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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Philosophy Behind Obama’s Agenda

posted by Jack Kerwick

While addressing the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama told audiences that, ultimately, her husband’s ambitious agenda is not political, but personal. 

“In the end,” she said, “for Barack, these issues aren’t political—they’re personal.”

Barack, Michelle continued, “knows what it means when a family struggles.  He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids. Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it—and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”

Needless to say, there couldn’t be a more glaring contrast between the Barack Obama who the First Lady described and the Barack Obama who recently informed America’s business owners that they owe their success to others (“You didn’t build that!”). But if it is the real Obama for whom we are searching, we need look no further than the latter.

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Obama’s policies and utterances—like those of his fellow partisans within the Democratic Party—have an intellectual apparatus behind them that has been decades and decades in the making. Chief among its architects is John Rawls, a Harvard philosophy professor who achieved a well deserved reputation for being one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished polemicists for the welfare state.

Referring to their enterprises, Obama informed the country’s entrepreneurs that “you didn’t build that.”  The President didn’t misspeak, as he now claims.  Rather, he expressed a concept that is logically inseparable from the massive redistributive schemes that he favors and for which his intellectual counterparts like Rawls have intelligently—even if wrongly—argued for a long time.

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In his influential tome, A Theory of Justice, Rawls asserts that whether a person is successful or not depends upon whether he has a surplus or deficit of “natural assets.”  It also depends upon whether he is afforded opportunities for cultivating those aptitudes and talents. Obviously, though, no one did anything to deserve or earn either his endowments or his opportunities.  This explains why we tend to refer to both as “gifts,” say, or “blessings.”

This is the concept to which Obama spoke when he now infamously said that business owners didn’t “build” their success.

Now, if no one deserves his success, then, Rawls reasons, no one has a legitimate claim against the government’s plan to “spread it around,” to paraphrase Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber in 2008.  Since no one did anything to earn or deserve his aptitudes and opportunities, a person’s “natural assets” must be treated as a common stock upon which all citizens have an equal right to draw.

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Translation: the government has the right to do with a person’s fruits to confiscate and redistribute them.

Rawls contends that individuals should indeed be at liberty to employ their talents and opportunities for their own purposes—as long as doing so benefits “the least advantaged.”  This is only “fair,” Rawls explains, for just as no one deserves their success, no one deserves their failures.  Both “the advantaged” as well as “the disadvantaged” are alike the products of factors beyond their control.

And whatever is beyond the power of one’s labors can’t possibly be deserved.

What this means, though, is that there are no limits to what the government can do with the fruits of a person’s natural assets.  It also means that there are no limits to what the government can do with a person’s natural assets themselves.

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This is the vision of Obama, Rawls, and the left.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, it is not supported by its own reasoning. 

Rawls conflates that which is not deserved with that which is undeserved.  Think about it: just because you may not have a belief in X, doesn’t mean that you disbelieve in X.  Neither Aristotle nor Bill Maher believes in the divinity of Jesus. The difference between them is that Aristotle didn’t believe because he had never heard of Jesus (who wasn’t born until nearly 500 years after his death).  Maher, on the other hand, knows about Jesus but rejects the notion of his deity.

Similarly, a person who steals $500.00 is undeserving of it.  But one who receives it as a gift is not.  He doesn’t deserve the gift—a deserved gift is a contradiction in terms. Yet he is not undeserving of it either.  Moreover, at that point, it becomes his.  That is, he is then entitled to do with it as he wishes.

Obama’s and Rawls’ reasoning for the welfare state is flawed.  Sadly, however, this will not stop them from trying to grow it ever further.

 

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Envy No Vice for Leftists

posted by Jack Kerwick

If more of the American electorate were aware of three things, I would like to think that one of our two national parties would have a significantly more difficult time maintaining power.

These three things pertain to the contemporary American university.  And the party that has an interest invested in keeping Americans in the dark about these facts is the party of which President Barack H. Obama is the titular head.

The first fact is that the professorial class consists overwhelmingly of hard leftists.  

The second is that these hard leftists vote almost invariably vote for Democrats and never—never—for Republicans. 

Third and finally, Democratic politicians are continually busy at work advocating on behalf of the ideas that their academic counterparts are just as busily formulating.  To put it more simply, there is an inseparable connection between the theoretical imaginings of leftist academics and the policy prescriptions of leftist politicians—i.e. Democrats. 

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Take the Democrats tactic of choice, for instance. 

Democrats are known for nothing if not their penchant for wailing over “the greed” of “millionaires and billionaires” who “exploit” the rest of us by refusing to “pay their fair share” of taxes.  As his relentless assaults against his election opponent have amply demonstrated, Barack Obama is the Democrat par excellence when it comes to advancing this line.

Republicans refer to this as the politics of “class warfare” and/or “envy.” Democrats resist the charge.  However, when we look beyond the surface of sound bites, sloganeering, and photo shoots to the university, what we discover is that the Republicans’ charge is not wide of the mark.  Leftists, you see—always to be counted upon to depart from the ethical traditions of the civilization to which they owe their existence—do not regard envy as the vicious character disposition that it has always been held to be.   Much less do they view envy as one of the seven deadly sins that St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theorists spent centuries deploring.

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Ronald Dworkin is one of the better known legal scholars of our time.  A Harvard professor and prolific writer on topics ranging from philosophy of law to ethics to political philosophy, he has engaged in lively exchanges with the most distinguished of contemporary thinkers, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. 

In other words, Dworkin is not some fringe thinker.

This is important to bear in mind, for Dworkin reveals just how Obama and his fellow partisans think about “social” or “economic justice.”

For Dworkin, justice is to be measured in terms of an “ideal” distribution of resources.  There are two kinds of resources, “personal” and “impersonal.”  The former consists in those mental and physical attributes, like health, strength, talent, that make success in life either harder or easier to come by. Impersonal resources, on the other hand, are material goods, tangible things—properties and property rights.

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We can determine whether there exists an ideal distribution of resources—justice—by applying what Dworkin refers to as “the envy test.”  He writes: “Someone envies the resource-set of another person when he would prefer that resource-set to his own, and would therefore trade his own for it.”  If, though, “no member of the community envies the total set of resources under the control of any other member,” then “equality is perfect” and, thus, justice is achieved.

Notice, an “ideal” distribution of resources is an “equal” distribution of resources, and such a distribution is a “just” distribution.

Things get worse.

Dworkin invites us to engage in an imaginary “auction” where only impersonal resources can be traded.  That is, only property and property rights can be “equalized.”  Still, even if there is perfect equality of material possessions, some people may still envy the looks and talents of others.  And even if personal resources are more or less comparable, luck may supply unfair advantages to some people.

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In order to rectify, as much as possible, these situations, there must be “compensatory strategies to repair…inequalities in personal resources and luck.”  These “compensatory programs” can be “modeled on hypothetical insurance markets” and “financed by general taxation.”

Dworkin is clear that if there are conflicts between the demands of equality and liberty, then “invasions of liberties” will be justified if they are “necessary to protect an egalitarian distribution of resources and opportunities.”

The point here is clear: there is nothing of a person’s that the government may not confiscate as long as there are others in society who envy it.  

The kind of thinking on display in the work of academics like Ronald Dworkin finds expression in the policies of Democratic politicians like Barack Obama. 

This is what Americans need to realize—even if the Democrats would like for us to remain ignorant of it.

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A Review of Paul Gottfried’s “Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America”

posted by Jack Kerwick

From talk radio to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity, National Review to The Weekly Standard, what is popularly understood as “the conservative movement” has no short supply of voices.

But what few people—and even fewer people among self-avowed “conservatives”—ever bother to ask is whether the popular understanding of conservatism is an accurate understanding.  That is to say, are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their colleagues on the airwaves and in mainstream publications really conservative?

One person who has spent decades asking—and answering—this question is Paul Gottfried.  He raises it once more in his most recent book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.  

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And it is within this work that the author resolves this key question with a definitiveness that is obvious for all with eyes to see: the contemporary expression of “the conservative movement,” Gottfried declares, has little to nothing in common with “the Old Right” of yesteryear.

In other words, most of today’s self-described “conservatives” are nothing of the sort.  They are, rather, neoconservatives.  As such, they compose a movement, yes, but a movement that is scarcely continuous with any recognizably right-wing tradition.  On the most legible reading of it, as Gottfried amply demonstrates, the contemporary “conservative movement” is nothing more or less than another variation of leftism.  Indeed, the author cleverly, and provocatively, characterizes it as “the alternative left.” 

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So what does any of this have to do with the twentieth century philosopher, Leo Strauss?

Readers may recall the frequency with which the name of Leo Strauss was bandied about by the adversaries of the Republican Party, particularly its leftist nemeses, during the presidency of George W. Bush.  Strauss had already been dead for over forty years by the time that Bush was first elected to the Oval Office, and yet, thanks to the diligence of the latter’s objectors on the left (and, in some instances, elsewhere), Strauss’s name had acquired ominous connotations as it was linked with the hated Bush administration.

Gottfried is quick to point out that the relationship between, on the one hand, Strauss’s ideas and, on the other, Bush and “the conservative movement,” is as exaggerated as it is misunderstood. However, Gottfried is equally quick to underscore that for as erroneous as most accounts of this connection are, there nevertheless is a connection.

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To put it simply, Strauss’s ideas in the arena of political theory, the ideas that he bequeathed to his students—what Gottfried refers to as “the Tradition”—constitute the intellectual ornamentation for neoconservative foreign policy, i.e. a policy aimed at the promotion of “liberal democratic values” the world over.

This drapery in turn consists, first and foremost, of a peculiar hermeneutic—a way of reading texts, specifically philosophical texts. It is this hermeneutic, Gottfried insists, that functions as the lynchpin in the Straussian worldview. 

According to Strauss and his students, the classics of Western philosophy admit of essentially two types of readings, one that is exoteric, and one that is esoteric. The former is the text’s surface reading; it expresses what the author appears to be saying.  However, although it is discernible to only the few, it is the latter, the esoteric meaning of the text, that reveals its author’s true intentions.

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It is at this juncture that the lay reader may find himself lost.  What, he may find himself thinking, does a disputed academic literary theory, favored by a long deceased scholar, have to do with neoconservative foreign policy?  How can something so obscure have any bearing upon something as immediate and topical as politics?

The reader in this situation doesn’t have to wait long before Gottfried relieves him of his confusion: “the secret” meaning of each text discloses its author’s alleged fondness for “liberal democracy!”  As Gottfried notes, “Strauss and his students seem to be reading their own liberal, secularist values into those whom they praise as ‘philosophers.’”  The subjects of Strauss and his students, however long ago they lived, invariably “seem to replicate the cultural mindsets” of their interpreters.

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That is, whether it is Plato or Locke, in the hands of Strauss and the Straussians, their thought, emancipated from the contingencies of place and time, is enlisted in the service of such purportedly timeless and universal ideals as “liberal democracy.”   

And this is the main (but not the only) problem that Gottfried has with the Sraussian hermeneutic: it is essentially a device by which Straussians can engage in what Michael Oakeshott once characterized as “retrospective politics.”  Gottfried writes: “It is for me inconceivable that anyone would be sufficiently attracted to Strauss’s hermeneutic, particularly as pursued by his disciples, unless that person is also drawn to certain political systems.”

Gottfried concedes that Strauss was a man of immense erudition, and he confesses as well to being especially taken by some of Strauss’s earlier work, and even “entire chapters” in what is perhaps Strauss’s most controversial political-philosophic work, Natural Right and History.  In keeping with the remarkably respectful tone of his critique, Gottfried also underscores that, in his judgment, Strauss’s program, though deserving of criticism, has been exploited and corrupted by more common place minds.

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Still, the fact of the matter remains that the Straussian program is deserving of criticism, for it is not, at bottom, a philosophical program at all.  Rather, it is, ultimately, political in character.  As Gottfried remarks, Straussians have been able to “misrepresent as philosophical inquiries that are often homilies about American liberal democracy.”

These “homilies about American liberal democracy” have dovetailed seamlessly with the purposes of neoconservatives.  Yet, as Gottfried notes from the outset, Straussians benefit as much from neoconservatives as vice versa: their relationship is “symbiotic,” as he says.  In fact, the protestations of Straussians to the contrary aside, “the nexus” between the two camps “is so tight that it may be impossible to dissociate” them “in any significant way.”  He observes that while “neoconservatives draw their rhetoric and heroic models from Straussian discourse,” Straussians in turn “have benefited from the neoconservative ascendancy by gaining access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money and by obtaining positions as government advisors.”  Gottfried adds that it is “hard to think of any critical political issue that has divided the two groups.”

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Indissoluble from the categorical importance that neoconservatives and Straussians ascribe to the ideal of “liberal democracy” is their categorical repudiation of what they call “relativism” and/or “historicism.”  Indeed, these are two sides of the same coin.  Hence, even if the average politically engaged citizen had never before heard of Strauss, he has heard his voice whenever he has heard Bill Bennett or Sean Hannity or any other “conservative” commentator decry the evils of “relativism.” 

Gottfried as easily disposes of Straussian talk of “relativism” and “historicism” as he does such talk of “liberal democracy.”  First of all, there are no consistent relativists, for even the most ardent of self-declared relativists can never seem to bring their theory to bear upon their own views.  Secondly, what Strauss and his disciples describe as “relativism” and “historicism” is nothing of the sort.  If “relativism” is supposed to refer to the position that each perspective is as good as any and every other, or the position that there are no objectively grounded truth claims, or if it is supposed to entail the denial of universality, then those who stress the historicity and tradition-constituted character of political and cultural life—thinkers like Burke (Burke!)—are most certainly not the “relativists” that Strauss and company make them out to be.  

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Gottfried’s book is an academic treatise. Yet the author’s prose renders it readily accessible to the educated, but non-scholarly, lay reader who is interested in familiarizing himself with what is no doubt one of the most sober, least ideological, and, importantly, most respectful analyses of the enduring influence of the thought of Leo Strauss on neoconservative politics that has yet to be composed.

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The Church: Behind the Times and Ahead of Them

posted by Jack Kerwick

On Friday, August 31, former archbishop of Milan and one-time candidate for the papacy, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, passed away at the age of 85.

Cardinal Martini was hailed as a “progressive.”  Upon listening to the last interview that he gave before his death—and that was released this past Saturday—it becomes immediately obvious that his reputation was well deserved. 

In reference to—what else?—its millennia-old injunctions against divorce and contraception, as well as its equally old rituals, Martini stated that the Catholic Church is “200 years behind the times.”   He also contended that its much publicized pedophilia scandal should provoke the Church to “admit its mistakes” and embark upon a path of “radical change [.]”  The Church must now take “a journey of transformation.”

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One very good thing is to be gotten from America’s experience with its 44th president: if we didn’t realize it before, more of us (though, sadly, not nearly enough of us), now know that from such words as “radical change” and “transformation,” nothing very good is likely to come.

Self-styled “progressives”—leftists—can’t resist speaking along these lines.  The residents of contemporary Western societies generally, and historically young America specifically, have long since fallen in love with the concept of change.  Change signifies aversion to the old and desire for what’s new and novel.  Knowing this, leftists exploit these vague, often inchoate associations in their quest to, not reform their civilization, but remake it into something bearing little to no continuity with its current self.

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When Martini calls for the Church to engage in “radical change;” when he beckons it to undergo a “transformation,” he is in effect calling for it to extinguish itself.

He calls for its death.

Leftists, like Obama, who want to “fundamentally transform” the United States, want to end the country of their forbearers and substitute for it a new country made in the image of their own ideology.  And as goes America under leftists like Obama, so goes the Catholic Church under leftists like Martini.

Change that is radical and/or fundamentally transformative undercuts identity.

Of course, as for change itself, there is nothing in the least objectionable about it.  In fact, it is frequently desirable and, at any rate, unavoidable. But for gradual, incremental change, the Martinis and Obamas of the world have no use. 

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The 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church is a history of changes—a not inconsiderable number of which have been reasonably dramatic.  The second Vatican Council is the most recent of such wide reaching reforms that the Church has enacted.

However, change, even dramatic change, is not what Cardinal Martini wanted.  Reformative change is not what he had in mind.

Martini wanted radical change. He wanted transformation. The Cardinal wanted the same thing that all leftists want: creative destruction.  He wanted to destroy one institution and replace it with something that he could build—or at least seem to be able to build—from scratch.            

Martini can now join the ranks of the Church’s critics from over the centuries who, in so many words, have expressed his conviction that it is “behind the times.”  Yet when we consider the fate of her critics who did indeed keep up with the times by following them to the place to which all times pass, it can only be judged a good thing by her children that the Church refused to accept her detractors’ advice.

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It has been quite some time since anyone with even a shadow of wisdom has come to recognize this counsel for the folly that it is. An institution that has managed to not only endure, but to grow, over the span of 2,000 years and within a staggering variety of cultures the planet over doesn’t need a lecture from this or that generation on self-preservation. 

Such an institution is indeed in a sense behind the times.  Yet it is also ahead of and among the times.  This is the secret to its longevity.

Anyone who doesn’t know this—even if he is a Cardinal—doesn’t know the Church.

 

 

 

 

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