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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Beyond Obama’s Words: The Philosophy Behind Redistribution

posted by Jack Kerwick

Whether he is at a conference of like minded colleagues, speaking to Joe the Plumber, or making campaign stump speeches, Barack Obama has expressed time and time again his preference for “redistribution.”  Every time he calls upon “the rich” to “pay their fair share,” he reveals his desire to confiscate the resources from some in order to transfer it to others.

Though the stuff of sound bites, voters need to realize that words like “redistribution” and “fairness” serve as windows into an entire ideology, a left-wing ideology that has long since become the prevailing orthodoxy of the contemporary academic world.

The demand for “fairness” is the call for equality, it is true.  But equality here is conceived very differently from how Americans have traditionally thought about it.

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In fact, the conception of equality held by Obama and his ilk is not only different from that affirmed by America’s founders and their posterity.  The two understandings are mutually antithetical.

Historically, when Americans have affirmed equality, it has always been equality under the law of which they spoke. As such, equality is inseparable from freedom or liberty as Americans have understood the latter. 

That is, the equality—like the liberty—that they prized was held to consist in a system of formal procedures to which all citizens were equally bound.

But procedural notions of equality, liberty, and justice the Obamas of the world disdainfully dismiss as “mere formalism.” 

True justice, true freedom, true equality, they insist, must be “substantial.”

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The work of superstar academic philosopher Martha Nussbaum provides as unadulterated an illustration of this view as any.  Nussbaum thinks that to determine whether a society is just or not, we need to ask: “What is each person able to do and to be?” 

To put it more bluntly, the justice of a social order is to be measured in terms of the opportunities that it supplies to each of its members to develop their “capabilities.”  Liberty, that is, consists of “substantial freedoms” with which the members of a decent society should be equipped.

Nussbaum sets her sights upon “entrenched social injustice and inequality, especially capability failures that are the result of discrimination or marginalization.”  With an eye toward rectifying these miscarriages of “social justice,” the government, she declares, must aim “to improve the quality of life for all people, as defined by their capabilities.” 

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To no slight extent, the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke influenced many of America’s founders.  Locke was a prominent proponent of the “social contract” theory.  The idea behind the concept of the social contract is that institutional arrangements are just as long as they have the consent of those who are to be governed by them. 

Nussbaum rejects traditional social contract theories.  She maintains that the latter fail to insure “fair treatment” to the citizens of other societies, our own disabled citizens, and (“nonhuman”) animals. 

This is another way of saying that traditional social contract theories fail to guarantee equality—or “social justice.”

Unless the “deep asymmetry of power” that exists between parties to any social contract is corrected, true equality and justice promise to remain forever elusive.  There are asymmetries of power between, on the one hand, the disabled, members of the Third World, and animals and, on the other, the able, Westerners, and humans, respectively.

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These asymmetries of power, in turn, are morally unacceptable inequalities that the proponents of procedural equality—what we have traditionally described as “equality under the law”—not only ignore but perpetuate.

We have, then, no morally defensible option but to treat justice, freedom, and equality as substantive. 

In case there is any confusion over how Nussbaum (and Obama) understands equality and justice, Nussbaum states her account in plain English: Justice depends upon “outcomes”—not, primarily, procedures.

She draws us a picture.

“Suppose we are dividing a pie, and we want to divide it fairly.  One way of thinking about fairness is to look to the outcome of the division: the fair process is the one that gives us equal shares. Another way of thinking about it is to look at procedure: the fair division may be the one in which everyone takes a turn with the knife.”

Nussbaum favors the former.

And so does Obama.

This is what voters must recognize.  

 

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Exorcising Neoconservative Ghosts

posted by Jack Kerwick

A couple of weeks ago, while on Meet the Press, Peggy Noonan offered some advice to Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Romney, she said, “has to kick away from and define himself against what happened for the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency [.]”

I couldn’t agree more. 

As Noonan rightly observes, not only did Bush’s tenure culminate in “economic collapse;” it presided over “two long, frustrating wars that people think were not won.”

Romney, Noonan insists, must resist his opponents’ efforts to depict him as determined to “bring that stuff back.”

Indeed.

To hear the Republican pundits of talk radio and Fox News tell it, one could be pardoned for thinking either of one of two things.  One sufficiently reasonable inference we can draw is that the Bush presidency was not an unqualified betrayal of everything that these very same “conservative” pundits claim to affirm.  The other—the only other—proposition left for us to conclude is that the eight years of Bush never occurred.  

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But the hard, ugly fact of the matter is that the Bush presidency most certainly did occur. And for as memory-impaired as Americans tend to be, they remember it. 

This, though, isn’t as surprising as it may sound.  In fact, with Bush supporters like Bill Bennett—one of Noonan’s interlocutors on Sunday—rehashing the same talking points that figured so prominently for the better part of a decade, it would be surprising if Americans hadn’t yet recovered completely from their Bush fatigue.

Bennett asserted that we shouldn’t “throw out” the entirety of Bush’s presidency, for the 43rd president “did a lot of fine things.” 

Predictably—incredibly?—the only example of such “fine things” that Bennett offered was that of the Iraq War. “We won the war in Iraq,” he declared definitively.

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Now, whether Bennett’s judgment is accurate or not is not the issue. The point is that very few Americans think that Bennett and his ilk are correct on this score. And of those who sympathize with his position, most don’t believe that the blood, time, and treasure our country invested in Iraq was worth it. 

But it isn’t just Bennett who reminds voters of the Bush years. From talk radio and Fox News personalities to politicians like John McCain, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney himself, Republicans, whether inadvertently or otherwise, do so as well.

Whenever Republicans accuse President Obama of being an “appeaser” or of “leading from behind” on the world stage, they remind voters of just how belligerent Bush’s foreign policy really was. 

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Bear in mind, Obama was responsible for “the surge” of some 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.  He deployed soldiers to Libya to assist rebels in overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi, and invaded Pakistan to have Osama bin Laden assassinated.  Obama has also arranged for repeated drone attacks on al-Qaida terrorists in this same country.

In other words, Obama is no dove. He could never credibly be mistaken for a pacifist or even a non-interventionist.

Republicans know this.  While they blast him for being weak on foreign policy, they also describe his policies as being a continuation of those of Bush! They further concede that Obama is not an “appeaser” when they blast him for deliberately revealing to the media such national security related secrets as the drone attacks that he has authorized.

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When Republicans say that Obama is weak on national defense and foreign policy, what they can all too easily be interpreted as saying is that they do indeed want to “bring that stuff back” from the Bush years, to use Noonan’s words.  Actually, if Obama’s policies are continuous with those of Bush, but Obama is too weak, then it would appear that Republicans want an agenda that is even more aggressive than that of Bush’s. 

This is all worth bringing up.  Yet it is especially worthwhile doing so in the immediate aftermath of the American embassy attack that unfolded on our second 9/11 in Libya.

This latest event has thrust the issue of foreign policy to the forefront of an election season that has thus far involved relatively little talk of anything other than the economy.  Romney has come out forcefully against Obama’s response, in so many words repeating the Republican refrain of weakness against the latter.  Romney has been no less forceful in condemning the murderous rioters who stormed the embassy.

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Romney’s utterances here are understandable and probably, given his aspiration to unseat Obama, unavoidable.  Perhaps they will even prove to be to his benefit.

But they could also be a double-edged sword. 

In the absence of an unqualified promise to get our people the hell out of these Middle Eastern lands, it is with the greatest of ease that Romney’s tough talk could suggest to many a voter that his administration would be at least another four more years of Bush.

Since a majority of Americans will recoil from this idea, Romney and his fellow partisans may want to rethink their approach to our endless troubles in the Islamic world.

 

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Romney, Bush, and Foreign Policy

posted by Jack Kerwick

In a 60 Minutes interview this past Sunday, Barack Obama touched upon a topic that, if pursued, could very well hand him an election victory come November.

In response to rival Mitt Romney’s objections against his approach to Syria and Iran, the President responded simply: if, he said, Romney “is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so.”

As long as both campaigns remain focused on domestic considerations, chances are good that the Romney family will be moving into the White House at the beginning of next year. Even foreign policy discussions don’t have to be excluded from the Romney agenda—as long as the former Massachusetts governor focuses our attention upon Obama’s failed promises in this arena.

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But if Romney insists on promoting his current strategy of depicting Obama as weak and timid with respect to America’s relations with the Middle East, then he supplies the President with a golden opportunity to invoke the specter of George W. Bush’s America.

This is the last thing that any Republican should want.    

A Republican that isn’t a neoconservative ideologue will not want for Americans to be reminded of President Bush’s foreign policy.  In fact, he will want nothing more than for his compatriots to forget all about Bush’s designs to remake the Islamic world in the image of some democratic ideal.

The problem is that the neoconservative foreign policy that dominated during Bush’s two terms in office isn’t just one policy option among others.  It is the cornerstone of neoconservative ideology.

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And, in spite of its wild unpopularity with the American electorate, neoconservative ideology remains the ideology of the Republican Party.

So, while Republicans will stop at nothing to compromise on virtually every conceivable issue, they resolutely refuse to compromise on the one issue—foreign policy—that cost them both chambers of Congress in ’06, and the presidency in ’08.

Romney should avoid like the plague the drawing of comparisons between Bush and himself.

There are two reasons for this.

First, the country has had war fatigue since the Bush era.  The average American neither understands nor appreciates why his government insists upon deploying his resources in blood and treasure in the Middle East. 

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It isn’t necessarily that the average American is ignorant of the line that Bush and his supporters have tirelessly pushed in the service of this end.  He may very well know all about our last president’s missionary zeal to democratize the Middle East.  And he may know equally well that, by Bush and his supporters’ lights, only if such a project comes to fruition can Americans bet on achieving “national security.” 

The average American knows what the neoconservatives believe.  He just can’t believe that anyone can seriously believe it.

Yet his incredulity gives way to fear once this belief becomes our nation’s foreign policy.

This fear in turn becomes paralyzing at the thought that this foreign policy should be resurrected with a vengeance in the event of a Romney victory.

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The second reason that Romney should emphatically disavow all comparisons between himself and the neoconservative Bush is a bit more theoretical.  Still, theory intersects straight through practical politics on this score.

Simply put, both morally and intellectually, there is a glaring inconsistency between calls for a more “limited” government, on the one hand, and, on the other, a more robust foreign policy.  A more robust foreign policy, after all, requires a more robust military.

Yet the United States military is the federal government. What this means is that the larger the military, the larger must be the federal government of which it is a part.

In turn, this implies that everything that can be said against big government can just as easily—and inescapably—be said against big military.

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For example, if big government is financially unsustainable, as Romney and Republicans continually tell us, then, because big military is big government, a big military is financially unsustainable.

More tellingly, if big government is a betrayal of the liberty-centered ethical vision of America’s founders, then big military is as well.

Indeed, no Republican should want for Americans to be reminded of neoconservative foreign policy this election year.

The one Republican who should desire least this least of all is Mitt Romney.

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Is “the Right Wing” Responsible for Neglect of Liberal Arts?

posted by Jack Kerwick

Just hours before writing this, some colleagues of mine at a local community college in New Jersey where I teach philosophy were busy lamenting their students’ utter lack of interest in the liberal arts.  Indeed, the phenomenon to which my colleagues refer is one of which educators everywhere are all too familiar.  They are further correct in recognizing it for the tragedy that it is.   

Even more tragic, though, is that their analysis of the problem is a function of the problem itself. 

You see, the reason why college students have zero interest in reading Shakespeare, Plato, or any of the classics of Western civilization, according to them, is because of developments that transpired within American society during the last couple of decades. The name of Bill Bennett—Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan—was dropped during this conversation.  One of the parties to it also spoke of what he evidently thinks is the mutually antagonistic relationship between “free market capitalism” and liberal learning.  “Right wing radio” too was identified as one of the culprits behind the state of neglect to which the liberal arts have been reduced.

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So, what my colleagues are basically saying is that roughly since the time of Reagan’s presidency, non-leftists have succeeded in affecting a radical paradigm shift in higher education.  Thanks to their efforts, the contemporary university has transformed itself from a place of classical liberal learning to one that is now modeled on the pattern of a business.  Courtesy of “the right wing” with its commitment to “free market capitalism,” the university no longer exists to promote knowledge for its own sake. It now exists for the sake of promoting its students’ careers.    

That the university is in a state of ill repair is undoubtedly true.  And that there is a sense in which students are treated as customers is equally true.

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But the proposition that it is those on the right—Republicans!—who have managed to visit all of these changes upon—of all places!—academia and only within the last twenty to thirty years, is just laughable on its face. 

The university has been and remains a bastion of leftism.  Any analysis of the state of education today that fails to mention this stone cold fact is fatally flawed.  Any analysis that both fails to mention this and that lays the blame for all of the challenges facing higher education solely at the feet of those on the political right is preposterous.

In reality, there are many things that account for the poverty of imagination from which far too many of our college students suffer.

First, it is true, I think, that what my colleagues call “free market capitalism” indeed has something to do with students’ anti-intellectualism. But this is just another way of saying that, from its inception,America herself may not have been the most hospitable clime within which to foster a love for the liberal arts. 

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“Free market capitalism,” mind you, is not an “ism” at all, for “free market capitalism,” strictly speaking, no more exists than does some thing called “the weather.” Rather, in America, where liberty has historically been prized above all other goods, what we have had is a set of institutional arrangements that diffuse power and authority widely.  One way—the only way—to insure this is by seeing to it that every individual citizen has a right to private property.   

“Capitalism” refers to nothing more or less than a situation comprised of countless people exercising their property rights. 

That is, “free market capitalism” is nothing more or less than freedom.

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Now, that being said, freedom—as Americans have traditionally conceived it—may very well inhibit students’ interest in the liberal arts. America, after all, is a relatively new country, a country that prided itself on parting ways from the ancient traditions of the Mother continent of Europe.  It is not by accident that as American freedom grew in favor so too did the notion of “practical knowledge” grow among Americans.

In glaring contrast, the classical ideal of liberal learning affirms knowledge for its own sake—not the sake of some material satisfaction regarding which knowledge is a mere means.

Second, the liberal arts presuppose a particular orientation toward time. More specifically, since they compose the inheritance that is our civilization, to study the liberal arts is, necessarily, to center our attention primarily upon the past.  This doesn’t preclude present enjoyment, but it is utterly incompatible with the obsessive focus on the future that marks those “capitalists” who are beholden to the god of “practical knowledge.”

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Ironically, though, the “capitalist’s” leftist critics, like my colleagues, are just as obsessed with the future as is the object of their critique.

Leftist professors tend to be activists.  Not unlike “the capitalists” who they despise, their eyes are always looking off into the future, for it is in the future where the next utopia is to be found. And because this as-yet-unrealized promised land requires for its realization a particular set of political arrangements, what this means is that the leftist professor, in being an activist, can’t resist politicizing education.

But politics is as topical and transitory as any enterprise, and the political activist is as preoccupied with the next achievement as are consumers and entrepreneurs (i.e. “capitalists”). 

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When he turns toward the past and the present at all, it is for the purpose of conscripting them into the service of bringing to fruition the future of which he dreams.

Whether, then, we are dealing with “free market capitalists” or leftist academics, it appears that the classical ideal of learning for its sake—the principle of the liberal arts—is obsolete.

There is, though, but another respect in which students’ disinterest in the liberal arts may just be one of the leftist academic’s chickens coming home to roost.

Both academic and popular leftists have labored inexhaustibly to convince the inhabitants of the Western world that their civilization is incorrigibly oppressive. And this is but another way of saying that the whites, the white men especially, with whom it had historically been identified, are evil.

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But if Western civilization is the cesspool that leftists make it out to be and if whites are responsible for the lion’s share of wickedness in the world, then on what basis can we convince the young (or anyone else) that Western civilization is something to be learned and preserved?  On what grounds can we hope to persuade them that some of the most wicked men in the world—such dead white males as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare,Canterbury, etc.—are fonts of wisdom and virtue?

In politicizing the study of the liberal arts by making it all about the study of racial, gender, and class oppression, the academic leftist has chopped off his proverbial nose to spite his face.

If we truly wish to understand the condition of the liberal arts today, we need to abandon the silly notion that the American right or Republicans have anything to do with it.

This, in turn, means that we need to know a thing or two about the larger American culture, yes, but, even more importantly, the leftist ideologues who teach the liberal arts. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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