Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Thomas Sowell recently wrote an article in which he suggested that “thinking” is an activity whose time has come and gone.  Yet if he is right—and I believe that he is—then it isn’t only the intellectual virtue of analytical rigor of which we deprive ourselves.

The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “thought” is “the essence of morality.”  Thinking is no different than any other activity inasmuch as it requires both lots of practice as well as the self-discipline that it takes to commit to all of this practicing.  Yet self-discipline, in this context, demands the cultivation of virtues, not just of the mind, but of the thinker’s overall character.

Courage is one virtue that is indispensable to clear thinking.  It takes guts to examine one’s own preconceptions, to follow an argument to its logical term—regardless of whether this means the doom of one’s own cherished beliefs.  It probably takes even more guts to subject the ideology of the mob, the conventional wisdom, to this same withering interrogation.

Courage, though, is a virtue that in any number of activities can and does co-exist with vice.  In war and in sports, say, a man’s courage needn’t prevent him from acting unjustly.  But the courageous thinker has an acute sense of justice, for there is no idea, regardless of how silly, popular, or offensive it may be, to which he will refuse a fair hearing.

There are more character excellences that clear thinking breeds.  However, these two virtues alone are enough to commend it.

Courage and justice are goods worth possessing on their own account, but they are also essential to good citizenship—especially when the citizen is supposed to be a self-governing agent.

Lest the individual citizen have the courage of his convictions, the courage to challenge the consensus of “the majority,” the latter promises to reduce itself to nothing more or less than a mob.  Ditto if individuals lack justice.

How different matters would be if our culture held thinking in as high esteem as it holds, say, Honey Booboo.  Consider the Benghazi case in light of an America obsessed with thinking clearly.

Democrats are laboring inexhaustibly to convince the public that this whole thing is an issue only because Republicans insist upon “politicizing” it.  In a culture in which clear thinking is endemic, no Democratic politician would even conceive of peddling this line, much less attempt to do so.

To the clear thinker, it is a no-brainer that a murderous attack against the American government, an attack about which the latter conveyed what we now know was gross misinformation, is nothing if it isn’t a political event.  In other words, it is self-politicizing: it became “politicized” long before anyone could have deliberately set out to make it so.

The clear thinker also knows that even if it is true that Republicans are interested in Benghazi only for the sake of punishing Democrats, this is neither here nor there.  Knowledge of a person’s intentions is indispensable to determining his character—not the rightness or wrongness of his actions.  For the wrong reasons, one may do the right thing, and for the right reasons, one may act wrongly.

Whether or not the Obama administration is guilty of a cover up of epic proportions is a question worth asking in its own right—regardless of who is asking it, or why.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney suggests that the events that unfolded in Benghazi are immaterial because they “happened a long time ago.”  The clear thinker realizes that regardless of when Benghazi occurred, time is no more relevant to moral value than is size or color.  Unless this was true, it would be pointless for us to discuss anything or anyone from the past.

Like anything else worthwhile, clear thinking is hard work.  Yet its benefits—both for the individual and the citizenry—more than compensate for its costs.

 

In one of his more recent columns—“Is Thinking Obsolete?”—Thomas Sowell takes note of the intellectual laziness that appears to have consumed our culture.

“It is always amazing,” he writes, “how many serious issues are not discussed seriously, but instead simply generate assertions and counter-assertions.”  Sowell identifies “television talk shows,” where “people on opposite sides often just try to shout each other down” as a particularly salient illustration of this troubling phenomenon.

“There is a remarkable range of ways of seeming to argue without actually producing any coherent argument,” he notes.

In part, the inability to think critically and honestly is the legacy of “decades of dumbed-down education.”  Yet there is more to it than this.  Sowell states: “Education is not merely neglected in many of our schools today, but is replaced to a great extent by ideological indoctrination.” He laments that “a student can go all the way from elementary school to a Ph.D. without encountering any fundamentally different vision of the world from that of the prevailing political correctness.”

What’s even worse is that “the moral perspective” that accompanies “this prevailing ideological view is all too often that of people who see themselves as being on the side of the angels against the forces of evil”—irrespective of the issue in question.

Of course, Sowell is correct about all of this. Yet matters are actually worse than what he says, for with the death of thinking goes the death of virtue.

The good thinker must possess the virtue of analytical rigor, it is true.  But this isn’t the only virtue that comes with good thinking.

For millennia, the story of Socrates’ fate has served as a constant reminder that the enterprise of thinking, real thinking, is an inherently subversive activity.  It is radical, for there is no idea that is immunized against it, no idea that the committed thinker will not interrogate.  Obviously, then, thinking is a threatening engagement—for both the thinker as well as those to whom he turns his attention.

Thus, thinking both requires and cultivates the excellence of courage.  It is a manly art that fortifies its practitioners even as they risk being alienated from “the respectable crowd”—i.e. the self-appointed guardians of the prevailing orthodoxy.

However, it isn’t just ostracism that is the cost of good thinking. The good thinker also risks his own self-image, for clear thinking demands self-denial, the denial of those of the thinker’s own emotions, passions, and desires that conflict with his pursuit of truth.  Self-denial is self-discipline, or moderation—traditionally, a cardinal virtue.  Yet this, in turn, also gives rise to honesty or veracity.

Yet there are still other crowning achievements that come with good thinking.

Whatever else may be said of them, while trying “to shout each other down,” those television talk show personalities to whom Sowell alludes most definitely cannot be said to possess humility.  But humility is necessary for clear thinking, for it enables us to recognize the very real possibility that our preconceptions, and even our convictions, just might be wrong.  Without this acknowledgment, the thinker reduces himself to nothing more or less than a mere apologist for his own prejudices.

Humility, in turn, is indispensable if wisdom is to be had.  When the Oracle informed Socrates that he was the wisest of human beings, he was incredulous.  On the one hand, he knew that the gods cannot lie.  On the other, he was also painfully aware of his own ignorance.  After a time, he discovered that the gods were right: he was the wisest of men, but precisely because he knew that he knew nothing.

Finally, good, sober thinking breeds a sense of justice or good will.  The good thinker grants a fair hearing to all ideas—including, especially, those of his opponents.

Courage, honesty, moderation, wisdom, humility, justice—for thousands of years, Western civilization has prized these character traits.  Our ancestors also realized that these excellences are inseparable from that of good thinking.

If, as Sowell suggests, thinking is obsolete, then virtue is imperiled as well.  

Even had Republicans won the much coveted Hispanic vote in November, Mitt Romney still would have lost.

Thus declares Byron York while writing in the Washington Examiner last week.

Using a New York Times’ calculator devised by Nate Silver, York reports that even if Romney “had been able to make history and attract 50 percent of Hispanic voters,” he “still would have been beaten, 283 electoral votes to 255.”  And had he “been able to do something absolutely astonishing for a Republican and win 60 percent of the Hispanic vote,” he “would have lost by the same margin, 283 electoral votes to 255.”

To show just how wide of the mark is the conventional wisdom on the GOP’s need for Hispanics, York reveals that even had Romney “been able to reach a mind-blowing 70 percent of the Hispanic vote,” he “still would have lost [.]”  In such a situation, Romney would have won the popular vote while losing the Electoral College, 270-268.

York informs us that Romney would have had to increase his share of the Hispanic vote from the paltry 27 percent that he actually received to a whopping 73 percent to have won in 2012.  Obviously, York concludes, “Romney, and Republicans, had bigger problems than Hispanic voters.”

Indeed.  Some of us have known all of this for quite some time.  We also have known what York tells us next:

“The most serious” of Republicans’ problems “was that Romney was not able to connect with white voters who were so turned off by the campaign that they abandoned the GOP and in many cases stayed away from the polls altogether.”

Romney, like McCain before him, failed to resonate with white voters.

And judging from the number of whites who decided to either sit out the election or throw in behind Obama or some third party candidate, this failure to connect was huge. “Recent reports,” York relays, “suggest [that] as many as 5 million white voters simply stayed home on Election Day.” What exactly does this mean?  Well, if whites “had voted at the same rate [that] they did in 2004, even with the demographic changes since then, Romney would have won.”

York adds that “the white vote is so large that an improvement of 4 points…would have won the race for Romney.”

Given all of this, York facetiously asks: “So which would have been a more realistic goal for Romney—matching the white turnout from just a few years earlier, or winning 73 percent of Hispanic voters?”

York asserts that if 2012 voting patterns remain constant—“whites voting in lower numbers but about 60 percent for Republicans, blacks and Asians turning out in large numbers and voting 90 percent and 70 percent, respectively, for Democrats”—then “Republicans will have to win an astonishingly high percentage of the Hispanic vote to capture the White House.”

York then proceeds to debunk the conventional wisdom among Republican politicians and pundits as the conventional folly that it is. “It is simply not reasonable,” he states, “to believe that there is something the GOP can do—pass immigration reform, juice up voter-outreach efforts—that will create that result.”

So, what must the GOP do?

The bulk of York’s piece has all but spelled out the answer to this question: appeal to the millions of disenchanted whites who feel that their interests have been neglected by both national parties.  Yet even now, and in spite of all that he has written, York still tries to avoid being racially explicit.  Instead, he writes of the need for Republicans to reach “the millions of Americans who have seen their standard of living decline over the past decades,” those to whom Romney failed to appeal.  The next Republican presidential candidate who can do this, he is convinced, will win.

York is to be commended for daring to speak a truth that far too many try at all costs to deny.  And he is certainly correct when he concludes his article with the reminder that reaching those millions of Americans who otherwise feel betrayed or ignored by Republicans “would do more than any immigration bill or outreach program ever could.”

But neither York nor any other Republican can afford to be afraid to say that it is reaching millions of white voters that will guarantee the GOP future electoral victories.  Nor should they ignore the fact that these same whites do not live by bread alone. It isn’t just material concerns that motivate them, but the sense, the conviction, that political and cultural elites have silently declared a kind of cold war against them: they are the only group that is not supposed to have legitimate interests.

Until Republicans come to terms with this reality, white voter turn-out will remain low.

And Republicans will remain losers.

 

 

Recently, I wrote an article on “terrorism” that was rejected by a publication that typically accepts my submissions.

In my piece, I make two points.

First, in spite of the confidence with which everyone presumes to know its nature, there is anything but agreement over what “terrorism” could possibly mean, for the word has been applied in connection with both those Muslims who have killed agents of the American government as well as with those who have killed civilians.

The definition of “terrorism” is unclear.

The second point I made is that whether we apply the term “terrorism” to one class of attackers or the other, we presuppose a meaning for the word that at least appears to apply just as well to modern states—including our own country.

If the Muslims who take aim at agents of the U.S. government are terrorists, then so too, it would appear, were the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor.  If those responsible for 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing are terrorists because they attacked civilians, then, it would seem, so too might our own government’s actions toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, be acts of terrorism.

But only non-state actors can be terrorists, some might say.  If so (and this is a big “if”), then maybe it is the case that only states can go to war, and then, only with other states.  This objection proves too much, for it undermines those who insist that we are in a “war” with “Radical Islam.”

A much more common objection is that neither America nor any other modern “democracy” intends to kill civilians—even if this loss of life is foreseen.  The otherwise sound Catholic doctrine of “double-effect”—the doctrine that an otherwise objectionable course of action may be permissible as long as its consequences, though foreseen, are unintended and unavoidable—is here invoked.  It is also corrupted.

As the distinguished 20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end.  Otherwise there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.’”

The publication that rejected this piece rejected it on three grounds.

First, the editors protested, terrorism does indeed have an “objective definition.”   To support this contention, they directed me to an old article in their archives in which the author, following conventional practice, defines terrorism as the murder of innocents for political purposes.

For starters, I never denied the possibility of defining terrorism.  In fact, I draw on elements of my editors’ definition to support my point that whether it is Islamic belligerents killing government agents or civilians (i.e. “innocents”), labeling these as acts of terrorism gives rise to problems that are both logical and ethical.  Moreover, the claim that there is an “objective definition” of terrorism may be true, but this precludes neither the possibility of other “objective” definitions nor the possibility that this definition is objectively false.  To assert otherwise is question-begging.

Second, the Benghazi attack on an American embassy was conducted by, not a spontaneously formed mob, but “an Al-Qaeda affiliate”—i.e. a terrorist organization.

Again, this does not speak to anything that I wrote.  I never denied that there are terrorists.  As the title of my article makes clear, I am interested in answering the question: What is terrorism? This is a philosophical question that, as such, cannot be answered by merely pointing to a group that is widely regarded as a terrorist group.  To go about it this way is, once more, to beg the question.

Finally, the editors disagreed with my insinuation that we treat the attacks I list as acts of terror just because they are executed by Muslims.  After all, the Oklahoma City bombing was deemed a terrorist act, yet the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was a white American.

This objection is just as misplaced as the first two.

Because their shared faith is the only common denominator in my list of attacks, it is true that I suggest that this is why we insist upon lumping together Muslims who kill government agents with those who kill civilians as terrorists.  But this in no way implies that anyone thinks that only Muslims are terrorists.

Even a friend remarked that I should’ve first stated “the accepted definition” of terrorism and then critiqued it.  But I wanted to work backwards by looking at the various ways in which we use the term “terrorism” to show that if a meaningful definition is forthcoming, it still eludes us.  I wasn’t going to start with a definition: I am still in search of one.