At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Black and Libertarian: A Look at Walter E. Williams

posted by Jack Kerwick

Walter E. Williams is associated with that paradoxical phenomenon typically known as “black conservatism.”  However, while Williams is a fierce opponent of the leftist political ideology that has overcome the majority of his fellow black Americans—he is a rightist—it is not altogether accurate to describe him as a conservative.

Unlike such black thinkers as George Schuyler and Thomas Sowell, as far as his ethical and political philosophical principles are concerned, the most appropriate label to ascribe to Williams is that of libertarian.  What this means is that he is a liberal in the classical sense of that term.

The concept of “tradition” or “habit” or “custom” has historically figured prominently, even centrally, in conservative thought.  With respect to libertarianism or classical liberalism, in contrast, matters are otherwise.  There need not be an adversarial relationship between libertarianism and tradition, it is true, but it is abstract principles, principles whose jurisdiction encompasses all human beings, irrespective of their culture or time, for which the libertarian tends to reserve a place of preeminence.

If Edmund Burke can be said to be “the patron saint” of conservatism, John Locke can claim this distinction vis-à-vis libertarianism.  In Do the Right Thing, a collection of his essays, Williams dispels any confusion as to which of these two philosophers has won over his sympathies.  It is worth quoting him here at length.

“At the root of my values system is the principle of natural law as expounded by philosophers like John Locke and William Blackstone and adopted by early American notables such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine, among others, and captured simply, elegantly, and compellingly in our Declaration of Independence in the phrase ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

As Williams correctly observes, Locke’s vision exerted no small measure of influence over many ofAmerica’s founders, and the Declaration of Independence specifically.  Yet “the right” to “the Pursuit of Happiness” was a modification of Locke’s “right to property”—a fact of which Williams is well aware and which he enthusiastically embraces.

Speaking as a true Lockean, he writes: “The first principle of natural law holds that each person owns himself.”  It is from this “first principle” that the individual right to property flows.  Recalling Locke, Williams refers to “the state of nature,” a pre-political situation that functioned as a sort of theoretical first step in the deliberations of many a thinker in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  In “the state of nature,” he says, “all people are free and equal,” yes, but they are “insecure” (emphasis mine).  They are insecure because they know “that other people may not respect” their “self-ownership rights and, through intimidation, threats, and coercion, wrongly confiscate” their “property and violate” their “persons.”  In order to abate this precarious condition, the inhabitants of the state of nature agree to “form governments” to which they will grant “certain limited powers.” 

The principle of self-ownership is the principle that all people own themselves.  This in turn implies that “we all have the right to protect ourselves, family, and property from encroachment by others.”  To the governments that we create “we grant these rights…in exchange for the guarantee that the state will perform these security functions.”

However, it is only these rights that we grant.  “We give up only the rights necessary for government to perform its only function—protecting our security.”  Most Americans, black, white, and other, have forgotten this.  Williams puts the matter even more bluntly, blasting Americans with having jettisoned “those basic ideals and principles on which our prosperous nation was built” for the sake of “other ideals, such as equality of income, sex and race balance, orderly markets, consumer protection, energy conservation, and environmentalism, just to name a few [.]”  The problem is that in order to realize these goals, our government that is supposed to be grounded in the consent of agents who own themselves necessarily transforms itself into something vastly more ambitious in scope, a tyrannical leviathan that has no option but to “confiscate…through intimidation, threats, and coercion” the legitimately acquired resources of its citizens.

Williams reasons that if redistributive measures of the sort that most Americans have come to expect from their government are morally impermissible when employed by individual agents, they cannot be made right just because they have been enacted into law.  “Americans must ask whether an act clearly immoral and criminal when done privately becomes moral when done collectively and given legal sanction.”  The answer to this question, Williams asserts, is a no-brainer.  “The unambiguous answer will be that legality is a poor guide to morality.”  History supplies no small number of examples to illustrate this contention.  “After all, slavery and apartheid were legal, as were the Nazi persecution of Jews and the Stalinist and Maoist purges.”  Still, “the fact of being legal did not make them moral acts.” 

Williams echoes the sentiments of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many other Christian thinkers who declared that an unjust law was no law at all.  “Immoral laws,” he states, “aren’t worthy of obedience.” 

If anything discloses the libertarian character of Williams’ thought it is his position on the criminalization of “vices.”  “For the government to declare a vice a crime is to violate those natural law guarantees of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, which are enunciated in our Declaration of Independence.”  Williams’ argument here is straightforward: Since no individual has the right to punish others for their vices, and since the only rights that government possesses are those that it derives from its citizens, government doesn’t have the right to punish individuals for their vices.  Thus, prostitution, drug usage, and discrimination in the private sector are among those activities that theUnited Statesgovernment illegitimately proscribes. 

Walter E. Williams is to be commended for the courage that he has exhibited in his lifelong campaign to combat the leftist illusions that have seized the minds of millions of his fellow Americans, white and black.  But it is important to recognize that while the substance of his positions on social issues is virtually identical to that of, say, Thomas Sowell, Williams arrives at many of his conclusions by means of premises reflective of his allegiance to, not conservatism, but libertarianism or classical liberalism.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

Black and Conservative: A Look at Thomas Sowell

posted by Jack Kerwick

While it is true that the majority of black Americans lean leftward, and while it is no less true that the majority of black American intellectuals are full blown leftists, there are black American thinkers who have decidedly—and decisively—repudiated leftist ideology. 

Thomas Sowell is one such thinker.

Sowell is a conservative in the classical or traditional sense of that term. That is to say, Sowell’s thought is located squarely within the intellectual tradition of which Edmund Burke is widely recognized as the inspiration.

Burke, it may be recalled, articulated that vision that subsequent generations would call “conservatism” in response to the abstract, rationalist metaphysics that the Jacobins enlisted in the service of the French Revolution.  Although rationalism is a philosophical disposition that has manifested itself in many places and at many times, it reached its zenith during the Revolution.  That is, it is during this time that its erroneous character, translating, as it did, into an unmitigated disaster, compelled the attention of critics like Burke.

Like Burke and other conservatives before him, Sowell has distinguished himself as among the most notable—and scathing—critics of rationalism of our generation. In his seminal Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell says of rationalism that it “accepts only what can ‘justify’ itself to ‘reason’—with reason being narrowly conceived to mean articulated specifics.”  That the rationalist relies upon “highly rational intellectual ‘models’ of human behavior” that “suffer from an air of unreality” is born out by the consideration that they consist of “hypothetical, computer-like incremental adjustments by coolly calculating decision makers”—not “the flesh-and-blood reality of decision by inertia, whim, panic, or rule of thumb.” 

Apparently, many people who are familiar with Sowell’s work fail to realize that it is ultimately rationalistic accounts of inter-group differences that he has spent much of his life combating.  Sowell pays particularly close attention to “the animistic fallacy,” a staple of rationalist thought.  The animistic fallacy is the doctrine that whenever there is a pattern of some sort, there is “purposeful activity toward the goal achieved [.]”  When statistical disparities between racial, ethnic, and religious groups are attributed to “discrimination” or “racism,” you know that the animistic fallacy is at work.

However, rationalism is no less implicated by genetic-based theories of inter-group disparities.  This is especially interesting given the mutual exclusivity of the discrimination and genetic models.  Sowell writes:

“Ironically, the innate inferiority [genetic] doctrine and the opposed ‘equal representation’ [discrimination] doctrine proceed on the same intellectual premise—that one can go from innate ability to observed result without major concern for intervening cultural factors (emphasis mine).”

All rationalist theories, whether they are oriented toward racial or other issues, render culture or tradition negligible.  But since it is his study of racially-oriented topics that most accentuates the anti-rationalist, conservative presuppositions informing Sowell’s worldview, it is upon this topic that we will here focus.

The version of rationalism with which Sowell has spent considerable time reckoning is what he calls “the civil rights vision” (what I will term “CRV” from this point onward).  As we have already noted, at the heart of the CRV lies the principle that statistical inequalities among groups can only be accounted for in terms of discrimination.  This principle, in turn, presupposes three plausible yet demonstrably false assumptions. 

“The first,” Sowell explains, “is that discrimination leads to adverse effects on the observable achievements of those who are discriminated against, as compared to the discriminators or to society in general.”  The second is only slightly less evident than the first.  “The second assumption is…that statistical differences signal, imply and/or measure discrimination.”  And the third and perhaps most critical notion to the CRV is “that large statistical differences between groups do not usually arise and persist without discrimination”—i.e. discrimination is necessary in order to account for such differences.

The CRV, Sowell states bluntly, is false.  Statistical disparities are “commonplace” in societies throughout the world, a brute empirical fact owing to many “historical and cultural reasons” that haven’t anything at all to do with discrimination.  In fact, the historical record is replete with accounts of groups—Jews in lands throughout the world, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, East Indians throughout different continents, Japanese in America, etc.—that by any number of social indicia were more successful than the majority populations with which they co-existed in spite of having been systematically discriminated against by the latter. 

Take the Japanese in America, for example.  The Japanese “encountered persistent and escalating discrimination, culminating in their mass internment during World War II,” it is true; but within a little more than a decade following the war’s end, they “had about equaled the income of whites,” and a decade after that, “Japanese American families were earning nearly one-third higher incomes than the average American family.” 

Blacks, Sowell admits, constitute a “special case,” given their history inAmerica.  But even with respect to blacks, the idea that discrimination explains the statistical discrepancies between this group and others fails.  Blacks in Latin America, Sowell informs us, never suffered remotely the degree of discrimination that they suffered inAmerica.  However, economically speaking, blacks in, say,Brazil are significantly further behind blacks in the United States.

Even when we look more closely at blacks in the United States, we discover further strikes against the CRV’s discrimination model of inter-group disparities (and, for that matter, the genetic model).  If the high rates of crime, illegitimacy, incarceration, and other such pathological phenomena that we witness among contemporary blacks were either “a legacy of slavery” or rooted in nature, then we shouldn’t expect to learn that such pathologies are relatively recent.  But this is what we learn. 

Sowell states: “Most black children, even under slavery, grew up in two parent households.”  Moreover, “as late as the 1920’s, “a teenage girl raising a child with no man present was a rarity among blacks [.]”

As for crime, in 1984, Sowell wrote:

“Few people today are aware that the ghettos in many cities were far safer places just two generations ago than they are today, both for blacks and whites.  Incredulity often greets stories by older blacks as to their habit of sleeping out on fire escapes or on rooftops or in public parks on hot summer nights.  Many of those same people would not dare to walk through those same parks today in broad daylight.”

If crime among blacks is “a legacy of slavery,” if it is the product of discrimination, then one would expect for it to have been much worse during a time when discrimination was much worse.  But, what we see is that in generations past, when blacks encountered much more discrimination than anything of which contemporary blacks are familiar, crime, like illegitimacy, black youth unemployment, and other social indicia, didn’t remotely approximate the perilous levels at which they currently stand.  

There is indeed much in the way of their own intellectual tradition that conservatives, black, white, and other, can learn from Thomas Sowell.  And there is much in the way of race relations that Americans of all colors and political persuasions can learn from him as well.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

A Defense of Frank Borzellieri

posted by Jack Kerwick

Until this past week, Frank Borzellieri was a principal of Catholic elementary school in the Bronx,New York.  Once word was released that Borzellieri was a “white supremacist,” however, he was swiftly terminated.

As it turns out, Borzellieri was, at one time, at any rate, a bit friendlier with a certain organization—American Renaissance (AR)—than the self-appointed guardians of our politically correct orthodoxy believes he had a right to be.  AR exists simply and solely for the unhindered promotion of the free exchange of ideas on matters pertaining to race.   For this, it has been branded a “hate group” and purveyor of “white supremacy.” 

I am affiliated with neither AR nor Frank Borzellieri.  But no affiliation with either is necessary in order to recognize that both have been done a great injustice.  I am not affiliated in any way with Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, yet this doesn’t preclude me from appreciating the fact that both men have been treated most unfairly by the very same “anti-anti-racists” that have set their sights on AR and Borzellieri: no sooner than he began his job as a football commentator on ESPN, many may recall, Limbaugh lost it for the allegedly “racist” remarks he made regarding Donavan McNabb, and in addition to being fired after a similarly short term career at MSNBC, Savage’s “hatred” also landed him on a list of disreputable types including terrorists and murderers that are prevented from entering England.

The difference, though, between the Limbaughs and Savages of the world, on the one hand, and the Borzellieris, on the other, is that if they live hundreds of years more, the former will never spend another moment worrying about their livelihoods; such, however, is far from the case with the latter.  Not unlike yours truly, Borzellieri invested considerable resources in the way of time and money acquiring an education in a field that isn’t exactly known for being lucrative.  Even less lucrative than the journalism career in which he evidently excelled in was the position of a Catholic school principal that he ultimately chose to pursue. 

Yet now Borzellieri is out of a job for no other reason but that he dared, at one time, to express politically incorrect beliefs concerning race while maintaining an affiliation of a sort with AR.

The more one learns of both AR and Borzellieri, the more this episode becomes at once interesting and disturbing, for you see, if Borzellieri is a “white supremacist” because of his association with AR, then there is a whole lot of other popular media personalities and organizations that are guilty of “white supremacy” because of their association with it.  Some of these have a relationship with Borzellieri as well.  This is interesting.  What is disturbing is that thus far, not one of these personalities or outlets has so much as mentioned the travesty that Borzellieri had visited upon him, much less defended him. 

Let’s begin with AR by focusing specifically on its founder, Jared Taylor.

This “white supremacist” has contributed articles and essays to such publications as the Wall Street Journal; the Los Angeles Times; the Chicago Tribune; the Baltimore Sun; the San Francisco Chronicle; the Boston Globe; National Review; and the Washington Post.  He has also spoken at the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University, Temple University Law School, Hillsdale College, Howard University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Texas.  He has taught Japanese at Harvard University and is the author of several books, including a couple that were met with critical acclaim upon their release: Shadows of the Rising Sun: A Critical View of the Japanese Miracle and Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America.

Taylor made multiple appearances, not just on “conservative” talk radio, but as well in such left-leaning venues as Donahue, Chris Mathews’ Hard Ball, Joe Scarborough’s Scarborough Country, and Queen Latifah’s short lived daytime talk show.  But there is more.  As “Edward Bernays” notes in Vdare.com, “C-SPAN broadcast at least two of AR’s bi-annual conferences and also two press conferences where Taylor was a speaker.”  It is precisely just these bi-annual conferences, not incidentally, that Borzellieri participated in—and it is his participation in them that supposedly establish his subscription to “white supremacy.”  Bernays mentions that when “AR’s groundbreaking Color of Crime report” was released in 1999, it “was actually discussed on the Rush Limbaugh Show….”  Interestingly, it wasn’t Limbaugh himself who actually discussed the report but guest host Walter E. Williams, a black economist who “summarized the report favorably to Limbaugh’s 20 million listeners.”  Taylor even managed to hold “a press conference at the National Press Club to discuss the report” that “was widely attended and resulted in a CSPAN broadcast and national print coverage.”  American Thinker’s Robert Weissberg and Pat Buchanan too are friendly with Taylor and AR.  

However, it isn’t just the aforementioned figures and outlets that are guilty of “white supremacy” for lending legitimacy to Taylorand his ilk.   

In 1999, seven radio talk show hosts spoke to Taylor’s American Renaissance magazine about their views on race, IQ, immigration, white racial consciousness, and the prospects of whites being reduced to a minority within the decades to come.  It may shock some readers to discover this, but among those hosts were Michael Reagan (son of President Ronald Reagan), Michael Medved, talk radio legend Bob Grant, and two black radio personalities, Larry Elder (the “Sage from South Central” (Los Angeles)) and Ken Hamblin (“The Black Avenger”). 

Time constraints prevent a fuller review of the exchanges that transpired between AR and these hosts.  But suffice it to say, all seven of them had nothing but harsh words for the politically correct orthodoxy on these matters.  Particularly surprising were Michael Medved’s comments on these matters. Concerning the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, he said that this issue demands that we make a choice as to whether we want to preserve “Anglo-Saxon culture” or dissolve it. Medved rhetorically asks: “Should Anglo-Saxon be dissipated or should it be respected?”  As to whether IQ differences between the races are genetically based, Medved did not flat out reject this proposition but, rather, replied that the relationship between biology, IQ, and environment is “too complex” to speak given “the few lines” from which he would be quoted.    

Yet the point in alluding to this is not to endorse or refute either AR’s or these radio personalities’ position(s) on these topics.  It is solely to show that if AR is really “the white supremacist” organization that its critics make it out to be, and if Borzellieri is a “white supremacist” for having consorted with it, then Michael Reagan, Michael Medved, Bob Grant, Larry Elder, and Ken Hamblin must be “white supremacists” too. 

As for Borzellieri, if he is a “white supremacist” because of his association with an allegedly “white supremacist” organization, then presumably those who associate with him must not be too terribly uncomfortable with “white supremacy,” if they don’t embrace it altogether.    

This is relevant, for Borzellieri has contributed to, among other publications, Newsday, USA Today, and the New York Daily News.  He has made appearances on Leeza Gibson’s, Geraldo Rivera’s, and Ricki Lake’s shows, Good Morning America, Fox Sunday, The Sean Hannity Show, and The Alan Colmes Show.  In fact he counts Colmes, an avowed “liberal,” as among his “friends.”  National Review and Human Events are among the “conservative” publications that have lavished praise upon Borzellieri. 

Frank Borzellieri has been subjected to rank injustice and no one in either “the mainstream” or so-called “alternative” media has lifted a finger to come to his aid.

Given that the shots to assassinate his character were fired in the pages of theNew Yorkpapers, the Fox News crowd especially must be aware of what he is being made to endure at this time.  And yet there is silence.

If political correctness weakens as the “conservative” movement strengthens, then the abrupt reversal of fortunes that Borzellieri suffers and the refusal on the part of “conservatives” to defend him constitute a powerful commentary on the true condition of their movement.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The True Character of Science

posted by Jack Kerwick

Semester after semester, I continue to encounter students for whom the proposition that science alone is the embodiment of unimpeded Reason is axiomatic.  But it isn’t just my college students who think as thus; most adults seem to be just as mistaken on this score.  That this notion of science pervades not just the popular culture but academia as well can be gotten from the readiness with which specialists in a variety of non-scientific disciplines seek to impose a scientific character on their work.  Considering the image of science that they affirm, an image according to which science is, if not necessarily the exclusive means by which to secure the Truth, certainly the most legitimate of such means, this should come as no surprise.  And if the Intellect reaches its glorious culmination in the practice of science, this is only because the scientist alone among the mortals that walk the Earth has succeeded in bracketing his prejudices in order to attain an “objective” and “impartial” perspective on the world.  The scientist has liberated himself from all preconceptions; he is concerned with the brute “facts” and only these. 

This is the conventional understanding of science and the scientist.  Besides being popular, it is also appealing and even grandiose. 

But it is also an out-and-out fiction from which no slight degree of mischief has sprung.  

Although what we today call “science” is commonly identified with modernity, in the interest of historical accuracy, it is imperative that we take stock of the conveniently forgotten fact that the origins of the study of “the natural world” trace back much further than this.  Over 2500 years ago, the “pre-Socratic” philosophers of ancient Greece labored long and hard to achieve a “scientific,” as opposed to a mythical, account of the cosmos.  To the objection that Democritus, Pythagoras, Empedocles and others weren’t doing real science but only philosophy, three replies are in the coming.

First, insofar as their analyses characterized the universe in natural, basic, quantifiable terms, they were indeed engaged in a scientific enterprise. 

Second, since the pre-Socratics were the progenitors of Western philosophy, since it is they who are responsible for enriching the Western mind’s vision with the yearning to move beyond myth in exploring the world, science and philosophy at this juncture were one. 

Third, if by philosophy critics refer to a set of metaphysical assumptions underwriting “the science” in question, unspoken yet controversial suppositions that foreclose from the outset those possible lines of inquiry that fail to comport with them—and this is indeed the conception of philosophy that such critics typically have in mind—then we need to point out the painful fact that no science is devoid of them. 

So-called “modern science” is as dependent on non-empirical, “philosophical” presuppositions as any other.  That there is something that can aptly be called the universe; that this universe is a candidate for study; and that it is orderly are just some of the assumptions without which science wouldn’t exist.  Yet there are others.

Scientists make predictions.  The laws of the universe are nothing more or less than probabilities regarding future patterns that scientists predict on the basis of their observations of past patterns.  The operative principle here is what the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and empiricist, David Hume, called “the principle of induction.”  This principle, Hume said, is simply the assumption that the future will resemble or be continuous with the past.  That it is an assumption and not the product of scientific discovery must be readily admitted once it is grasped that there is no way to prove it: since, by definition, the future has not yet occurred, it cannot be known what it will be like.  Logically speaking, it is conceivable, however unlikely, that tomorrow could be radically discontinuous with today.

In addition to the assumption that Hume characterized as the principle of induction, the modern scientist also has a tendency to suppose that reality is ultimately composed exclusively of material entities.  His map of the universe resolutely disallows any place for any considerations with so much as a whiff of what we would be inclined to call “the supernatural” (thus, the derisiveness with which the theory of “intelligent design” is met by the vast majority of scientists).  Yet this robust “naturalism” that pervades the contemporary scientific project is not scientific; it is philosophical.

There are other considerations to behold.

However brilliant or talented any given person may be, he will not become a scientist unless and until he immerses himself within a tradition of science.  That is, science, not unlike any other thing with which we are familiar, is an activity or a habit distinguished on account of the considerations that are proper to it.  A person becomes a good scientist in the same way in which he becomes a good anything: through practice.  So, for example, the knowledge of how to formulate hypotheses is something that only a practitioner of science can have.  And “the facts” that the scientist investigates, far from being self-explanatory, derive their intelligibility from the theories that they inform. 

Science is a good and noble thing, for sure.  But its character has for far too long been radically misunderstood.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

originally published at The New American

 

 

 

 

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