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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Some Thoughts on “Frankenstorm”

posted by Jack Kerwick

“Frankenstorm,” the worst storm in American history, is currently beating down upon my home state of New Jersey.  As I write this, there is rain and wind, but nothing in the least bit remarkable—at least not as far as weather goes in this neck of my woods of theGardenState. 

Still, I continue to be told by media personalities and Facebook friends that this storm promises to visit havoc upon the northeastern United States the likes of which it has never before experienced.  To hear people talk—including and especially those who talk about these matters for a living—one could be forgiven for thinking that it is nothing less than Armageddon that is coming our way.

I offer some thoughts.

(1).Virtually everything that we have been hearing about Hurricane Sandy for the better part of a week has been hyperbole—pure and simple.  To be sure, the meteorologists were correct in identifying this storm for the historically unusual phenomenon that it promises to be.  But that everything else that they have been saying ever since has been a textbook case of sensationalism becomes obvious once we consider the bare fact that nothing else beyond the weather forecast needed to be said.

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Round-the-clock predictions regarding power outages lasting seven to ten days and other similarly grisly prognostications do nothing but promote hysteria. 

Some will object that incessant coverage of Sandy is necessary in order to save human life.  To this, we need only note that animals don’t need to be told to protect themselves against threats.  Anyone with an IQ above two knows, or should know, that if there is just a decent chance that a hurricane is heading in his direction, then he needs to do his best to guard against it.  By bombarding them with inexhaustible coverage of a life-threatening event, no network does its viewers any favors if those viewers are in harm’s way. 

Such coverage generates panic, and panic reduces the capacity for sober judgment.  This is one respect in which excessive media coverage of Sandy and the like potentially imperils viewers. 

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It is a bad enough when one person panics.  But it is infinitely worse when a whole bunch of people do so.  The creation of mass panic is the second sense in which the media may actually do more harm than good in spending all of their time talking about “Frankenstorm” and the like. 

The third respect in which the media may imperil those who it ostensibly wants to assist is in consuming all of viewers’ attention with their sensationalistic coverage of disasters!  Those who are threatened by Sandy or whatever else need to spend less time watching television and more time actually preparing to meet the threat!

(2). Modern Westerners, at least since the time of the Enlightenment (and probably earlier), are politically peculiar creatures. With the rise of the centralized modern state, the politics of Western peoples have assumed a distinctive form.

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Politics, as we have always known it, is an engagement in crisis-management. 

Government, in our political universe, exists in order to supply “solutions” to “problems.”

What this means is that, intoxicated by the sea of power that lies at the disposal of modern governments—a measure of power that would have been unimaginable to rulers of earlier eras—we inescapably find ourselves forever oscillating between two extremes, each of which is inseparable from the other. On the one hand, we suppose that there is no problem, however dismal, that our government can’t put out to pasture.  That is, whether comprehensively or in detail, we are hopelessly utopian.  On the other hand, we just as readily suppose that disasters of one sort or the other are never more than millimeters away from devouring our way of life.

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To put it simply, we never fail to ignore the old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  Yet we also ignore another piece of wisdom: if something sounds too bad to be true, it usually is.

These two propensities are inextricably linked to one another: we need to reduce life to an endless series of crises if we are to sustain our belief in government, for government exists to relieve us of these troubles.

There can be no savior if there aren’t monsters from which we need saving. 

Now, Hurricane Sandy, or, more precisely, the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, fits seamlessly into this understanding of politics and government.  The biggest storm of all time can be met only by the biggest government of all time—or at least an activist government well disposed to protecting citizens from themselves. 

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(3). Consideration (2) explains why we seem to simultaneously dread and relish in events like Sandy. The media, politicians, and, yes, the rest of us, effortlessly accommodate Sandy, for crisis is the stuff of which modern Western life is made, and Sandy—or at least Sandy as it is being depicted—is a crisis par excellence.

(4).Yet in addition to the psychic satisfactions that all modern Westerners receive from reckoning with epic disasters, politicians and media personalities reap other kinds of benefits. 

Media figures, obviously, reap ratings, lots of ratings.  This translates into ever bigger bucks.  It also means something of a legacy for those commentators and meteorologists who can claim to have covered, or who are remembered for having covered, “the largest storm of our time.”

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The rewards to which politicians can look forward, however, are—what else?—political.  As President Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, once said: “You never want to let a good crisis go to waste.” A crisis, Emmanuel explained, permits politicians opportunities to do things—i.e. grow government—that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Crises exist to be exploited, and the greater the crisis, the greater the opportunities for political exploitation. This is why politicians have an invested interest in seeing to it that every troubling situation be spun so as to sound like the end times: the greater the disaster the greater the need for a Messiah—the greater the need for ever larger government.

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None of this, of course, is to deny that Sandy will have done its share of damage.  And none of it is meant to deny that those whose lives were impacted by it are deserving of our prayers and support.  But all natural disasters, from thunder and lightning storms to snow storms and blizzards, are damaging. 

The forgoing points stand.

originally published at The New American

 

 

 

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Hurricane Sandy and Our Sexism

posted by Jack Kerwick

As I write this from my New Jersey residence, on the eve of the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, one thing is crystal clear to me: our culture remains sexist to the bone.  What is worse, its sexism is of a particularly invidious variety, i.e. the misogynistic type. 

Universally, the reaction to Sandy has been one of unmitigated fear, the same fear with which we would respond to word of an invasion of the inhabitants of another planet.  Invariably, this exhibition of raw nature has been characterized in adversarial terms, a threat to our way of life from which we need protection.

This, though, is what we should expect from an incorrigibly patriarchal civilization. You see, the terms in which Western Man has described nature are the same terms that he has reserved for his vision of Woman. Anyone who doubts this claim should consider that, for millennia to the present day, the dominant image of nature is unmistakably feminine in character (e.g. “Mother Nature”).

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This is no accident.

The idea of nature as something that is distinct from and antagonistic toward “civilization” is inseparable from the idea of woman as something distinct from and antagonistic toward man.  In turn, these ideas inform another, namely, the idea that, respectively, nature and women need to be tamed.

The western world within which we live is as logocentric (literally, reason-centered) as it is sexist. Its values reflect the prejudices and biases of the men—the white men—who spawned it.  Had Western Man’s obsession with rationality not blinded him to the fact that his scheme of values is as parochial a phenomenon as the dialect with which he speaks, perhaps there would have been no harm done.  But as is the case with all forms of zealotry, Western Man’s preoccupation with rational inquiry rendered him oblivious to the very possibility that the world just might consist of people who weren’t interested in taking up his cause. 

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As a result, through his philosophy and religion, Western Man universalized his values.  Yet this in turn resulted in his carving up reality—or his vision of reality—into a series of dualisms, binary oppositions in which everything that he associated with himself is privileged above those attributes that he associated with women.  Indissolubly conjoined with his man/woman dualism are the dualisms of civilization/nature, reason/emotion, mind/matter, good/evil, etc.

As ecofeminist Marti Kreel observes, Western patriarchy has viewed nature and women as things to be either broken or exploited.  

The first image is that of “the beast,” the “symbol for all that is not human,” “evil, irrational, and wild.” The Beast is that which must be conquered and/or destroyed if civilization is to prevail.

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The second image, which Kreel traces back to Plato and Aristotle, is that of mindless matter. Mindless matter is not so much irrational as “nonrational,” not so much a thing to be conquered and eliminated as much as a that “which exists to serve the needs of superior, rational ‘Man.’”

The first image promotes violence against nature, women, and every other “Other” that Western Man defines against himself.  The second, while promoting violence “in its own way,” is more subtle.

As Kreel explains, Aristotle, with whom she associates the latter, thought that there is “a natural hierarchical ordering to the world, within which each being moved toward fulfillment of its own particular end.” This is significant, for “rational contemplation” is the highest and best end to which any being can aspire, but only “Man” was capable of doing so.  This means that “the rest of nature” is “conveniently ordered to free ‘Man’ to attain this contemplative goal.”

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It isn’t just ancient Greek philosophy that perpetuates the objectification and subjugation of both nature and women.  Christianity—Western Man’s dominant religious tradition for the last two centuries—is just as guilty.  Kreel writes that the “Jewish-Christian tradition has also contributed to an instrumental and hierarchical conception of nature” through its insistence that at creation, God gave “‘Man’” dominion” over all living things.

Our reaction to Hurricane Sandy shows just how environmentally insensitive, and sexist, Western Man—and, tragically, Woman—remains.  But perhaps we can use this opportunity to defeat our bigoted fears and view Sandy, not as a beast to be slewed or a force to be mastered, but as part and parcel of the same nature of which we are parts.  Perhaps we can recognize that, ultimately,Sandy is us and we are her. 

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And while we are at it, maybe—just maybe—we can finally begin to alter the misogynistic intellectual landscape—the ecology of erroneous and hostile assumptions—that accounts for the systematic oppression to which women continue to be relentlessly subjected.

Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama will dare to speak to the inextricable connection between the mistreatment of nature and the mistreatment of women. But if they did—if they even recognized it—they would realize that, philosophically, there is no difference in the motivation that leads us to reject Sandy as a “monster” and that which leads us to pay women 72 cents of every dollar paid to men.   

One final point: if you haven’t yet realized that I don’t believe a word that is written in this article, then you haven’t read anything that I have ever written in the past.  I just thought that everyone could stand to benefit from a little levity as Frankenstorm is about to crash into the Northeast. 

 

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The Age of Obama and the Racism Industrial Complex (RIC)

posted by Jack Kerwick

Sarah Palin is under fire.

Early Wednesday morning, in reference to the murderous September 11th attacks on an American embassy in Libya, Palin remarked that “President Obama’s shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end.”

All too predictably, the usual suspects have accused the 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Alaskan governor of racial insensitivity. 

Never mind that Palin quickly responded that “I would have used the exact same expression if I had been writing about President Carter, whose foreign policy rivaled Obama’s in its ineptitude, or about the Nixon administration, which was also famously rocked by a cover-up.” 

And never mind that she noted that “I’ve been known to use the phrase most often when chastising my daughter Piper to stop procrastinating and do her homework.”

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Because the expression “shuck and jive” has historically been associated with the attempt of blacks to “deceive racist Euro-Americans in power,” according to Urban Dictionary, Palin is not so subtly being charged by her opponents with peddling racism.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.  Palin is not the first person who Barack Obama and his surrogates have branded with “the R word,” and she most certainly will not be the last.  As long as there remain whites who regard the label with all of the dread with which a vampire views a cross, there will always be those who will hang it over their heads like an axe. 

But there is more to it than this.

Of all of the industries to which our country has been home over the last 50 to 60 years, there is one that has flourished to at least as great an extent as any other.  This is what we may call the Racism-Industrial-Complex (RIC).  The influence of the RIC is felt in virtually every precipice of American life, for RIC agents have been busy at work to insure a couple of things. 

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First, they are preoccupied—obsessed, really—with making sure that white racism—and it is always white racism—is treated by all Americans as the single greatest threat to world peace. 

Second, RIC agents are equally consumed with making sure that Americans believe, or at least act as if they believe, that white racism poses as potent a threat today as it ever did in the past.  

The benefits to be reaped by promulgating these ideas can’t be overestimated. 

Those who comply with RIC diminish their odds of being branded with the allegation of racism.  In a day and age when, thanks precisely to the labors of RIC agents, just the suggestion that one is a racist can effortlessly destroy livelihoods and reputations, this is no slight reward.  Monetarily, professionally, and even psychically, RIC agents, on the other hand, achieve far more.

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That the sky’s the limit for a RIC agent was witnessed by the entire planet on the evening that Barack Hussein Obama was elected as America’s 44th president. 

The Racism-Industrial-Complex has almost single-handedly created the world that we inhabit, a world in which whites’ dread of being charged with racism coexists with their genuine hope that interracial conflict will soon go the way of the dinosaur.  RIC agents generally—and Obama particularly—know this.  And four years ago, they exploited it by convincing whites that if only they would elect the country’s first black president, their fears would be vanquished and their hopes fulfilled.

Obama would redeem America of her blemished past and a new, post-racial era would be inaugurated.

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Of course, this was a lie, but it was one that many whites wanted desperately to believe.

RIC agents crave power, but, in this case, their quest may have come at too great of a cost.  Being that he is one of their own, they wanted to see Obama elected so that he could advance their agenda more aggressively and robustly than it had ever been advanced before.  However, that he is now the first black president means that a great deal of their industry’s lifeblood—the notion that America remains a bastion of white racism—has been sucked out of it.

But RIC will not die without a fight.  This explains why its agents will continue to find white racism under every nook and cranny.  It explains why they are now jumping all over Sarah Palin.

And it explains why, if Obama loses his bid for reelection, we will be hearing nothing but cries of racism ad infinitum.

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The Truth and American Politics

posted by Jack Kerwick

After the second presidential “town hall” debate, more than one Republican commentator was upset with Mitt Romney for not having put the lie to the misconceptions embodied in some of the questions with which he and his opponent had to reckon.

There was one fiction in particular that garnered its share of attention.  It pertained to the issue of gender inequality.

A young woman in the audience, exasperated by the idea that women get paid only 72 cents for every dollar paid to men, asked the incumbent and the challenger to account for how they planned on closing this “gender gap” in pay. 

Now, Romney could have noted that this woman may as well be upset over witches and ghosts.  He could have invoked plain old common sense by noting that if it was really true that employers could get this large of a discount on their labor force by simply hiring females, then men would be chronically unemployed.  He could have observed that not only is it not a fact that women are underpaid, but that, if nothing else, decades of gender-based discrimination in favor of women has guaranteed them decisive workplace advantages over men. 

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In other words, Romney could have established, with the greatest of ease, that there is no gender gap.

But the Republican nominee didn’t do any of this. Instead, he played along, and proceeded to pander to female voters with a gusto that may very well have made even his rival, the Panderer-in-Chief, blush.

Romney did not tell the truth.  Neither, I am sure, did Obama speak honestly on this issue. 

And what is true of this issue is no less true for a number of issues to which neither Democrat nor Republican is willing to speak candidly.

Yet is there anything objectionable about this?

The famed Renaissance thinker, Nicolo Machiavelli, certainly didn’t think so. 

Machiavelli’s writings were intended to serve as a sort of instructional manual for rulers and aspiring rulers.  Among the first things upon which he insists is that “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”  Machiavelli ridicules those who “have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality [.]”

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The successful politician is he who deals with reality as it is—not as he would prefer it to be.

Machiavelli’s reality is no different from our reality: this is the reality with which we must deal. That is, although we no longer refer to our “elected representatives” as rulers—we call them “leaders”—the fact of the matter remains that their quest for “dominion” is qualified by the same kinds of considerations with which the princes of five centuries ago were preoccupied.

What are these considerations?

First, the masses—we would call them “the people”—believe that “all the qualities that are reputed good” should be possessed by office holders.  

Machiavelli remarks that, “human conditions not permitting of it,” this is simply not possible. Nor, importantly, is it desirable.

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Even if it was possible for a prince to possess those traits that are thought to be character excellences, Machiavelli says that “to possess them and always to observe them is dangerous,” for if observed, they promise to “lead to one’s ruin [.]”  On the other hand, it is “useful” for a ruler or aspiring ruler to appear to possess them.  He should “seem” to be “merciful, faithful, humane, sincere,” and “religious [.]”

Machiavelli states that “it is well” for a ruler to have these qualities and, more significantly, to seem to have them. Yet he is also quick to remind such a ruler that “you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.”  Rulers, especially new rulers, must recognize that they “cannot observe all those things which are considered good in men,” for they will be “often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion.” 

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Thus, a ruler “must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate [.]”  He must “not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained.” 

The most successful ruler is he who knows how to be like both “the lion” and “the fox.”  Being powerful, the lion knows how to ward off wolves.  But he does not know how to escape traps.  The fox, in contrast, is powerless against the force of a wolf, even though he most certainly is adept at evading traps. 

While the best ruler is both fox and lion, “it is necessary” that he “be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler [.]”  Since “men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities,” he “who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”

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This last point is especially telling, for what it demonstrates is that the situation of the ruler hasn’t changed in the least from Machiavelli’s day to our own precisely because we—the populace—haven’t changed.

Granted, we live under a representative theory of government—“Democracy!”—under which we “choose” our rulers (our “leaders”).  Yet as theorists from Gaetano Mosca to Joseph Schumpeter long ago observed, the citizenry in such a system is no more immune to the manipulative machinations of rulers and aspiring rulers than were the masses under kingship (or any other constitutional arrangements). 

Actually, the citizens of a democracy are much more susceptible to being manipulated precisely because they are democrats.  Those who would rule need the votes of those over whom they wish to preside.

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As Schumpeter said, the voter’s will, far from being “determinate” and “rational,” is actually “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions” thrust upon him by “pressure groups and propaganda[.]”  For the average voter, “mere assertion, often repeated” is much weightier than “rational argument” could ever hope to be.

“The will” of “the people” that politicians claim to champion is an “artifact.”  Along with the issues themselves, it is “manufactured” similarly to the ways in which the desires and wants of consumers are manufactured by “commercial advertising.”  As Schumpeter explains, in politics:

“We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious.  We find the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are.  We find the same evasions and reticences [sic] and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people.”

Upon reading the great political theorists of the past, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

 

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