Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Krauthammer is typically held in the highest regard by some media personalities on the right.  The same can be said for George Will.

Yet very recently, while promoting his latest book, Krauthammer revealed to Brett Baier of Fox News that neither he nor Will knew a thing about “the real” Barack Obama back in 2008 prior to the latter’s election to the presidency.

Will seconded this thought.

Let this sink in: Krauthammer and Will, veteran media commentators—self-avowed “conservative” commentators—admit, and think nothing of admitting, that up until his election, they just couldn’t figure out what kind of president Obama promised to be.

This is amazing.

Among those amazed by Krauthammer’s and Will’s professed ignorance was Rush Limbaugh.

On his nationally syndicated radio show, on October 28, Limbaugh remarked: “I am convinced that all conservatives know a statist and a big-government redistributionist when they see one, especially people like Krauthammer and Will.” In disbelief, he added: “It doesn’t compute with me that they didn’t know [who Obama really was].”

Krauthammer accused Limbaugh of misconstruing his position.  What the former actually said, Krauthammer insisted, is that “when Obama was elected, it was not clear whether he was a centrist Democrat who would throw a bone to the left; or if he was a man of the left who would occasionally throw a bone to the center.”

Hopefully it is clear to the reader that Krauthammer’s “defense” of his earlier remarks simply reinforces the painful fact that Limbaugh understood him all too well.

At the time of the election of 2008, there was no conceivable justification for anyone, much less seasoned right-leaning commentators, to have had any doubts whatsoever about Obama.

Long before Election night, everyone who wanted to know who Obama was had that information available to them in spades.  After all, it wasn’t as if the man was a nameless drifter.  Obama was a United States Senator and, before that, a state Senator from Illinois. His relationships with an array of radicals from the political cesspool of Chicago, radicals like convicted terrorist Bill Ayers, were well established. For God’s sake, the man had published not one, but two memoirs.  The subtitle of the first—“A Story of Race and Inheritance”—revealed for all with eyes to realize it that Obama’s had been a lifelong preoccupation with racial identity—and racial politics.

We knew then that not only had Obama resisted efforts to provide legal protection for those infants who had survived botched abortions, he also was on record for lamenting the fact that the United States Constitution makes no allowances for wealth redistribution—or what Obama and his ilk call “positive liberty.”

Most tellingly of all, though, is that months before Obama was elected to the Oval Office, the name of Jeremiah Wright became known to the nation.  Wright is an impassioned advocate of “Black Liberation Theology” and a close friend of Louis Farrakhan and the late Muammar Gaddafi.

He was also Obama’s pastor and, as the President described him, his “spiritual mentor,” the man who “brought him to Christ.” For over 20 years Obama sat in the pews of Wright’s church, a church in which the congregation was routinely subjected to sermons chock full of racially-charged diatribes.  Such was Obama’s spiritual and intellectual indebtedness to Wright that the title of the former’s second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, was first the title of one of Wright’s sermons, the sermon in which he memorably remarks that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need”—a line that Obama would approvingly draw upon himself.

And yet, we are expected to believe, Wright had no influence over the development of Obama’s worldview.

Apparently, Krauthammer and Will did believe this.

Or at least they wanted to believe it.

We can bet anything that if Obama had been white and had a track record of allying himself with neo-Nazis or Klansmen, or even had he been a little too close to “isolationists” like, say, Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, Krauthammer and Will would’ve wasted no time to judge him for what he was .

Like legions of (mostly white) Americans, though, they wanted to believe that Obama, America’s first black president, was different.

Krauthammer, Will, and every other self-professed “conservative” who failed to expose the real Obama were either naïve or dishonest.  Their blindness was either genuine or contrived.

Whatever the case may be, they threw their own credibility into question.

 

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.

Not long ago, Professor Butler was at it again.

According to Campus Reform, she had tweeted that the Republicans had 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.

Few holidays are as “politically incorrect” as is the day that Americans reserve to commemorate the birthday of Christopher Columbus. Such is the ferocity of the smear campaign to which Columbus has been subjected for decades that he has been made into a villain among villains in the rogues’ gallery of history.

Geoffrey Symcox, of the Medieval and Renaissance Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, says of Columbus that while a “brilliant mariner,” he was nevertheless “an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing—not even exploitation, slavery, or twisting Biblical scripture—to advance his ambitions [.]”  He continues: “The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas” has always been ignored by scholars and laity alike, for all that mattered is that he was “the great bringer of white man’s civilization to the benighted idolatrous American continent.”

“Native American” activist Ward Churchill—the same disgraced University of Colorado professor who made national news when he referred to the thousands who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 as “little Eichmanns”—wrote that Columbus Day celebrations rank “very high” among those “expressions of non-indigenous sensibility” that “contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians [.]”

Russell Means, an American Indian activist, once said that next to Columbus, Hitler “looks like a juvenile delinquent.” And during the 500th year anniversary of the Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the National Council of Churches released a statement imploring Christians to abstain from celebrating.  “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some,” the statement read, “was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.”

There are a few things to note about the bad press that Columbus began receiving in the second half of the 20th century.

First, this campaign against Columbus—and that’s exactly what it is, a campaign—is not inspired by any disinterested pursuit of historical accuracy.  In fact, none of this is about history at all. Rather, like so much else of what passes for “history” today, it is nothing more or less than “retrospective politics,” as the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott once labeled the enterprise of dressing up brute partisan polemics with references to “the past.”

This brings us to our next point.  A real historian should try as much as possible to resist making any moral pronouncements regarding the characters of his subjects.  Those who seek to reduce Columbus to a caricature of evil personified reduce themselves to the simplest of polemicists. And that Columbus’s critics are practically to a man and woman of the same leftist political orientation should be more than enough to establish that they seek to promote an ideological agenda.

And what is this ideological agenda?  At this juncture in our civilization, most people who pay any attention to these matters know well enough the answer to this question.

The campaign against Columbus isn’t about history, it is true, but, ultimately, it isn’t even about Columbus.

It is nothing more or less than a wholesale condemnation against Western civilization.

As “community organizer” extraordinaire Saul Alinsky knew well enough, to be successful, the organizer must concretize the abstract institutional arrangements against which he rails by giving them a face.  “The System” is too vague. The organizer, to be effective, must single out a specific target for attack.

Columbus’s detractors are the Western world’s malcontents.  In convicting this white, Christian man, Columbus, of the worst of sins, his enemies hold him up as the quintessential poster boy for all Westerners of European stock.  Columbus is merely a symbol of the brutal racial oppression upon which the West was founded.

Anyone who doubts this thesis need only consider that the same kind of charges made against Columbus—he was an “exploiter,” a “racist,” an “enslaver,” and a “genocidal murderer”—have been made by leftists against any number of people traditionally regarded as Western heroes.  Many of America’s Founders are a case in point.

The effort to discredit Columbus is of a piece with the effort to discredit Western civilization itself.  It is a part, an integral part, of a movement to demoralize Western peoples by depriving them of those of their heroes who have occupied a particularly esteemed position in their collective consciousness, those of their heroes who signify for them some of the noblest, the most essential, moments in the life of their civilization.

That there were indeed injustices visited by Europeans against the Indians is undeniable. It is no less true that to know only this is to know virtually nothing.  For now, suffice it to say that Columbus was no saint.  However, neither was he a villain.  He was a man whose vision and courage contributed immeasurably to the world, “the New World,” from which countless numbers of peoples have been reaping endless blessings for centuries.

Happy Columbus Day!