Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

For many of us, Barack Obama’s presidency has been anything but an occasion for rejoicing.  From its beginnings to the present, and particularly during the last couple of months with the eruption of one scandal after the other, it has been like a dark cloud hanging over the nation’s head.

Still, this dark cloud does indeed have a silver lining.

Five years ago, Obama and his supporters (on both the left and right) assured the country that his election promised to alleviate interracial tensions.  Most people bought this line.  Some of us, though, knew that it was just that—a line.   Moreover, we knew that not only would race relations not improve, they would actually worsen as the usual suspects in the Racism Industrial Complex (RIC), ever fearful that a black president would undermine their heretofore tried and true narrative of perpetual white oppression and black suffering, accelerated their cries of “racism.”

On the other hand, some of us also knew that RIC agents’ fears were not unfounded.  For however frequently and loudly they screamed “racism,” the presence of a black president—and a black president with the name of Barack Hussein Obama, to boot—could very well, eventually, suck the life out of their template.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken two weeks ago suggests that maybe, just maybe, this is beginning to occur.

The poll found that the public’s support for affirmative action is at an all-time low. 

Forty-five percent of respondents maintain that this race-centered preferential treatment policy is still necessary in order to protect racial minorities.  But, for the first time, an equal number of people think that it is unjust inasmuch as it discriminates against white.

The significance of this can’t be overstated.  Two decades ago, 61 percent of Americans supported affirmative action.

Predictably, race and politics remain reliable indicators of where one comes down on this issue.  Opposition to affirmative action stems from nearly 60 percent of whites, 40 percent of Hispanics, and 20 percent of blacks. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats support it, versus just 22 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of self-identified members of the Tea Party who do so.  Independents support affirmative action by just 39 percent.

As NBC News’ Domenico Mantanaro writes, this historically low support for affirmative action is attributable to several things, including “diversity fatigue” and “20 years of anti-affirmative-action campaigns.”  Yet, he adds, it is also explained as a result of “an African-American being elected president [.]”

Whether Obama’s presidency is just one cause among others or a primary contributor to the erosion of support for affirmative action is neither here nor there.  To the extent that it accounts to any extent for this phenomenon almost makes his time in the Oval office worth it, for there are few policies as inimical to our constitutional order as affirmative action.

The liberty that Americans have always prized and that our Founders did their best to codify in and secure by way of the Constitution did not fall like manna from heaven.  It is the product of many generations, a complex of historically and culturally-specific habits, including and especially the habit of despising large concentrations of power.  This last found its penultimate expression in respect for the rule of law.

The rule of law prevents those in government from succumbing to arbitrary—i.e. unlawful—deployments of the power at their disposal.  In other words, it forbids them from acting partially, whether in their own interests or those of a class.  It requires of the government that it refrain from privileging some citizens above others.

The rule of law precludes affirmative action.

Reporting on the results of the NBC/WSJ poll, Domenico Mantanaro says that respondents who reject affirmative action reject it on the grounds that such “programs unfairly discriminate against whites.”  They are mistaken.  Affirmative action deserves to be rejected, certainly, but not because it is either discriminatory or discriminatory against whites.

Affirmative action needs to be abolished because it is government discrimination against some citizens and in favor of others.

As such, it is an affront to the liberty of all citizens.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Obama’s color wound up actually harming his cause by facilitating the end of affirmative action and a restoration of some measure of liberty?

 

 

No one wants to be thought of as a “statist,” a proponent of “statism,” for the “statist,” it is widely held, is an ardent lover of an omnipresent, omnipotent government.  Conversely, he despises individuality or liberty.

Despite the regularity with which “statism” and the like are bandied about, they are deeply problematic.

Admittedly, over the span of roughly 500 years or so, the concept of a state has lent itself to multiple readings.  Yet initially, the term referred to a political entity, an association organized by a centralizing authority—a government.  Note, government, though essential to a state, was never thought to be synonymous with it.  Rather, a state was the sum total of all activities transpiring within its territorial jurisdiction.  Its government, in contrast, was but one activity among these others.

This understanding of a state may be old, but it is not dead—not by a long shot.  In fact, even those who accept “statism” as a term of opprobrium regularly concede its legitimacy.  Take, for example, America.  When the colonists achieved their independence from England, they saw themselves as forming a union of, not just governments, but something more than this, a union of states. 

Neither the Founders nor their posterity ever regarded “these United States” interchangeably with “these United Governments.”  In fact, up until the War Between the States, Americans, particularly Southerners like Robert E. Lee, for instance, thought of their country first and foremost in terms of their home states.  For Lee, his “country,” his homeland, was the state of Virginia.  The latter’s government was just one ingredient in this mix.

Sometimes even the most avid “anti-statists” are the first to acknowledge that “state” and “government” are not one and the same.  Even as I write this, Edward Snowden, the government employee who just recently revealed the scope and nature of the National Security Administration’s surveillance program, is front and center in the news.  The most avowed “anti-statists” not only defend him against the charge that he is a traitor.  They go so far as to deem him a hero, for while Snowden may very well have betrayed the confidence that his government placed in him, he did so for the sake of preserving the integrity of his country. But his country is a state (in name, anyhow, a union of states).

When Ron Paul (and others) said of 9/11 that it was “blowback” from America’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East, his (mostly) Republican detractors accused him of “blaming America.”  His most vocal defenders—“anti-statists” all of them—observed that criticisms of the American government, however harsh and sweeping, are not one and the same as criticisms of the country.

I propose that we jettison “statism” and “statist” from our vocabulary and replace them with “governmentalism” and “governmentalist.

As we have seen, state and government are not mutually equivalent. A state is made possible by its government, certainly, but it transcends it.

Secondly, the term “government” has none of the ambiguity with which “state” has been saddled over time.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it is the love for massive government that “statism” is supposed to be all about.

Governmentalism will probably never catch on; too many syllables (though not as many syllables as “environmentalism,” and that’s now part of our political vernacular).  In any event, it is more accurate a term than “statism.”  This consideration alone should count decisively in its favor.  However, there is another.

The word “governmentalism” is an uglier word than “statism.”  And no term can be too ugly that aims to characterize an ideology devoted to an all encompassing government.

Regardless of how it is constituted, whether it is “democratic” or otherwise, no government poses a larger threat to liberty than a government that is at war.

War is the mother of all crises and, as Rahm Emmanuel memorably—and rightly—said, crises are pregnant with opportunities for politicians and activists that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It is in moments of crisis, real or imagined, that government has its best opportunity to accumulate ever greater concentrations of power, for it is during crises that the people expect for their government to assert itself in ways that wouldn’t ordinarily be tolerated.

Yet today’s self-avowed “conservatives” advocate on behalf of, not just war, but war without end, for “Islamic terror” is an amorphous container into which any number of contents can be inserted.

Interminable war means, necessarily, the interminable growth of government.

And where the expansion of government is interminable, so too is the diminution of liberty.

Matters can’t be otherwise, which is why it is at once exasperating and laughable that the very same people who indefatigably defended the so-called “Patriot Act” now act shocked that it has been abused by the Obama administration.  If they had an iota of wisdom, they would have recognized way back when that the Patriot Act itself is a standing abuse.

Instead, one of its authors, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, maintains that he is “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation” of the law he crafted.  In a letter to Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner asserts that while he is confident that the Patriot Act “appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights,” he nevertheless “always worried about potential abuses.”

There are four things of which to take note here.

First, whether “what appears to be an overbroad interpretation” coincides with reality is left to be seen.  The fact of the matter is that, overbroad or not, at issue is an interpretation of the Patriot Act.  The latter lends itself to precisely this kind of interpretation—as its critics noted back at the time of its birth.

Second, Sensenbrenner actually admits, albeit inadvertently, that in drafting the Patriot Act, he felt the need to achieve a “balance” or compromise between “civil rights”—i.e. Constitutional liberties—and “national security concerns”—i.e. greater government power. To put it more bluntly, he concedes that the Patriot Act required trading off some of the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution in exchange for granting the government an even greater scope than it already possessed.

Third, although he says now that he “always” had concerns about “potential abuses,” Sensenbrenner was quite dismissive of critics who have expressed these same concerns.

In 2006, he said that not only did the Patriot Act have a “stellar record” of being abuse-free, but “congressional negotiators added more than 30 civil liberty safeguards not included in current law to ensure that [its] authorities would not be abused in the future.”  Sensenbrenner was indignant as he concluded that this is “still not enough for some.”

As even he now recognizes, it was for good reason that his assurances were “not enough for some.”

Finally, legislation is just that.  It is no more potent than the ink and paper of which it consists.  Real conservatives, and real statesmen, have always known that the true laws and “constitution” of a people are embodied in their habits and traditions.  Legislation should distill this shared experience—and vindicate it.

Furthermore, paper laws, like paper constitutions, are all too susceptible to the predations of the power-hungry.

But Republican Sensenbrenner, along with several of his fellow partisans, continues to defend the Patriot Act and the entire NSA surveillance program.  Take George W. Bush’s former speech writer and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen.  “Signal intelligence,” Thiessen says, is the only feasible and effective way to “protect the country.” Upon reminding us that “the programs exposed in these leaks did not begin on Barack Obama’s watch,” Thiessen declares that the current president’s continuation of “Bush-era counterterrorism policy… is not an outrage—it is a victory.”

That Obama is building upon Bush’s already massive surveillance program may very well be a “victory.”

But it is a victory for the champions of Gargantuan Government—not the lovers of liberty.

 

In the latest issue of National Review, Rich Lowry promotes his latest book on Abraham Lincoln while blasting away at those of our 16th president’s contemporary critics on the political right—those to whom he derisively refers as “Lincoln haters.

And here we have it: staring back at him in the one-dimensional caricature to which Lowry reduces Lincoln’s critics is the reflection of his own argument.  Not unsurprisingly—self-awareness and self-righteousness do not a union make—Lowry doesn’t see it. But if he wasn’t blinded by both the certainty of his own cause as well as his contempt for the “people-owning libertarians” who inhabit places like “the fever swamp at Lewrockwell.com,” he would have recognized that the path toward the destruction of one’s opponents is almost always paved with lies and not a little irrationality.

Lowry’s argument suffers from a poverty that is at once intellectual and moral.

His opponents, the “Lincoln haters,” are people who, in Lowry’s estimation, “apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.”

There are few topics in all of human history, to say nothing of American history, regarding which there exists as much literature as that of “the American Civil War.”  That is, it has always been and remains an immensely complex and, thus, controversial issue—for most people.  For Lowry, however, the matter is quite simple: either we join him in revering Lincoln as “perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history” or else we support slavery.

So, because they reject Lincoln, his “libertarian” critics support, or at least are not sufficiently opposed to, the enslavement of blacks.  This is outrageous.  It is also idiotic, so much so that even those upon whom he sets his sights should be more than a bit embarrassed for Lowry.

For Lincoln’s critics, past and present, the abolition of slavery never trumped all countervailing considerations.  This makes them wrong and disreputable, for the abolition of slavery is an end that justifies the use of any and all means. This is what Lowry appears to be saying.  Yet before the tribunal of this reasoning, the country’s founders who Lowry praises stand equally condemned—whether they sympathized with slavery or abhorred it.

There would have been no America had those of the country’s founders who opposed slavery insisted on its abolition.  In other words, there would have been no union of colonies turned independent states had slavery’s nemeses at America’s birth pushed too hard for its demise.  With the exception of hard leftists, everyone else, including neoconservatives like Lowry, have long insisted upon this point in defending the founders. However, given his critique of the Old South and its contemporary apologists, Lowry undermines this defense.

Clearly, none of the founders ascribed categorical importance to ending slavery.  Even when they acknowledged its evil, the men who ratified the Constitution nevertheless prized above all else the sovereignty of these United States.  If the latter promised to come about only at the cost of tolerating slavery while seeking to phase it out gradually, then this was the cost that they were willing to pay.

If Lowry is right and Lincoln’s critics must “hate federal power more than they abhor slavery,” then the founders and framers must have been guilty of the same.  If Lincoln’s critics are disreputable, then the founders were as well.  In fact, consistency demands that Lowry recognize the latter as retroactive or honorary Lincoln haters.

Philosophically speaking, the distinction between “federal power” and “slavery” is one without a difference.  This, at any rate, is the verdict that the founders drew, and it is the one that “Lincoln haters” past and present would have to infer as well.  In short, “federal power” is dreaded precisely because it amounts to slavery—the enslavement of the sovereign states by the central government.

The concept of a state implies the concept of sovereignty, and the latter in turn implies the existence of an authority that is indivisible.  By the very logic of the notion, then, a state has the authority to unite with or disengage (secede) from other sovereign agents—for whatever reasons.  This authority is denied once the sovereign in question is subject to compulsion by some force outside of itself.  Its integrity as a state is then undermined, and it is reduced to a territory or a fief, i.e. the analog of a slave.

Perhaps none of this is worth delving into, for Lowry’s essay makes it painfully clear that he is about as interested in logic and philosophy as he is interested in history.