At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Reflections on Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”

posted by Jack Kerwick
Although theory and practice are indeed mutually distinct domains, their distinctness should never be taken for exclusiveness. Theory is as distinct from practice as is the spider from its web or the bird from its nest. Moreover, just as the web arises from the spider and the nest from the bird, so too is theory born from reflection on practice. This can be seen for the truth that it is whether we are attending to contemporary political works spun from more commonplace imaginations or the philosophical masterpieces of the Western tradition. 
Some of these latter, like Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan, labor hard to conceal their indebtedness to the contingencies of place and time. They at least appear to have more or less emancipated themselves from the circumstantial concerns that provoked them. Others, like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, are much less reserved about revealing the impulse driving their pursuits.
It is within this later vein that Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa is squarely located.
The neglect with which this book has been treated is as sore as it is tragic. 
South Africa is the place that Mercer called home for a good part of her life (she has also lived in Israel). She came of age under the rule of the white Afrikaner minority—“apartheid”—and witnessed up close and quite personally its passage into the annals of history. While there is no love loss between Mercer and apartheid—at no time does she hesitate to convict it of injustice—it isn’t apartheid that drove her to leave many of her relatives and friends behind so that she could emigrate to America.
No, Mercer’s flight from her old homeland is part and parcel of a virtual exodus of South Africans. And for this abrupt turn of events the African National Congress deserves all of the thanks.
The question of identity is the question: what makes any given thing the same thing at one time as it is at another time? In his Politics, Aristotle seeks to secure the criterion by which the identity of a political association can be established. Upon considering some proposals—territorial limits, “the stock” of the residents, etc.—he concludes that a political association is the same association at one juncture as at another if and only if its constitution remains the same. The constitution of a political association refers to the kind of government that defines it. 
By Aristotle’s standard, then, post-apartheid South Africa is most definitely not the same political association as its apartheid-era predecessor. However, whether we accept Aristotle’s definition or not, as Mercer makes abundantly—painfully—clear, whatever continuity may be said to have existed at one time between the Old South Africa and the New is no longer legible.
Cannibal is a provocative account of the depths to which South Africa has degenerated under the rule of the African National Congress. Like the gifted writer that she is, Mercer enlists every syllable in the service of catapulting the reader into the world of the New South Africa, a country within which, courtesy of the corruption that pervades the ANC, unimaginably barbaric criminality has become an intractable feature of everyday life. The issue of crime has a particularly personal dimension for Mercer, for several members of her own family have been brutalized. 
South Africa’s criminals act with a ruthlessness and an abandonment that would make even the most hardened residents of high crime areas in America blush. Whether it is the gang raping of young girls, the torturing of home owners who had the misfortune of awaking in the middle of the night to discover intruders on their property, or the forcible confiscation of the farm lands that South Africa’s most industrious and productive residents have spent their lives cultivating, crime in post-apartheid South Africa knows no bounds in either the frequency with which it occurs or the blood that it leaves in its wake.
Mercer spends an entire chapter identifying—and dismantling—the litany of conventional excuses that have been devised to explain away post-apartheid misery: “racism,” “post-colonialism,” “exploitation,” and the like. With the greatest of ease she obliterates them. It is here that her pen becomes the machete with which she slashes away at the nonsense that passes for deep thought among the Western intelligentsia.
Neither, however, does Mercer countenance any reductionist biological accounts of black-white differences. Such an approach is problematic for more than one reason, but especially because it would, ultimately, amount to but one more “root-cause.” Mercer doesn’t say this. For that matter, I haven’t heard any one else say it either. But a biologically-centered theory of human conduct, like those emphatically non-biological approaches that Mercer effortlessly puts out to pasture, is a species of precisely that hegemonic power with which Mercer struggles throughout her captivating work.
This “power” is what others have called “rationalism,” by far and away the dominant intellectual disposition of the modern West.  
Rationalism comes in many degrees, but, at the very least, what all forms of modern rationalism seem to share in common is a penchant for the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular. To put it differently, the concepts of tradition, culture, and custom figure minimally, if at all, in the thought of the rationalist. Such concepts bespeak a provinciality that is anathema to the rationalist mind, a mind that prefers to dwell among ideas—rational nature, human nature, natural rights, natural law, laws of history, human rights, Democracy, state of nature, principles, ideals—of another type altogether. 
Doctrines of innate inferiority no less than doctrines of “racism” and other fashionable “root causes” accounts of black rule in South Africa are alike functions of rationalism, for while they differ in degree, they are of one kind in relegating cultural considerations to the periphery (if there!). 
Mercer knows this. That which we now know as modern conservatism actually originated as a response to the rationalistic excesses of the Enlightenment. David Hume and, particularly, Edmund Burke, were among its most distinguished of representatives. In reading Cannibal it is hard not to see in its author the shades of her illustrious predecessors. Like these theorists from times past, Mercer compels her readers to recognize that the dislodging of moral ideals from the complex of historically and culturally-specific traditions that give them color promises calamitous consequences for all involved.
At the same time, however, Mercer—a self-identified “paleo-libertarian”—refuses to abandon rationalist talk of “natural rights.” 
That there is conflict between, on the one hand, Mercer’s affirmation of natural rights, and, on the other, the primacy that she ascribes to culture or tradition, is obvious. It is even possible that this tension in her text between the universal and the particular may be insuperable. But, ultimately, whatever criticism falls on Mercer for this must be qualified by the consideration that if there are tensions in Cannibal between these themes—and there undoubtedly are—it is only because, from the inception of Western philosophy some 2600 years ago, the same tensions have constituted the Western Mind itself. 
Permanence and flux, nature and convention, the universal and the particular—it was from a longing to discern the connection between the members of each of these dualisms that Western philosophy was born. To this day, the inquiry continues. 
Mercer’s commitment to natural rights reflects what the reader must recognize as a laudable attempt to preserve some sense of permanence undergirding the identity-extinguishing change that has engulfed her beloved South Africa since the abolition of apartheid. Her insistence upon the culturally-centered (culturally constituted?) nature of morality reconciles her—and us—to the fact that it is in vain, to say nothing of great agony, that we suppress or ignore the staggering variety of human customs in favor of a monolithic moral plan within the jurisdiction of which all human beings can be made to fall.
Mercer’s thought is distended between universal natural rights and particular cultural traditions, it is true. Yet as is the case with so many works of genius, this tension is as much one of Cannibal’s strengths as it is a weakness, for from it there springs an energy that is notable for its sense of urgency. 
Like Burke before her, Mercer, it is clear, is on a mission. Burke was consumed with the conflagration of the French Revolution that he believed threatened to tear European civilization asunder. Far from obscuring his ethical vision, I believe that much of the passion that informed it stemmed from a conflict in Burke’s consciousness between a recognition of both the universal demands of morality and the partiality that we owe to “the little platoons”—our local attachments—from which we derive our individual identities. This, though, is precisely the same war that rages within Mercer, and as it aided Burke in his contest with the evil of the French radicals, so too does it aid Mercer in her contest with the wickedness of the African National Congress and its supporters.
Cannibal is a woefully underappreciated book. A not inconsiderable number of otherwise astute reviewers seemed to have missed its main significance. This work is not primarily about “diversity,” “democracy,” “egalitarianism,” or “collectivism.” And it is certainly not about any conflicts within the Jewish community (Mercer is herself a Jew who remarks upon the role that South African Jews, including her father, played as critics of apartheid, as well as the role that Israel assumed as a stalwart ally of the Old South Africa). Cannibal isn’t even a book about inter-racial conflict.
Ultimately, as I read it, Cannibal is a brilliantly executed reenactment of the great Western drama, an epic contest between the universal and the particular, permanence and flux, nature, history, and convention. To the roster of the most colorful cast of characters that have, at various times, assumed center stage in this grand pageant we can now add the name of Ilana Mercer. 
Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa should be on the shelves of every thoughtful American. But conservatives especially need to attend to this book, for it is as intelligently, eloquently, and forcefully articulated a case against shaping political policy prescriptions according to universal abstractions as any that our generation has yet to produce.  


Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”: A Review

posted by Jack Kerwick

Ilana Mercer’s, Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa, is an unusual book. 

Yet it is unusual in the best sense of the word.

At once autobiographical and political; philosophical, historical, and practical; controversial and commonsensical, Cannibal succeeds in weaving into a seamless whole a number of distinct modes of thought.  This is no mean feat.  In fact, its author richly deserves to be congratulated for scoring an achievement of the highest order, for in the hands of less adept thinkers this ensemble of voices would have fast degenerated into a cacophony.  By the grace of Mercer’s pen, in stark contrast, it is transformed into a symphony.

Mercer is a former resident ofSouth Africa.  She is intimately familiar with her native homeland in both its apartheid and post-apartheid manifestations.  Yet it is precisely because she is all too well aware of the latter that she is now one of its legions of emigrants.


It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from Mercer’s flight from South Africa to the United States that she had ever been any sort of champion of apartheid.  Not only has she never supported these (or, for that matter, any) racially-themed institutional arrangements; with its affirmation of “natural rights” and “individualism,” Mercer’s “paleo-libertarianism”—a variant of the classical liberal tradition—positively precludes any such sympathy.

Still, as she amply demonstrates, not by any social indicia does “the New South Africa” even remotely approximate the old as far as quality of life is concerned.  As is more often than not the case with revolutionary-like innovations, the transition from apartheid to democracy has visited upon the residents of South Africa—especially its white residents, the Afrikaners—all manner of evil that, ostensibly, were not envisioned by those legions of Westerners for whom “change” of any kind can only be a benefit.


For one, far from being “the post-racial” idyll to which the abolition of apartheid was supposed to lead, the ruling African National Congress—the party of Nelson Mandella—is no less “committed” to “restructuring society around race” than was their “apartheid-era Afrikaners.”  There is, however, one critical difference between South Africa under majority black rule and South Africaunder minority-white rule: “more people,” Mercer informs us, “are murdered in one week under African rule than died under the detention of the Afrikaner government over the course of roughly four decades.”

Mercer’s verdict upon the New South Africa is blunt and decisive: “Dubbed the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ for its multiculturalism, South Africais now, more than before, a ‘Rambo Nation’” (emphases added).


Indeed.  The first chapter of Cannibal is a gripping—and grisly—account of the scourge that crime has become in post-apartheid South Africa.  While her discussion is not utterly devoid of numbers, Mercer refuses to reduce the victims of barbarism to statistics. Her eschewal of abstractions in favor of concrete details, however ghastly they may be, is both admirable and effective. Mercer’s treatment of this subject compels the reader to reckon with the stone cold fact that the thousands of white farmers who have been brutalized since the end of apartheid, like those who have mercilessly preyed upon them, are flesh-and-blood human beings. 

Mercer relays the heart wrenching episode of the Williams family. After the Williams lost their twelve-year-old daughter Emily as she stumbled upon an armed robbery in progress at a friend’s house while traveling to school, her parents decided that their country had become an intolerable place to remain.  They have since relocated to the United Kingdom.


The reader is also introduced to people like Rene Burger, a young and promising medical student who was kidnapped and gang-raped at knife-point by three degenerates at a “well-patrolled” hospital where she was taking classes, and Sheldon Cohen, who died in front of his young son after being gunned down by three predators.

Mercer identifies others—including a not inconsiderable number of her own relatives—who have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of South African thugs.  She also definitively establishes that to no slight measure, this crime epidemic is motivated by an animus toward whites, a deep seated racial hatred that is both encouraged and, particularly in the case of the legions of white Afrikaner farmers who have been forced from their lands, sanctioned by the African National Congress.                 


In keeping with the subtitle of her book, Mercer is at pains to spare her adopted country—America—from the destructive folly that engulfed her native homeland.  The judgment of one reviewer to the contrary aside, I do not believe that it is essentially the perils of “diversity” against which Mercer warns her American compatriots.  It is true that in drawing parallels between the New South Africa and trends in the United States, the author goes to great lengths to signal to the citizens of the latter that from the union of massive Third World immigration and a system of racial preferences as comprehensive as ours, nothing short of self-destruction will spring. 

However, as I read her, Mercer is more concerned with reminding us that such “political abstractions” as “democracy” are nothing more or less than conceptual devices, ideals that we have distilled from our own culturally and historically-specific traditions.  In other words, political institutions are not inanimate objects that can be moved about at will; rather, they are long-settled, if never perfected, habits or customs that have been centuries in the making. 


Thus, it isn’t just so-called “affirmative action” and Third World immigration at home over which Mercer sounds the alarm.  She is at least as concerned over the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” that is now the reigning orthodoxy that informsAmerica’s view, not just of herself, but of her role vis-à-vis the world.  Actually, it is with a remarkable degree of clarity and concision that Mercer reveals the inextricable intellectual link between America’s domestic prescriptions and her foreign policy.  This link, she convincingly argues, is the fiction—“nonsense on stilts,” as Jeremy Bentham would have said—that America is a “proposition nation,” the only country in all of human history to have been founded upon a bloodless, lifeless, abstraction. 


It is hard not to be impressed with Mercer’s skill at preserving the integrity of the thread that unites her analysis of the flawed metaphysical underpinnings of contemporary American orthodoxy with the nit and grit of the everyday reality of South Africa.  Not only is a discussion of “American exceptionalism” germane to any critique of democratic South Africa; considering that the United States figured prominently among the nations of the world in agitating for a shift from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, no critique of the New South Africa would be complete without an examination of the prevailing ideology of “American exceptionalism.”

With its view of America as the one and only country on all of the planet to have been erected upon a “principle” or “ideal”—a proposition—the logic of the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” leads inexorably to the conclusion that other countries too can be made, with sufficient time and pressure, to transcend the contingencies of time and place from which they have derived their identities. In other words, since America, the “proposition nation,” is supposed to be a “democracy,” it is America that is supposed to remake the rest of the world in the image of Democracy. 


Mercer astutely, and forcefully, identifies this not just as a fiction, but a particularly invidious fiction at that, for “American exceptionalism” has had disastrous effects for Americans, South Africans, Middle Easterners, and, for that matter, anyone else upon whom it has been imposed.

This book is immensely important.  It is just as engaging.  However, for all of its virtues, it is not immune to criticism.

Throughout the pages of Cannibal, there is a discernible tension between, on the one hand, the thrust of Mercer’s main argument and, on the other, some not insignificant nods that she makes in the opposite direction.  This tension never finds resolution. 

Mercer meticulously, even flawlessly, substantiates her thesis that the New South Africa is as corrupt as it is oppressive.  Yet her relentless critique of the innumerable ways in which the ruling African National Congress has ruined her beloved country is underwritten by an equally scathing critique of the philosophy that informs these ruinous policies.  Although she never calls it by name, this philosophy is what others have called “Rationalism.”


Rationalism is an intellectual disposition with a pedigree stretching back at least as far as Plato. But beginning in the modern era, during the Enlightenment especially, it assumed a robustness that its ancient and medieval counterparts never could have anticipated.  Although it admits of variations, what unites most expressions of modern Rationalism is the conviction that Reason supplies moral “principles” or “ideals” to which all people at all times have access.  From this perspective, the morality that Reason establishes is as comprehensive and universal as is Reason itself.

Wherever and whenever one utopian scheme or another has been tried, this rationalistic conception of Reason and morality, whether overtly or covertly, to some degree or another, has attended it.  Of this, Mercer shows a keen awareness, for her critique pivots upon the West’s folly of supposing that non-Western peoples can, at will, organize their societies around the same “political abstractions” to which the West has grown accustomed. 


At the same time, however, Mercer’s commitment to “paleo-libertarianism” leads her to invoke “natural rights.”    

It is between her denunciations of Rationalism and her affirmation of “natural rights” that the conflict exists, for as conservative theorists from David Hume and Edmund Burke onward have noted, the popular doctrine of “natural rights” is the product of the Rationalist mind. 

“Natural rights” are supposed to be rights that all people have just by virtue of their humanity alone.  What Mercer and other adherents of the classical liberal tradition refer to as “natural rights” their contemporaries of other political persuasions—and in some instances, libertarians themselves—call “human rights,” and their predecessors described as “the Rights of Man.”  Propositions affirming such “rights” are invariably treated as if they were axiomatic, and “the rights” themselves as if they were dispensations from either nature or God.


I see at least two objections to Mercer’s inclusion of “natural rights” talk in Cannibal.

First, the notion of “natural rights” undergirds the fashionable—and, as Mercer brilliantly demonstrates, fundamentally wrong-headed—idea that democratically arranged institutions alone secure liberty and justice.  It is, if you will, the Mother of all contemporary “political abstractions.”  As Burke said, against “natural rights” or, as he put it, “the Rights of Man,” “there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament, and no compromise: any thing withheld from their full demand is so much fraud and injustice.” 

Between abstract, universal “natural rights” and concrete, particular cultural traditions there can only be an adversarial relationship.


Secondly, Mercer needn’t reject “natural rights” in order to see her argument through.  But neither does she need to affirm them.  Her case in Cannibal doesn’t depend upon her saying anything at all about them.  We would do ourselves a good turn here to turn once more to Burke.

Burke did not deny what he termed “the real rights of man.”  Yet he believed that when attending to the arrangements of civil society, such talk of abstractions that are supposed to exist in advance of civilization are entirely superfluous.  In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote: “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect” (emphasis added).  In politics, it is “the civil social man, and no other”—i.e. not man in some “natural state”—with whom we must concern ourselves. “If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention,”—and not something that is held to transcend all convention—“must be its law” (emphasis added). 


These criticisms that I offer arise not from any distaste on my part with Cannibal.  To the contrary, they are the function of my affection for it.  And the allusions to Burke—“the patron saint of modern conservatism”—are apt for more than one reason.  

Not only does Mercer, like Burke, emphasize the importance of the cultural pre-requisites of a flourishing political order over rationalistic, universalistic abstractions; like Burke, Mercer succeeds in intertwining the personal, the political, and the philosophical into one compelling argument. 

Yet there is one final reason to call on Burke while assessing Mercer’s Cannibal. 

Burke had famously said that the only thing that was necessary for evil to triumph was for good men to do nothing.  Though Mercer is not a man, sadly, she is in much greater supply of that “manly virtue” that Burke prized than are many—even most—male writers today.  Burke unabashedly identified the wickedness of the French Revolutionaries for what it was.  Similarly, Mercer courageously, indignantly, exposes the evil that is the African National Congress and its collaborators.  In fact, her book may perhaps have been more aptly entitled, Reflections on the Revolution in South Africa.


It is tragic that Ilana Mercer was all but compelled to leave the country that for much of her life was her home.  YetSouth Africa’s loss isAmerica’s gain.  As her work makes obvious for all with eyes to see, the richness of Mercer’s intellect is as impressive as the soundness of her character.

Into the Cannibal’s Pot is mandatory reading for all who care about truth, justice, and liberty.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American    





Rick Santorum: No Conservative

posted by Jack Kerwick

Thankfully, the twentieth GOP presidential debate has come and gone.

If the American voter doesn’t know these candidates by now, he never will.

Of the four remaining candidates, three are virtually indistinguishable from one another.  This much has been established time and time again throughout this election season.  It is true, of course, that there exist some differences between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.  But such differences are negligible, both in themselves and, especially, relative to the enormity of the similarities that they share.

To those spectators who are all too aware of the unbridgeable chasm between their rhetoric of “limited government” and their respective records, the spectacle of each of these three presidential aspirants leveling allegations of hypocrisy and inconsistency at one another can’t fail to appear comedic at best, pathetic at worst. 


Most comical—or pathetic—is the front runner of the week, Senator Rick Santorum.

Socialized Health Care

The universal health care legislation—i.e. “Obamacare”—that the Democrats succeeded in enacting into law is unpopular among the electorate, and woefully unpopular among Republicans.  It is no surprise, then, that all of the GOP candidates promise to repeal it.  To his credit, Santorum has regularly drawn the nation’s attention to the undeniable fact that their protestations against Obamacare notwithstanding, both Romney and Gingrich have in the past favored a government mandate requiring citizens to purchase health insurance. 

But Santorum is himself guilty of precisely that of which he accuses his Republican opponents.


Granted, unlike Gingrich, Santorum never actively argued on behalf of a mandate.  And unlike Romney, Santorum can not be said to have supplied the original blueprint—“Romneycare”—for Obamacare.

Still, the former Senator from Pennsylvaniais not without his share of blame for having made the way for Obamacare easier than it otherwise would have been.  For as long as Medicare and Medicaid have been in existence, the federal government has involved itself in health care to a much greater extent than anything that previous generations of Americans could have envisaged.  Actually, Americans from an earlier time would have found it at once impossible and undesirable that the federal government would involve itself in health care at all, a statement the truth of which is born out by the fact that those who ratified the Constitution ratified a federal government—not a national one.  The federal government is possessed of a severely circumscribed set of “powers” that the Constitution expressly assigns to it.  The authority to make provisions for health care is not a member of this set.  In spite of this, Medicare and Medicaid are entitlements.


And Santorum, along with Romney and Gingrich, express no intention of revoking them.

Moreover, while in Congress, Santorum voted in favor of Medicare Part D, a prescription drug benefit that marked the largest expansion in Medicare since its inception.

In other words, Santorum is no less supportive of socialized health care than is Romney and Gingrich.

In the past, Santorum has also, again correctly, noted that while Governor of Massachusetts, Romney’s version of universal health care provided funding for abortion and coerced Catholic hospitals into offering contraceptives for emergency purposes.  This, Santorum rightly insists, is entirely unacceptable from the conservative’s point of view.

Yet just Wednesday night, Santorum admitted that he himself had voted in favor of appropriations bills that supplied funding for Planned Parenthood—an organization that provides both contraceptives and abortion services. 


What this in turn means is that while Santorum may not have issued an Obama or Romney-like directive to Catholic institutions requiring them specifically to violate the sacred teachings of the Catholic Church, he did indeed endorse a policy that would require all Catholic taxpayers to violate their consciences in subsidizing practices to which their faith tradition has always been vehemently opposed.  For that matter, it isn’t just the convictions of American Catholics over which Santorum ran roughshod.  The convictions of all Americans who object to the government’s confiscating their resources in time, money, and labor for the sake of financing contraceptives and abortion have also been undercut by Santorum and his colleagues in Congress.



Santorum remarked, truthfully, that Romney and Gingrich supported the bank bailouts of 2008.  Yet Santorum himself supported the airline bailouts of 2001.  According to the current front runner, the airlines were on the verge of economic collapse because of the federal government’s decision to ground their planes during the days following September 11, 2001.  Thus, since responsibility for the airline companies’ problems rested on the shoulders, not of the airlines themselves, but of the government, it was only just that the government should come to their aid.  In the case of the banks, however, matters couldn’t have been more different.  Because blame for the banks’ woes rested squarely with the banks, they should have been left to fail. 


Santorum’s rationale for distinguishing just bailouts from unjust bailouts simply will not wash.

First of all, that the government’s suspension of all flights in the wake of 9/11 injured the airline industry is obvious.  That it is the ultimate cause of its economic troubles is entirely untrue.  The industry had been suffering losses for some time.  The events of September 11 exacerbated them—it did not give rise to them.

Secondly, even if Santorum’s account was cogent, by his own reasoning, then, Romney and Gingrich were right in endorsing the bank bailouts.  While the government was not the cause of the airline industry’s financial crisis, it was, ultimately, the cause of the banking industry’s financial crisis.


In order for George W. Bush’s “Home Ownership Society”—a utopian scheme if ever there was one—to come to fruition, the government compelled lending institutions to radically undercut the traditional criteria in accordance with which they have always issued mortgages.  As a result, multitudes of bad mortgages were given to millions of people who could not afford them.  In time, as some, like Ron Paul, predicted, the housing bubble burst and those same lending institutions—along with the entire economy—found themselves on the precipice of ruin.

In short, by Santorum’s own logic, he stands condemned for supporting the airline bailouts and supposedly opposing the bank bailouts.  At the same time, Gingrich and Romney are vindicated.


No Child Left Behind

If President Obama’s agenda can be said to be socialistic—and it can—then that of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, can be said to be the same.

Not only did Bush and his Republican Congress fail to diminish, much less eradicate, the Department of Education, through the now notorious “No Child Left Behind” act, they exponentially strengthened its powers.

Santorum was as much a supporter of No Child Left Behind as anyone else—although he now—now—claims to regret having cast his vote for it. 

In Wednesday’s debate, Santorum said that although this infamous law conflicts with his own values, in voting for it he intended to do nothing more or less than “take one for the team.”  Politics is a “team sport,” he explained, and sometimes circumstances demand that players advance the team against their better judgment.


Doubtless, it is with justice that politics has been described as the art of compromise. But compromising in the short term for the sake of advancing one’s deepest convictions in the long term is one thing; violating one’s deepest convictions in the short term for the sake of advancing one’s party in any term is something else altogether. 

Whether Santorum really did object on moral grounds to No Child Left Behind at the time that he voted for it is questionable.  If he did not, then in telling us otherwise, he lies.  If he did, then he violated his own conscience for a lesser good and acted immorally.  Either way, Santorum has not conducted himself in a manner befitting a statesman, and certainly not in a manner befitting a genuinely conservative statesman. 


It is, however, what we would expect from a cynical and opportunistic run-of-the mill politician like Santorum.         


Rick Santorum is not a real conservative.  Rather, he is a neoconservative Republican.  Between the former and the latter there is all of the difference in the world.  To put this point another way, Santorum is just another champion of Big Government who, when election time rolls around, talks the talk of “limited government” and the rest.

If Republican voters really are concerned, first and foremost, with reshaping the federal government so that it comes to resemble more closely the ideal embodied in the Constitution, then they have no option but to dismiss Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich as the pretenders that they are.  Furthermore, if it is a restoration of the Constitutional Republic for the sake of which our Founding Fathers labored indefatigably that Republicans really desire, they have but one candidate to whom they can turn this time around. 

And that candidate is Ron Paul.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 




An Honest Assessment of Neoconservatism

posted by Jack Kerwick

Given that Republicans will select their presidential nominee before we know it, and given that three of the four candidates in the GOP field are neoconservatives, it would behoove us to revisit neoconservatism. 

By looking at specific thinkers widely recognized as representatives of neoconservatism, we will soon see that far from being an “anti-Semitic” or any other kind of pejorative, and far from being but the latest version of conservatism, neoconservatism is a distinct intellectual tradition.  Moreover, it is an intellectual tradition that embodies theories of knowledge, morality, and political philosophy that are not only different from but incompatible with those constituting conservative thought. 



Leo Strauss

It seems that no conversation of the theoretical trappings of neoconservatism is devoid of reference to Leo Strauss.  Unfortunately, rare are those analyzes of the relationship between Strauss’s thought and the neoconservative vision that accurately encapsulate just how the former supplied philosophical inspiration for the latter.  More importantly, while Strauss has exerted a formative influence over neoconservative thought, he is hardly the sole or primary influence that he is typically made out to be.  In fact, he himself gave expression to a much older tradition.  

This tradition is what we may refer to, for lack of a better term, as “rationalism.”    

Like any other philosophical vantage point, there is no exhaustive set of terms in which to define rationalism.  It admits of multiple variations.  However, in all of its versions, rationalism affirms a robust conception of human reason.  At the very least, reason, from this perspective, is trans-historical: ultimately, it transcends the contingencies of place and time.  Reason has access to “principles”—moral principles—that are just as universal and timeless as reason itself.  And in accordance with these principles, reason is capable of organizing whole societies.


Although Strauss styled himself an opponent of modern or Enlightenment rationalism, that he was a rationalist, albeit of pre-modern sort, is something that he expressly admits.  In fact, it was precisely in his critique of conservatives like Edmund Burke that his affinity for rationalism becomes unmistakable.  

In Natural Right and History, Strauss remarks that Burke—widely recognized as “the patron saint of modern conservatism”—may have been correct in opposing “modern ‘rationalism,’” Strauss claims.  But insofar as his opposition “shifts almost insensibly into an opposition to ‘rationalism’ as such,” Burke goes awry (313). 

Burke is among the most eminent champions of what Strauss refers to as “the historical school.”  Classical or traditional conservatives like Burke resolutely eschew rationalistic theories according to which reason and morality are dislodged from the flow of history.  Rather, they tend to prefer more historically and culturally-sensitive approaches.  Put more simply, conservative theorists have been partial to tradition-centered treatments of reason and ethics.  For this, Strauss refers to them as members of “the historical school.”


To his credit, though, Strauss recognizes the legitimacy of their aversion to rationalism.

“Yet the founders of the historical school seemed to have realized somehow that the acceptance of any universal or abstract principles has necessarily a revolutionary, disturbing, unsettling effect as far as thought is concerned [.]” 

The problem with recognizing “universal” and “abstract” principles is that such recognition “forces man to judge the established order, or what is actual here and now, in the light of the natural or rational order; and what is actual here and now is more likely than not to fall short of the universal and unchangeable norm” (13 emphases mine).


In summary:

“The recognition of universal principles thus tends to prevent men from wholeheartedly identifying themselves with, or accepting, the social order that fate has allotted them.  It tends to alienate them from their place on the earth.  It tends to make them strangers, and even strangers on the earth” (12-13 emphasis mine).

In rejecting rationalistic conceptions of reason and morality, Burke and the conservative theorists who he inspired are guilty of ushering in “a certain depreciation of reason.”  Their skepticism concerning reason’s pretensions is most readily revealed in Burke’s view of a constitution.  Burke—incorrectly, according to Strauss—“rejects the view that constitutions can be ‘made’ in favor of the view that they must ‘grow’,” and he rejects “in particular the view that the best social order can be or ought to be the work of an individual, of a wise ‘legislator’ or founder” (313).       


So, for Strauss, reason is trans-cultural or trans-historical, and it consists of moral principles that are just as universal and independent of the contingencies of place and time.  In accordance with these principles, human reason is capable of “making” whole societies.  Burke and the conservatives who followed him unequivocally reject these notions. 

Neoconservatives, we will now see, clearly back Strauss over Burke.

Allan Bloom  

Allan Bloom was a student of Strauss’s.  Bloom is also associated with neoconservatism.  Like Strauss, Bloom has a penchant for the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular. 

In his, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom describes the United States as a country rooted in “the use of the rational principles of natural right,” for America promises “untrammeled freedom to reason” (39 emphasis mine) [.]  The Declaration of Independence embodies “principles” that demand liberation from “the kinds of attachments” characteristic of “traditional communities [.]” American patriotism, in contrast, consists in a “reflected, rational, calm, even self-interested loyalty,” not to America as such, but to its “form of government and its rational principles [.]”  Considered in the light of “natural rights,” “class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim” (27 emphases mine) [.]


Bloom’s rationalistic perspective on reason and morality lead him to precisely that view that distinguishes neoconservatism as the particular species of Enlightenment rationalism that it is.  There will not be peace in the world, Bloom insists, until every country has embraced “the best of modern regimes—liberal democracy [.]”  What Bloom calls “liberal democracy” is “the regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man,” and “the regime of reason” (259 emphases mine).   Liberal democracies are populated by men (and women) of “rational principles” (53emphasis mine).  The inhabitants of liberal democracies would never think to go to war with one another “because they see the same human nature and the same rights applicable everywhere and to everyone” (202 emphasis mine). 


Other Neoconservatives

Douglas Murray’s book, Neoconservatism: Why We Need It?  is as clear and comprehensive an apology for neoconservatism as any of which I am aware.Murray acknowledges the debt that neoconservatism owes to the likes of Strauss and Bloom, and he elaborates upon the cardinal tenets of the neoconservative persuasion.

Neoconservatives, Murray explains, not only hold “liberal democracy” to be the best form of government; they are convinced that world peace promises to be forever elusive until every country becomes a liberal democracy. Murraywrites that “democracy is the desirable endpoint of all human societies [.]”  Although it cannot alone “make people good, it is the surest means of preventing nation-states [from] waging war on one another.”  This position, Murray declares, has “become part of the neoconservative DNA (68) [.]”


Neoconservatism and classical conservatism are eons apart.  On this, Murray couldn’t be more decisive.  In fact, he tells us that “socially, economically, and philosophically,” neoconservatism offers “something very different from conservatism [.]”  Neoconservatism offers “revolutionary conservatism” (38 emphasis mine). 

It is “revolutionary” primarily because of its recognition that the United States government cannot rest until the planet becomes an oasis of “liberal democracy.”  Murray approvingly summarizes the founding Statement of Principles of The Project for the New American Century.  The “signatories,” he writes, “declared that the use of American power had been repeatedly shown over the previous century to be a force for good.” Thus, it must remain such throughout the next century.  By executing its “global responsibilities” via increases in “defense spending”; strengthening its “ties with its democratic allies”; challenging “regimes hostile to American interests and values;” and promoting “the cause of ‘political and economic freedom abroad,” (82-83) America will spend the 21st century “erasing tyrannies and spreading democracy” through “interventionism, nation-building, and many of the other difficulties that had long concerned traditional conservatives” (73 emphasis mine).


That neoconservative foreign policy is inextricably linked to its rationalistic notions of reason and morality should by now be clear.  But in case it isn’t, there are other neoconservatives to whom we can turn who dispel all doubts.

Bill Bennett is one such figure.  In Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, Bennett expresses his belief that America must be a force for good in the world.  More specifically, he refers to “the War on Terror” as a “war over ultimate and uncompromisable purposes, a war to the finish.” This is “a war about good and evil” (45). 

More people would be capable of recognizing this if more people today had been educated to grasp “the superior goodness of the American way of life,” (46) a goodness that consists in a “steadfast devotion to the ideals of freedom and equality” (emphasis mine). These ideals in turn are inseparable from “the self-evident truth that all men are created equal,” a basic principle to which America is the first country in all of history to be “dedicated [.]” America is “a country tied together in loyalty to a principle” whose “universality…caught fire (26) [.]” 


Neoconservative Walter Berns seconds this view.  In Making Patriots, he says that Americans derive their identity not “from where we were born but, rather,” from “our attachment to those principles of government, namely, that all men are created equal insofar as they are equally endowed by nature’s God with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (50) [.]” 

Berns asserts that American patriotism “is not a parochial patriotism,” for it “comprises an attachment to principles that are universal,” (8) principles to which “any people might subscribe (5) [.]”  For this reason, “to be indifferent, especially to the rights of others, would be un-American” (8 emphasis mine).     


The logic of this reasoning is inescapable: if it is “un-American” for Americans to be “indifferent” to “the rights of others,” then insofar as much of the world still lives under undemocratic governments, “the rights” of most of the world’s people are constantly under assault.  Hence, American “patriotism” requires that we incessantly intervene in the affairs of other countries until we remake them into “liberal democracies.” 


Neoconservatism is fundamentally different from conservatism proper.  The former affirms rationalistic conceptions of reason, morality, and political philosophy that the latter rejects.  For neoconservatives, reason consists of universal, abstract moral principles in accordance with which societies everywhere must be organized.  For conservatives, in glaring contrast, reason and morality are embodied in culturally and historically-specific traditions.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

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