Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The ideal of liberal learning is among the most noble, the most beautiful, that has ever been thought.  Though never perfected, it was an ideal toward which generations of academics strived.

Academia was always supposed to be a place devoted to “the disinterested pursuit of truth and knowledge,” a place where prejudice is subordinated to reason, wishful thinking to the demands of logic and a cultivated sensibility.

And because it is the pursuit of truth—and not Truth itself—for which a “higher education” prepares students, a liberal arts education, then, has always been interpreted, at least in part, as an education in certain types of habits, excellences of character or virtues without which the pursuit could never get under wayIn pursuing truth, students (and teacher alike) cultivate the virtues needed to pursue truth.

In short, liberal learning is designed to produce a certain type of person, a person who, to put it in the terms in which the educated of the eighteenth century described it, could effortlessly navigate his way around “the conversible world.”  A liberal arts education, that is, is an education into a conversation between the many academic voices—disciplines—that have defined and, in ways yet unbeknownst to us, will continue to define Western civilization.

Yet one disposition that is indispensable to this quest for truth is a particular orientation toward time.  More exactly, liberal learning presupposes partiality toward the past and the present: to be “conversible,” to be conversant in the inheritance of his civilization, the educated person obviously needs to know its past.  However, beyond this—well beyond this—he needs to genuinely appreciate his ancestors, for there can be no conversation with those toward whom one is contemptuous or dismissive.  If his reverence may be too much for his ancestors to ask of him, his honor is not, for in paying them with this coin the educated person humbles himself—an act in the absence of which he can hope to learn nothing.

The present is also of value for the educated person, for the pursuit of truth, this conversation across the generations, is not valued on account of anything other than its own intrinsic pleasures: it is delightful, even exhilarating, in itself.

How things have changed.

Whether today’s academic trains students for the labor force or for political activism, the point is that, all too frequently, students are supplied with a training—not an education.  And whether it is for the sake of making money or saving the world, this training focuses on—indeed, is obsessed with—the future.  The past is either neglected or disdained, and the present is viewed as, at best, an unavoidable stepping stone to future bliss; at worst, a hindrance to be surmounted.

The great tragedy to have befallen our times is that liberal arts programs throughout the West have succumbed to this love for the future (at the cost of marginalizing the past and the present).  But here, for the most part, academics are interested in producing good little activists.

And what this amounts to is good little political leftists.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Anthea Butler is beyond a classic textbook illustration of the activist academic. In fact, she’s bordering on being a caricature.

This past summer, immediately following George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Butler—a professor of religious studies—blogged that God is “a white racist god with a problem.” She added that “he is carrying a gun and stalking young black men.”

Racism in America has its underpinnings in Christianity, Butler wrote, and “the good Christians of America” are “some” of the country’s “biggest racists” “who clearly are not for human flourishing, no matter what ethnicity a person is.”  She likened Christians to the KKK and blamed Republicans like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, the NRA, “capitalism,” and the Koch brothers for bringing about Trayvon Martin’s death.

Now, Professor Butler is at it again.

According to Campus Reform, she has recently tweeted that the Republicans have shut down the government for no reason other than that of Barack Obama’s race. 

Unlike Bill Clinton, our country’s first “fake black president” under whom the last shut down transpired, Obama is America’s “first real black president” that the GOP has had to “mess with.” Butler told her followers that they must “be blind to think race does not play into this stupidity.” If only Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner—who Butler charged with being “drunk”—“would quit trying to regulate vaginas they could practice governance.”

Sadly, Butler is not at all atypical of today’s academic.  For this reason, perhaps like the Western world itself, academia—traditionally the place where students could engage in the unhindered pursuit of knowledge by learning how to become conversant in the modes of imagination that compose their civilization—will be destroyed from the inside.

Overwhelmingly, Americans reject Barack Obama’s call to launch a military strike against Syria.  Many of his opponents think that the President is in a tough spot, regardless of what happens: If he doesn’t attack Syria, then, since the latter has crossed his now infamous “red line,” Obama—and, quite possibly, America itself—promises to appear “weak” to our enemies and the world. If, on the other hand, he does attack Syria against the objections of Congress, American voters, and the rest of the world, then Obama will appear stupendously arrogant.

He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

Not so fast.

Obama is a radical leftist, a “community organizer”—a community rabble rouser—who knows exactly how to create and exploit crises for his own political aggrandizement.  We should consider the possibility that the consensus among the punditry class is on the verge of being subverted: Obama might be setting himself up to benefit from the spot he’s in—regardless of what happens.

First, in the almost certain event that Congress refuses to authorize the use of force against Syria, Obama will be provided with an opportunity to avoid going to war.  And what an opportunity this will be.

If more atrocities occur in Syria, as they most assuredly will, he will be able to blame the bloodshed on his rivals in Congress.  With the help of his media accomplices, Obama can attempt to convince voters of the callous opportunism of his Republican foes, a rank partisanship—maybe even “racist” partisanship?—that would sacrifice numerous Syrians if this was the price that had to be paid to obstruct Obama’s agenda.

At the same time, the President can elevate his own image by showing the world that, while he personally wanted to strike Syria, he nevertheless deferred to the will of Congress and to that of the American people. In glaring contrast to his opponents, as well as to the charge(s) that they’ve been leveling against him for the last five years, Obama can use this as his chance to prove that not only isn’t he the radical that they say he is; he isn’t even much of a “partisan” at all.

Second, by deferring to Congress’s will, Obama can, at least implicitly, draw out the contrasts between himself and his predecessor.  The country remains war-weary because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in which George W. Bush and his Republicans got us mired.  Obama, on the other hand, ended America’s engagements in both Middle Eastern lands and kept it out of any others.

This, at any rate, is how history might remember him.

Third, if the wildly unpopular occurs and Congress does authorize a military intervention in Syria, then Obama can again showcase his commitment to bipartisanship and statesmanship. He will also be able to save his face vis-à-vis Assad and the planet.

However, if this scenario plays out, you can rest assured that the American military will be in and out of Syria in no time.  Again, this will be so that Americans still disenchanted with Bush II and the GOP for “their” wars will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that Obama kept his word: Syria was no Iraq.

Fourth, if Congress complies with Obama and we attack Syria, then, for the time being, attention is shifted from the other, more damning scandals that plague his administration.

Finally, if Congress votes “no” to an assault against Syria, Obama and, more importantly, America, may very well look “weak,” as several critics have said.  Yet, if some of these same critics ever took their earlier criticisms of this President seriously, then even this might serve Obama’s interests well.

Recall that Obama recently said that it isn’t he who drew “the red line,” but America that did so.  This may not have necessarily been a ploy meant to either convince the public to support his efforts in Syria or save Obama’s face.  For years, more than a few conservative-minded detractors of the President have been vocal regarding their belief that Obama’s desire to “fundamentally transform” the country is nothing more or less than a desire to destroy and replace it in favor of an America made in the image of his own leftist ideology.

Is it such a stretch to think that Obama wants to make his threat concerning “the red line” America’s threat because he knows that by failing to enforce it, America will appear weaker to the rest of the world?  Being the man of the hard left that he is, Obama regards America as the purveyor of all manner of evil in the world: “racism,” “imperialism,” etc.  But if America’s global stature is diminished, so too will its capacity to inflict mischief be diminished.  And if reneging on a threat to intervene in Syria is a crucial step toward realizing this goal, then this is what must be done.

With Obama, one must always watch the other hand. For some reason, as this issue with Syria is but the latest episode to reveal, his opponents continually forget this.

As the nation contemplates launching but another “military action” into the heart of the Islamic world, I offer some food for thought.

First, his assertions to the contrary aside, it is likely that President Obama does not want to attack Syria.  That he has reversed course to consult Congress to authorize a military strike bears this out.  After all, the five long years that America has had to endure this presidency has made it painfully clear to all with eyes to see that Obama will not think twice to circumvent Congress when he wants something badly enough.

That he is not bypassing Congress now strongly suggests that he does not want to intervene in Syria all that badly.  And that he is not now bypassing Congress in spite of having declared his intention to do exactly that in the event that Syria crossed that “red line” of his all but proves this thesis.

Second, commentators on both the left and right appear to be united in their belief that Obama is in a tough spot at the moment.  I wish that they were correct.  Unfortunately, they are not, for by going to Congress, Obama has not only gotten himself off of the hook; he has positioned himself to look good—or at least not bad—regardless of what happens.

Obama has got to know that the House of Representatives is most definitely not going to authorize him to strike Syria.  And this is precisely why he’s going to Congress.  If the latter rejects his overtures, then Obama can kill two birds with one stone: he can bolster his own image while tarnishing that of his opponents.

The first way in which he can use this to his advantage is by blaming whatever atrocities unfold in Syria upon the “indifference” and, quite possibly, “partisanship” of his Republican rivals (even though there are Democrats as well that refuse to go along with his agenda here).  And, considering the Republicans’ support of the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, both of which were reduced to extended “nation-building” engagements that have left the vast majority of Americans exhausted with talk of war, this wouldn’t be too terribly difficult to pull off.

At the same time, he can make himself look like the one who cared all along.

The second way in which Obama can make his opponents look petty and himself stately is by pointing out that while he was determined to intervene in Syria, he nevertheless faithfully abided by the Constitution’s separation of powers by deferring to Congress. Even more effectively, he can claim to have subordinated his own will to that of “the American People.”

The potential political benefits to be reaped from this move should not be understated.

Obama has always been infinitely more concerned, infinitely more aggressive, about promoting his domestic policy vision than that of his foreign policy.  In fact, it is not really clear whether Obama even has a foreign policy vision or, if he does, what it might entail.  By depicting himself as a temperate statesman who respects both the Constitution and the will of the public, Obama might be able to weaken his reputation as the radical that his opponents say he is. And if Americans begin looking at him in this more favorable light, Obama will stand a greater chance of perfecting his plan to “fundamentally transform” the country.

The third way in which Obama can exploit a defeat in Congress for his own purposes is by reminding his base and the public that he is not his predecessor, George W. Bush.  Bush got the country mired in not one, but two, messy, unpopular wars.  Obama can claim that whatever troubles plagued his administration, war was not one of them.

There is one final point that those on the right have seemed to overlook.

When Obama says that it isn’t he who drew “the red line,” but America that did so, this isn’t necessarily a ploy meant to either convince the public to support his efforts in Syria or save his face.  For years, more than a few conservative-minded critics of the President have been vocal regarding their belief that Obama’s desire to “fundamentally transform” the country is nothing more or less than a desire to destroy it in favor of an America made in the image of his own leftist ideology.

Is it such a stretch to think that Obama wants to make his threat concerning “the red line” America’s threat because he knows that by failing to enforce it, America will appear weaker to the rest of the world?  Being the man of the hard left that he is, Obama has always regarded America as the purveyor of all manner of evil in the world: “racism,” “imperialism,” etc.  Does the idea that he wants for America to shed what he, along with every other leftist, views as its “John Wayne” complex, and that he thinks refusal to back up this threat against Syria may be a means toward this end, really sound that implausible?

Whether one is in favor or not of America’s intervening in Syria is irrelevant.  What matters here is that we consider what may truly be motivating a man that many of us know too well.

As Congress and the President debate over whether America should “intervene” in—i.e. launch war against—Syria, self-declared conservatives would be well served to revisit their political tradition’s stance on war generally.

Neoconservatism, the political orientation underwriting the anything-but- humble foreign policy of President George W. Bush, is most definitely not conservatism—a truth acknowledged unapologetically by none other than Irving Kristol, the “Godfather” of neoconservatism and the person responsible for having given it its name.  Classical or traditional conservatism, in stark contrast, is actually quite dovish, even if it is in no ways compatible with pacifism.

Conservatives didn’t need Sherman to inform them of war’s hellish nature, its death and destruction. That all war entails the killing of human beings, and not infrequently the killing of innocent human beings, as well as the destruction of other goods that invest human life with value, does not preclude the possibility of just wars.  It does, however, mean that decent people can wage war if and only if all other options have been thoroughly exhausted.

This is the first, and most obvious, reason that conservatives have been slow to enter war.

Secondly, human reason has none of the omniscience that we all too frequently attribute to it. The best laid plans of men often run aground on the unforeseen obstacles that life throws up.  Our intentions have unintended consequences.  Whatever our goals, however noble they may be, the pursuit of those goals can easily give rise to evils even greater than those that we’re trying to uproot.

In other words, that, say, Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are bad people who the human race is better off without is an insufficient basis upon which to launch war.

The good combat evil, but they will prevail only if they do so wisely or prudently.  This, conservatives have always known.

Thirdly, the 20th century conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott noted that since its emergence close to five centuries ago, that peculiar association that we call “the state” has been interpreted in two fundamentally different ways.   Some have regarded it as a “civil association.”  Others have ascribed to it the character of an “enterprise association.”

The members of a civil association are joined together by, not a common purpose or shared vision of the good, but a shared “interest” in the preservation of the laws that compose their association.  Laws, as opposed to orders, commands, or policies, do not tell citizens what to do.  Rather, they tell citizens how they must avoid acting regardless of what they choose to do.

For example, the law doesn’t tell us that we must or mustn’t have sex.  What it tells us is that if we choose to have sex, then we are forbidden from doing so coercively.  The law forbids rape. Similarly, the law doesn’t instruct us to kill or refrain from killing.  It does, though, inform us that if we kill, we cannot do so murderously.

In a civil association, there is liberty, for citizens are engaged in the pursuit of their self-chosen ends—not some grand plan prescribed to them by their government.

Conservatives have traditionally favored the reading of the state as a civil association.

In an enterprise association, individuality is subordinated to the common purpose of the association, a purpose in the pursuit of which the government takes the lead.  As Oakeshott explains, each person is cast into the role of a servant to the goal or goals for the sake of which the association is held to exist.  “Redistributive justice,” “social justice,” “economic equality,” and the like are the standard goals or purposes that we hear most about today.

It is precisely because conservatives have staunchly rejected this understanding of a state that they’ve been extremely reluctant to embark upon war, for never is civil association more in peril than when a state is at war.  It is during war that everyone is expected to “sacrifice”—i.e. part with their liberty, their time, labor, wealth, and even their very lives—for the sake of “the common good” of “victory.”  That collectivists home and abroad are well aware of this explains why they are forever seeking to assimilate their pet domestic policies to the language and imagery of war: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, etc.

Self-avowed conservatives must take all of this to head and heart as they contemplate interjecting their country into but another Middle Eastern country.