, to prevent a conversation from degenerating into a monologue or a cacophony, the partners in a conversation must be willing to listen to one another.

Not only is conversation indispensable to a liberty-loving people. Conversation is an analogue to liberty.  Indeed, insofar as it disperses power and authority among several different branches and levels of government, allowing each its own “voice,” so to speak, it is with justice that the politics signified by our Constitution can be said to be a politics of conversation.

The Constitution is as formidable an obstacle to tyrants and utopians everywhere as any set of political arrangements is anywhere.

And it is this fact that reveals the impossibility of engaging tyrants and utopians in conversation: there can be no conversation with those who insist upon everyone’s speaking in the same voice.

This brings us back to Martin Bashir.

Slavery was a trans-racial, trans-cultural, universal institution as old as humanity itself.  Furthermore, its immorality stems solely from its essence, from the fact that slavery consists in human beings owning human beings.  Bashir is either ignorant of these truths or he deliberately tried to obscure them. Either way, inexcusable ignorance and dishonesty are both vices without which ideologues can never hope to advance their dreams.

They also constitute bad faith, thus rendering conversation impossible.

Bashir is no tyrant, but he and his fellow leftist ideologues are most certainly utopians. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that they have some grand, comprehensive scheme of the world that they’d like to see implemented.  It need only mean that if they aren’t utopian in outline, they are nevertheless utopian in detail: Bashir and company are convinced that there isn’t a problem that individual liberty—“negative liberty”—didn’t cause and for which a more centralized, more powerful government isn’t the solution.

The Constitution is a standing impediment to the designs of the Bashirs of the world.

And this as well explains why they have no use for conversation.

It is not by accident that for at least the last two centuries, what we today would call “the left”—radicals or “political metaphysicians,” as Edmund Burke referred to the philosophes of the French Revolution—have, to some extent or other, embraced violence for their ideological purposes.  After all, it is the radical who needs a large and powerful government to force his ideology upon a people who either have rejected it or would reject it if left to their own devices.

Liberty and conversation preclude force or coercion.

This explains why there can be neither liberty nor conversation with ideologues laboring under delusions of grandeur.

 

 

 

More so than anyone else, it is those on the political left actively promoting the fiction that “bullying” is both something new as well as a social problem—that is, the type of problem for which government alone can supply “the solution.”

My sympathy for the victims of bullies is as unqualified as is my contempt for their tormentors.  However, no discussion of this issue can afford to neglect the following facts.

First, what we today refer to as “bullying” is scarcely a recent phenomenon.  For as long as there have been human beings there have been bullies.

Second, not only is there nothing distinctive, much less unique, about our generation as far as bullying is concerned.  For as hurtful, nasty, and destructive as they undoubtedly are, today’s bullies can hardly be said to be as savage and merciless as the “bullies” of those times and places of centuries and millennia past.

Simply put, while the world remains broken, it was a much uglier place in the past when, for example, it wasn’t at all uncommon for people to diligently guard themselves and their families at every moment of every day against being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Third, literally speaking, there is no more a “solution” to bullying than there is a solution to lust.  And a government-imposed “solutionto the former is surely bound to be as abject a failure as a similar “solution” promises to be for the latter.

The ideal “solution” to bullying consists in victims standing up to bullies.

Finally, it is more than a little ironic that the biggest bullies of them all are those who presume to lecture the rest of us on bullying.  For all of the rhetoric enlisted in the service of advancing it, the left’s agenda is an agenda of bullying.

After all, what is bullying but an activity by which the bully attempts to intimidate others for the sake of coercing them into doing his will.  To the extent that the leftist’s program requires ever greater concentrations of government power, i.e., government force, for its execution, the leftist differs from your run of the mill bully only inasmuch as he has far more opportunities to wreak havoc.  But the leftist is also a bully par excellence inasmuch as he spares no occasion to assassinate the characters of his opponents—you know, those who wish not to be coerced into parting with their legally acquired resources in order to subsidize someone else’s ideas of what is “really” best for them.

If those on the left are genuinely concerned about abating bullying, they need to start by removing the boulder in their own collective eye.

They can do something about bullying, in other words, by abandoning their leftism.

The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom centering on four young male scientists in their late ‘20’s to early 30’s who also happen to be die hard superhero and sci-fi fans, is among the most highly rated of contemporary television shows.

One of the characters is “Sheldon Cooper,” portrayed by Jim Parsons.

Sheldon is a brilliant astrophysicist who’s as intelligent as he is socially inept. At once cognitively gifted and emotionally challenged, Sheldon is brutally honest with friends and strangers alike.  Much like “Mr. Spock” from Star Trek, Sheldon is a logic machine; emotions tend not to compute—or, if they do, it is only with the greatest of difficulties.

Though for a couple of seasons he has had a girlfriend—another scientist whose life has been about as sheltered as his has been—Sheldon remains a virgin. In fact, he has never even kissed a woman.

Nor does he care to do so.

Sheldon’s emotional poverty conspires with his obsessive-compulsive disorder and paralyzing fear of contracting germs to preclude sexual temptation on his part.

And this is what makes Sheldon Cooper into a Politically Incorrect hero: He is the most explicit, unapologetic asexual character in perhaps all of television history.  Sheldon’s asexuality is that much more salient when it is seen against the backdrop of the hyper-sexualized culture, and particularly the hyper-sexualized image of men, relentlessly fueled by the media.

Sheldon is a caricature, for sure.  Yet this caricature is a welcome relief from the popular caricature of men as slaves to their libidos, purely material bodies in motion for which quaint notions of self-worth or self-respect are readily traded in, when they aren’t outright scoffed at, for sex—however brief, casual, and noncommittal the latter invariably is.

Another sitcom character, Jon Cryer’s “Alan Harper” of Two and Half Men, epitomizes the prevailing media conception of men.

Alan is a pitiable little man without so much of a vestige of self-respect—or, for that matter, any genuine respect for anyone else in his world. He is a pathological taker whose mission in life is to live at others’ expense while satisfying his sexual appetites whenever and however he can. Though it is not before long that the women in his life come to view him contemptuously, Alan nevertheless is eager to forfeit opportunities for dignity in exchange for an orgasm.

In sharp contrast, Sheldon’s cup of self-respect “floweth over.” He is exceptionally accomplished in his field and while he irritates them to no end, Sheldon has also managed to garner the respect, and even love and admiration, of his friends. He has convictions on all manner of topics and he isn’t fearful of articulating them—ever.

Sheldon, you see, would never think to divest himself of self-worth if this was the price for sexual satisfaction.

Radicals intent upon bringing about “the fundamental transformation” of Western culture have always recognized that it is the values of “the bourgeoisie” or “the middle class” that have constituted the most formidable obstacle to their designs.  Essential to these values are what can only be described as “conservative” mores, bequeathed by Christianity, regarding sexual conduct.  Inseparable from these mores are those regarding the nature of the family—the single greatest buffer between the individual and the government.  Hence, to enlarge government it is necessary that the family, via a revolutionary change in society’s sexual norms, be undermined.

To this end and by way of these means radicals have been busy at work for a very long time.

The ease with which marriages can be ended through “no fault” divorce; the elevation of abortion and contraceptives to the status of a Constitutional “right;” the loss of stigma surrounding illegitimate births; the promotion of so-called “gay marriage;” and the romanticizing of sexual promiscuity in commercial advertizing and other media outlets—in short, the politicization of sex—have weakened the traditional family while paving the way for larger and larger government.

And this change in mores is accompanied and reinforced by an emasculated vision of man according to which he is on the order of a beast—a sex-starved beast.

The character of Sheldon Cooper frustrates that vision, in large measure by highlighting it for what it is.  Perhaps this is why Sheldon must be portrayed as a laughable eccentric.

It is more helpful, I believe, to think of him as a Politically Incorrect hero.

 

It recently came to my attention that a college at which I teach philosophy will soon sponsor a discussion regarding the moral standing of “torture.”  The presentation, “Is Torture Ever Justified?” will be presided over by another faculty member and open to the public.

“Is Torture Ever Justified?”  For sure, this is a provocative title.  Unfortunately, it is also a powerful indicator that the discussion that it invites is sure to be cooked.

In other words, the moral standing of “torture” is no more up for discussion than is the moral standing of murder, genocide, rape, or cruelty up for discussion.  Even among philosophers, including those utilitarian philosophers who maintain that actions are right only insofar as they maximize pleasure for the greatest number, there has never been any debate regarding whether “murder,” “genocide,” “rape,” and “cruelty” admit of a justification.  There have been arguments provided to justify proscriptions against these things, but this fact only strengthens the point that their immorality was already taken for granted.

“Torture,” like “murder,” “rape,” and “cruelty,” is anything but an emotionally-neutral term.  It’s not even a theoretically-neutral term. Moreover, like virtually every other word of which our moral-political vocabulary consists, “torture” is rhetorically charged, a species of what Aristotle long ago identified as “persuasive utterance”: its meaning is normative.

In short, “torture” means “unjustified.” By definition, that is, it is unjustified.

Thus, the question, “Is Torture Ever Justified?” is question-begging: the answer is to be found in the question itself.

This is what accounts for the fact that it is as difficult to identify a single person who has ever advocated on behalf of “torture” as it is difficult to identify a single person who has openly favored “mass killing” or “the killing of unborn human beings.”

On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to identify people—considerable numbers of people—who have argued for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “war,” and “abortion.”

Before we can answer any other questions concerning “torture,” we first need to inquire into what “torture” is.   It would seem that any such inquiry would have to address questions like the following:

In spite of the singularity of the term, is it really the case that “torture” can be said to refer to a single class of activities, or is “torture” more on the order of a short-hand term like “the weather” or “the universe,” a term that refers to all manner of disparate phenomena?  If the former, then must it be that all instances of “torture” are equally objectionable?  If the latter, then couldn’t some forms of “torture” be judged more or less harsh, more or less objectionable, then others? Is confining a person in a room for a lengthy period of time and a dripping faucet as “torturous” as pulling out his fingernails with a pair of pliers? If not, why not?

Whether there is a shared “essence,” a hard and fast common denominator that all instances of “torture” must share, or whether there is, to quote the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, nothing more than a loose, open-ended “family resemblance” between them, the question remains: What criterion or criteria, however provisional, should be satisfied before an act can be judged an act of “torture?”

The government is authorized to do all sorts of things that would be crimes if done by citizens. The government, for example, is permitted to coerce citizens into parting with their legally acquired resources so as to subsidize projects of which those same citizens may be ignorant or to which they may be opposed. That is, it can tax them. If a private actor did such a thing, he would be guilty of extortion or robbery.  The government has the authority to incarcerate citizens against their will.  If an individual held another against the latter’s will, he’d be a kidnapper. Governments have the authority to wage war against the subjects of other governments.  Individual agents who draw first blood against an enemy, whether this enemy is real or imagined, would be culpable of manslaughter or murder.

If it’s the case that of two materially identical acts each could have a radically different moral worth from that of the other depending upon whose acts they are, then could it be that only private actors, say, could be guilty of “torture”?  In other words, could it be the case that perhaps it would be an act of “torture” for Joe the kidnapper to hold his victim under water for extended periods of time simply for the pleasure of it, but it would not be an act of “torture” for government officials to “water board” suspects if they had reason to believe that only via such “techniques” could they prevent a terrorist attack against their country?

There can be no debate over the justification of “torture” until these sorts of questions (and, undoubtedly, others) are raised.