At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Rethinking the Relationship Between Art and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

To the voluminous body of evidence that the television and film industries are comprised of doctrinaire leftists determined to promote their political program via these media, we can now add Ben Shapiro’s recently released Prime Time Propaganda.  This work is at once too long and too predictable, it is true.  But in spite of its vices, it would be unfair to begrudge Shapiro the commendation for the service that he supplies, namely, a much needed reminder of the variety of typically subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which Hollywood routinely attempts to invite sympathy from consumers for causes that they would otherwise reject.

My intention here, however, is not to review Shapiro’s book.  Rather, I wish to say a couple of things about the relationship between art and politics that he, among legions of others, addresses. 

The first thing of which to take note is that while those on the right incessantly (and understandably) bemoan the injection of leftist “politics” into the arts, it is really leftist morality that is the object of their disdain.  “Politics” is a term loaded with negative connotations.  This explains why politicians charge their rivals with “playing politics,” or why we complain that this situation or that is “all political.”  “Politics” has gotten a bad rap, I believe, but that is grist for another mill.  The point here is that while it is a much easier sell to accuse one’s opponents of politicizing matters than to accuse them of moralizing them, political causes are moral causes.

Second, since it is leftist morality of which those on the right want to divest the arts, it is unclear exactly what it is they are saying.  To put it another way, they appear to be simultaneously advocating two mutually contradictory positions: the arts should and should not promote morality.  Nationally syndicated radio talk show host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham is about as perfect an illustration of this tendency as any of which I am aware.  The title of her book, Shut Up and Sing, readily reveals her call for a morally-neutral art world.  At the same time, though, Ingraham also urgesHollywood to provide consumers with products that embody “family-friendly” messaging—i.e. “traditional” or “conservative” morality.

The relationship between art and morality has always been a subject of interest for philosophers.   That the arts contribute powerfully to the formation of character is a proposition that few could coherently deny.  It is precisely our recognition of this fact that motivates parents to regulate the images that their children ingest, and both parents and non-parents alike to repudiate those parents who fail in this regard.  Similarly doubtless is that for as long as they have existed, artists have sought to advance their conceptions of morality through their work.  At no time has this been truer than today.

Yet to concede all of this should not be confused with conceding that art and morality are one and the same.  It seems to me that if “art” is a concept with any intelligibility whatsoever—and we all appear to be in agreement that is—then we have no choice but to acknowledge the illegitimacy of reducing art to morality.  Art and morality are indeed distinct activities; neither should be measured in terms of the other.   

The moral philosopher or the ethicist and the philosopher of art or the aesthetician center attention upon fundamentally different kinds of objects.  The moral philosopher examines the concepts that constitute morality: “ought,” “right,” “wrong,” “duty,” “obligation,” “virtue,” “vice,” “happiness,” “pleasure,” “pain,” etc..  The philosopher of art, in contrast, focuses on such concepts as “beauty,” “mimesis,” “emotion,” “representation,” “symmetry,” and “expression.” 

Of moral agents and their actions it is proper—it is expected—that we should express approval or disapproval.  More specifically, agents and their actions are to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished.  Artworks, on the other hand, considered solely as artworks, elicit no such responses.  Artworks are neither “right” nor “wrong,” and the artist is neither “virtuous” nor “vicious.”  Far from inviting endorsement or reproach, an artwork provokes what we may call contemplative enjoyment. 

The response to an artwork is enjoyment because, like all other forms of enjoyment, an observer’s relationship to an artwork is an activity, not a momentary emotion.  Enjoyment is not synonymous with pleasure. Enjoyment can be and not infrequently is derived from activities that are productive of pleasure and pain alike.  “No pain, no gain,” an expression with which weightlifters have long been familiar, is a standing testament to this truth, for in spite of the cost in pain that the activity of weightlifting incurs, the weightlifter persists because he enjoys it.  And what is true of weightlifting is no less true of all manner of activity, from sports to music, writing to teaching, parenting to marriage. 

Yet the enjoyment that an artwork produces, unlike that to be had from the pursuit of these other objects, is also contemplative, for an artwork is uniquely situated to arrest our daily activity just long enough for us to reflect upon something that is beyond the world of wanting and getting, truth and falsity, right and wrong.  A fine artwork accepts nothing less than the observer’s undivided attention.  It is not, however, ungrateful, for in exchange for the abandonment of all other considerations—considerations of right and wrong, say, or scientific or historical accuracy—it promises its own unique enjoyment.

Anyone calling into question this (admittedly sketchy) theory of art would do himself a good turn to consider our reaction to, say, The Godfather.  Although this story has, with all of the justice in the world, been criticized for its romantic depiction of organized crime, that it is a stellar artwork is all but beyond dispute.  That Mafioso aren’t “really” as educated, articulate, or successful at eluding capture as Michael Corleone is neither here nor there as far the merits of The Godfather as an artwork are concerned.  What makes The Godfather an artwork is its potential to provoke contemplative enjoyment in those who behold it.  And what makes it a masterpiece is that it has succeeded in not only actualizing this potentiality, but in doing so excellently. 

There is much more that can and should be said on this subject.  Since “the politicization of art” has been and remains an issue for those on both sides of the political divide, my objective here was simply to encourage more thought on the nature of art and its relationship to morality.  It was toward this end that I offered this preliminary analysis of art.            

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Rethinking the Relationship between History and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

Those on the conventional right incessantly lament the ignorance of history from which younger generations of Americans suffer.  While it is true that Americans appear to know frighteningly little about their country’s past, perhaps this has something to do with the abuse to which the concept of history has been subjected.    

The very concept of “history” is in an abysmal condition of neglect.  For this, partisans from across the political spectrum are to blame. Much more frequently than not, when those on both the right and the left advocate the teaching of “history,” it isn’t a distinct, autonomous line of inquiry or discipline to which they want people exposed; rather, what they champion is the promotion of their respective political-moral visions under the guise of “history.”  That this is so is readily born out by the titles of some of the more popular contemporary “history” books: A People’s History of America; The Last Best Hope; The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History; A Patriot’s History of The United States, etc.

In other words, “history” has been reduced to morality.  Those on the left exploit the name of “history” in order to impress upon audiences their notion of an Americaconceived in corruption.  Thus, “history” texts authored by leftists invariably accentuate those passages of our national life that fit most readily into the template of “racism” and “sexism” that they seek to impose upon them.  In contrast, those authored by rightists, while not devoid of all references to some of America’s more oppressive chapters, tend to romanticize our country.  Among the most salient ways in which they seek to obtain this end is by stressing what is commonly called “American Exceptionalism,” the concept that the United States stands alone among the nations of the world in being the only country that has ever been founded upon, not “the accidents of history,” but a universal, self-evident moral truth: the truth that all human beings are possessed of God-given “unalienable rights.” 

But if history is a distinct discipline, then it is as illegitimate to import moral judgments into it as it is illegitimate to import aesthetic judgments into, say, the study of biology.  Just as the marine biologist looks upon the ocean, not as God’s creation or an artwork, but as the environment that nurtures the organisms on which he sets his sights, so the genuine historian is concerned with informing us of what happened in the past—not what should have happened.  For example, it is proper for the moralist to characterize slavery as “reprehensible” or “evil”; the mode of the historian, on the other hand, is devoid of all such normative terms.

Biographies of, say, Abraham Lincoln, that heap either praise or scorn upon our sixteenth president, although they may be truthful, are not historical.  Lincoln may very well have been among the wisest of men as Harry Jaffa and legions of others insist, or he may have been a deceitful tyrant, as Thomas DiLorenzo and a not insignificant minority of scholars contend.  What we must grasp is that this is a debate that lies outside the province of the historian.  

If we are in the right in regarding history as a distinct field of inquiry, then it is improper for us at the same time to enlist it in the service of either present or future moral ends.  Most “historians” today actually exploit the past for the sake of advancing a moral or political agenda of one sort or another.  Now, there is nothing illicit about the activity of drawing upon the past in order to illuminate present circumstances; indeed, it is both necessary and desirable that we do as much.  The point, however, is that whatever else we may say of this engagement of mining the past for present reward, we must not say that it is historical. 

Because a person’s very identity is constituted by the events that he’s experienced, it is inevitable that we shall be forever recalling episodes from our pasts.  Yet only if we are determined to divest the concept of history of all meaning will we then conclude from this that each of us is a historian.  If everyone is a historian, then no one is.  Similarly, the examples of virtuous characters from our civilization’s past promise to impart much in the way of moral instruction.  Unless, though, we want to regard “history” texts along exactly the same lines as we tend to regard children’s stories—as sources of moral education and entertainment—we must grant that searching the past for even noble present purposes like the inculcation of excellence is most definitely not an historical enterprise. 

No, as Michael Oakeshott observed, it isn’t the historian’s interest in the past that distinguishes him as the figure that he is; it is his interest in the past for its own sake that makes him a historian. 

The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that objectivity was a fiction.  Every living organism, he argued, was fundamentally motivated by what he called “the will to power,” the impulse to satiate its needs and desires by dominating its surroundings.  The human being differs from all other living things only insofar as his intelligence is concerned, for humans seek to exploit and subjugate one another not just through brute force, but through what we may call rational coercion. No person will come right out and tell others that he needs for them to believe as he does; this simply would go no distance toward attaining the sought after objective.  Rather, he will do what, according to Nietzsche, philosophers have been doing for as long as they have been around: he will avoid all self-references and appeal only to such “objective” criteria as Reason, Truth, Natural Law, God, and so forth.

Now, there is much over which to quarrel with Nietzsche.  But his thought is not without its share of insights.  There can be no denying that far too frequently the beliefs that we profess are informed by motives that haven’t anything to do with the search for truth.  Neither can we deny that just as frequently we attempt to hide these motives, from both ourselves and others, by cloaking them with the language of objectivity. 

The appeal to “history,” I hope the reader now recognizes, is but another way that ideologues of one sort or another have done this.       

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 


A Forgotten Black Conservative: A Closer Look at George S. Schuyler

posted by Jack Kerwick

Over the years, the John Birch Society—the organization of which The New American is an organ—has been besmirched by its ideological rivals for all  manner of evil, most prominently of which is the sin of “racism.”  More specifically, given that its membership has always been and remains predominantly white, it is “white racism” with which it has been charged.

However, it is difficult to see how this charge can be made to fit once it is recognized that as far back as the 1960’s, one of the most notable black writers in the country—George S. Schuyler—became a member of JBS.  Actually, Schuyler was among the most astute, courageous, wittiest, and impassioned writers, black, white, or other. 

Of course, that Schuyler was a conservative and a member of JBS is not recognized by many because, regretfully, Schuyler himself is no longer remembered. 

Born in 1895 inRhode Island, Schuyler spent his formative years inSyracuse,New York.  He served in World War I and, upon being discharged, moved toHarlemwhere he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1977.  Yet during this time, Schuyler enjoyed quite an eventful existence.

Throughout the decade of the 1920’s, he became associated with that circle of artists that history would recall as “the Harlem Renaissance.”  During this same period, interestingly enough, Schuyler also joined the Socialist Party.  However, in his autobiography, Black and Conservative, Schuyler admits that it was from a craving for intellectual stimulation, and not an affinity for socialism, that initially drew him to this organization.  But even though it was only a relatively short while before he became disenchanted with the ideas of his associates, apparently his time as a member was not for naught, for from this juncture onward, Schuyler became an ardent enemy of all things that so much as remotely smelled of communism.  To the end of combating “the red threat,” he employed his skills as a writer for such publications as H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury and The Pittsburg Courier, the largest black newspaper publication inAmerica of which Schuyler was editor from 1922 until 1964. 

The title of Schuyler’s autobiography, Black and Conservative (1966), is indeed a fitting description, for Schuyler was a conservative. That there were differences of various sorts between the races he never would have dreamt to deny.  But these differences, he insisted, had nothing to do with nature; they were cultural.  To put this point another way, like any good conservative, Schuyler underscored the monumental role that tradition plays in constituting identity.  And in order to show that it was culture or tradition that accounts for differences between black and white Americans, he drew attention to their similarities—likenesses that ordinarily escape casual observers of both races.

For example, Schuyler repudiated the notion that there was something that can aptly be termed “the Harlem Renaissance”—if it is said to center around a distinctively black art.  He wrote: “Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness.”  Slave songs, “the blues,” jazz, and “the Charleston” are alike the creations of blacks, but, as Schuyler notes, they originated with Southern blacks and, as such, are “foreign to Northern Negroes, West Indian Negroes, and African Negroes.  In short, they are as “expressive or characteristic of the Negro race” as “the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.”

Within the context ofAmerica, so-called “Negro art” is in reality Eurocentric.  As Schuyler put it, “the Aframerican [sic] is merely a lampblacked [sic] Anglo-Saxon.”  He was not short on substantiation for this claim.

“The dean of the Aframerican literati is W.E.B. Du Bois, a product of Harvard and German universities; the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of painters inParisand has been decorated by the French Government.” 

That black American artists are more akin to their white counterparts than either blacks and whites tend to realize is unsurprising once we consider that “the Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white American.”  For instance, “in the homes of the black and white Americans of the same cultural and economic level one finds similar furniture, literature, and conversation.”  Schuyler asks: “How, then, can the black American be expected to produce art and literature dissimilar to that of the white American?”

What Schuyler believes is true of the black American artist he is convinced is no less true of black Americans generally: their dispositions, tastes, and sensibilities are the products, not of a uniquely “black nature,” but the Eurocentric or Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions in which they were nurtured.  Conservatives, forever mindful of the tradition or culturally constituted character of individual identity, have always regarded the radically individualistic notion of the “self-made man” as a fiction: no one can literally lift himself up by his own bootstraps, for every person is dependent, often in ways of which he is unaware, upon the assistance of others.  Doubtless, Schuyler is of a piece with other conservative thinkers on this score.  But he goes a step beyond this to rebuke the related idea that racial groups can shed the cultural traditions within which their distinguishing features were formed. 

From Schuyler’s discussion of racial issues, conservatives of all races can learn much about their own intellectual tradition.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American   

American Exceptionalism and Identity Politics Reconsidered

posted by Jack Kerwick

Dean Malik has recently written a piece for American Thinker in which he contrasts what he calls “American exceptionalism” (AE, from this point onward) with “identity politics.”  The former is good, he maintains, while the latter is bad.   

This essay is problematic for a variety of reasons—questionable presuppositions and unfair distortions continually rear their ugly heads.  First, I will focus on Malik’s comments concerning AE.  Next, I will turn to his account of identity politics, with particularly close attention paid to his remarks in connection to what he refers to as “white supremacy.”   

American Exceptionalism (AE)

Interestingly, Malik fails to explicitly define the notion for which his essay is an apology.  Fortunately, this in and of itself doesn’t pose much of an obstacle to engaging his argument, for what he does say coincides closely enough with prevailing understandings of AE.  The idea that Malik appears to champion is the doctrine that America is the only land in all of human history to have been founded upon the principle that such contingencies as race, ethnicity, and religion—considerations that define the character of every other society the world over—are irrelevant to membership in that association that we know as the United States.   

The historically dubious nature of this statement of America’s founding aside, contra Malik, while the doctrine of AE certainly entails the idea of an America that has always “stood for the promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity, and…the cruelties of religious intolerance,” it is just as certainly not interchangeable with it. 

Even a society all of whose members recognized the importance of racial, ethnic, and other particular bonds—what Malik disdainfully refers to as “tribal loyalties”—could just as passionately and stridently aspire to ameliorate “hatreds,” privileges owing to “social heredity,” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance.”  Like the Jacobins of the eighteenth century in reply to whose abstract and universalistic ideology Edmund Burke formulated the most eloquent statement of what has since been recognized as conservatism, Malik is guilty of precisely the same charges that Burke leveled against his rivals.  Malik is guilty, not just of error, but of hubris. 

As Burke observed, by the rationalist abstractions—“the Rights of Man” and the concomitant idea that only those governments erected upon “the consent” of “the People” were legitimate—of the defenders of the French Revolution, every government, however benevolent, stands condemned.  Similarly, if AE refers to something uniquely American, and if this something is America’s “promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity,” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance,” then what Malik implies is that every other society that has ever existed offers no such relief.  

There is indeed much about Americafor which to be thankful.  My admiration for its distinction as a nation is second to none.  But surely no one believes that what fundamentally distinguishes our country from every other, what renders it “exceptional,” is that we eschew racially, ethnically, and religiously-oriented intolerance while other nations do not.

America’s founders were overwhelmingly of a single race, a single ethnicity, and a single religion.  They were white, English, and Protestant.  They suffered no delusions regarding their identity, and never could have dreamt of any reason why they should be in the least bit apologetic for it.  The country of which they were pioneers (not “immigrants”) was forged through the very same historical accidents—bloodshed, violence, slavery—that characterized the origins of every other human society, it is true, but because these phenomena assumed an inter-racial character in America, our founders were that much more self-conscious of their distinguishing features than they otherwise would have been had their conflicts and achievements occurred within a racially, ethnically, and religiously homogenous context.

Neither is there a shred of evidence that our founders saw themselves as creating a nation within which the members of every conceivable racial, ethnic, and religious group could and would co-exist as equal citizens.  Being Christian, it is doubtless correct that they attributed equal worth or equality before God to all persons.  But, contrary to the conventional, politically correct, mushy-minded wisdom of our generation, it is anything but a small step from this belief to the conclusion that there is a universal entitlement to American citizenship. 

Thomas Sowell—a black thinker—once remarked that talk of race more so than that of any other issue taps our rationality.  The stellar intelligence, withering logic, and rigorous reasoning that are brought to bear on other issues are conspicuously absent when it comes to this topic.  To see both that Sowell is correct on this score and that the doctrine of AE is indeed designed to conceal the racial, ethnic, and religious dimensions of the founding and history ofAmerica that its champions haven’t the wherewithal to acknowledge we need look no further than Malik’s exposition. 

Identity Politics

After all, Malik does contrast AE with what he calls “identity politics.”  Judging from the examples he cites, La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus, and such “white supremacist” organizations as Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance, to mention but a few, it is clear that the “identity politics” that principally concern him is predominantly racial in nature. 

Malik’s analysis of identity politics warrants some remarks.

First of all, that Americans have always organized for various purposes along racial, ethnic, and religious lines may not in itself justify this practice; it does, however, put the lie to the notion that it is somehow “un-American.” 

Secondly, no one has so much as tried to establish that there is anything in the least bit morally objectionable about Americans (or anyone) assembling for reasons of race, ethnicity, and/or religion. 

Thirdly, that people feel a closer affinity for their racial, ethnic, and religious brethren no more shows their proclivity for indulging “tribal loyalties and hatreds” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance” than does our partiality toward our own families establish our hatred and intolerance of other families.  Presumably, not unlike virtually everyone else, Malik thinks it is a fine and good thing that we tend to love our own spouses and children more than we love the spouses and children of others.  And we know that he holds patriotism—partiality toward one’s country—to be a virtue.  However, we are left to ask: if the commitments to one’s co-religionists, co-ethnics, and co-racialists are repellent because of the tribalism that they supposedly embody, why aren’t commitments to one’s family and one’s nation not similarly repellant?  Why or how are they not also species of tribalism?

Fourthly, Malik refers to the likes of Sam Francis and Jared Taylor as “white supremacists.”  “White supremacy,” he contends, is the product, the effect, of minority identity politics.  Interestingly, I think Malik’s observation is astute as far as it goes; the problem is that it only goes so far. 

Francis and Taylor are both white, yes, but neither are “supremacists.”  Malik is arguing in bad faith here.  It is true that Francis and Taylor, being particularly interested as they are in the genetic foundations of human behavior, focus on IQ differences between racial groups. Yet there are a couple things of which to take note here.

The data on which Francis and Taylor center their attention is exactly the same data that every student of IQ accepts—statistics that no one from Richard Herrnstein (a Jew) to Dinesh D’Souza (an Indian) to Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams (both black) denies.  If there is anything that can be said to distinguish Francis and Taylor from their peers, it is the dominant role which they assign to biology in their analyses of IQ.  They may very well be incorrect; I for one take exception to their conclusions.  Yet a belief in the error of another’s ways is in no wise incompatible with a respect for his intellectual seriousness.  For Malik, sadly, the two evidently are mutually exclusive.

Moreover, if Malik really knew anything at all about Taylor and Francis, he would know that even in the terms of their own reading of IQ and race, Taylor and Francis—like most “white nationalists”—think that on average Asians, northern Asians specifically, are intellectually superior to whites.  The Japanese, for example, consistently register a higher average IQ than whites. So, if Malik remains determined to label Taylor and Francis “supremacists,” he should make sure to refer to them as proponents of Asian supremacy. 

Fifth and finally, as Malik himself remarks, what he terms “white supremacy” is a reaction to minority identity politics.  That blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white groups should organize along racial lines for the sake of advancing their collective interests is enough to provoke some measure of racial consciousness within whites.  But when the realization of the ends that racial minorities pursue demands that the government surrender its impartiality with respect to all citizens and substitute for laws that equally bind all of the associates of the legal association that we know as the United States policies designed to benefit non-whites over whites, it is understandable that these same whites should seek to organize similarly. 

This, incidentally, is exactly the point made by VanderbiltUniversitypolitical science and law professor, Carol M. Swain.  Swain is the author of a couple of books on “white nationalism,” and while she doesn’t identify with this orientation, she is remarkably sympathetic with it.  It is remarkable that she should sympathize with it mostly because Swain is black.  At any rate, she certainly treats it more charitably, more justly, than does Malik.

Americais supposed to be “a nation of laws,” not of men.  What this means is that when the government favors the members of one racial group over those of another, America’s character is corrupted.  Thus, when identity politics is nothing more or less than the enterprise of appropriating government for the sake of racial favoritism, it is an enterprise gone to the bad.  When, however, as in the case of “the white nationalists” that compose the object of Malik’s disdain, as well as, say, black civil rights activists in 1950’s and 1960’s, it is a matter of insuring that government refrain from privileging some racial groups at the expense of others, it is entirely appropriate. 

In these latter cases, though, it isn’t really identity politics at all of which we are speaking.  Rather, it is a movement oriented toward preserving the rule of law.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at American Thinker

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