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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Morality versus Godliness

posted by Jack Kerwick

There is much talk these days about something called “Judaeo-Christian values.”  This is the name that is invariably assigned to the morality to which America is supposed to have traditionally subscribed.  America, we are told, is a “Judaeo-Christian” nation, a nation “founded” upon “Judaeo-Christian principles” or “ideals.” 

Now, it is, of course, true that there is an especially close relationship between Judaism and Christianity.  The latter spun out of the former.  The first Christians were Jews, and the Man who the Christian world—approximately one-third of the planet’s population—recognizes as God Almighty was a Jew.  To those writings that Jews regard as sacred Christians attach the same importance. In fact, though he doesn’t often think of himself in exactly these terms, if pushed, the Christian would be the first to acknowledge that he is indeed a Jew, but a perfected Jew, a Jew who lived to witness the coming of the Messiah—the Christ.

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Yet for all of these similarities, the expression “Judeao-Christian morality” is, ultimately, a fiction that does an injustice to both Judaism and Christianity. 

The “values,” “principles,” or “ideals” encompassed by “Judaeo-Christian morality” are to the traditions from which they have been abstracted what a portrait is to the whole life of the person of whom it is a depiction.  The values, principles, and ideals of “Judeao-Christian morality” stand in relation to the faiths from which they’ve been distilled as the principles of a grammar stand in relation to the living language to which they belong.  Just as a portrait and a grammar derive their value from their usefulness in summarizing the vastly more intricate phenomena to which they owe their being, so too are “the principles” of any morality nothing more or less than bloodless, lifeless abstractions, static abridgements of the living tradition of which they are cliff notes.

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Strictly speaking, neither Judaism nor Christianity is a “morality” at all.  Both are religions.  It is true that from these religions we can extract principles, values, and ideals. It is even true that we can, with some justice, gather them up and label them “morality.”  But what we cannot do is think of them solely in terms of morality, or think that this label is anything other than a term of convenience, a term with all of the short-hand value and literal truth as the expression, “the sun rises.”  The sun does not literally rise.  Nor can it literally be said that Judaism and Christianity are “systems” of morality.

The principles, ideals, and values of Judaism and Christianity are intelligible only because of the unmistakably theological context within which they take their place. In short, if we insist on speaking of Judaism and Christianity as “systems” at all, we should be clear that they are systems, not of morality, but of religion.  Their principles assume meaning only because they are carefully situated within a narrative of which no less a being than God Himself is at the center.  It is for the purpose of shaping themselves into the kind of person who will love self, neighbor, and God for God’s sake that their adherents are expected to observe “the principles,” affirm “the values,” and pursue “the ideals” of these two great religious traditions.

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Once these principles, ideals, and values become disembodied, as it were, once they are boiled down into a doctrine of “natural rights,” say, or some fixed set of principles alleged to be “self-evident” or “innate” or demanded by “human nature” or “Reason,” they lose their identity and, with it, their power to inspire and motivate. 

Now, the concept of “Judaeo-Christian” morality is even more of a distortion than the concepts of “Jewish morality” and “Christian morality.”  Judaism and Christianity are both religious traditions, but there is a very real respect in which we can say that they affirm different deities. 

With a few exceptions here and there, Christians the world over essentially agree on the triune nature of God.  That is, in stark contrast to Jews, Christians believe that God is Three Divine Persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  To Jewish ears, this doctrine of the Blessed Trinity can only smack of the worst of sins, the sin of idolatry, for to non-Christians of all faiths it appears to be an affirmation of polytheism.  And Judaism is noted for nothing if not its fierce monotheism.

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Christianity, of course, is not a version of polytheism. It is as monotheistic as Judaism.  But Christians have arrived at their peculiar conception of God because of another that they embrace, one in the absence of which Christianity would not be the religion that it is.  From this doctrine Jews and other theists recoil in sheer horror.  It is called the Incarnation.  Inasmuch as it embodies the conviction that, not this or that “god,” but the one and only God of all that is, from sheer love, chose to became a human being, it is truly unique.

Yet this isn’t all. 

It isn’t just that God became a man.  According to the story of the Incarnation, God became a man who, for the sake of the human race, both bore unimaginable suffering as well as the most humiliating of deaths.  To put it mildly, the God of Christianity strikes non-Christians as insufficiently transcendental.  To put it more bluntly, such a God comes across as scandalously immanent. 

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But the God of Christianity is the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The God that Christians worship entered human history and, as the prologue to John’s Gospel states, “dwelt among us.”  Like that of any other human being, Jesus’ identity was the product of the historical and cultural circumstances in which He lived.  This He appears to have known better than anyone, for in order to thrust His significance upon His contemporaries, Jesus carefully—masterfully—weaved His image from the various threads of His own Jewish tradition.  Unlike, say, Muhammad, who gathered together a series of allegedly divinely inspired orders and commands devoid of any narrative framework, Jesus saw to it that His life, or at least His public ministry, was nothing less than a dramatic reenactment of the collective self-understanding of His (Jewish) people.  Yet it was also something more than this, for in reenacting the past, He also revised popular conceptions of it.  And in doing the latter, there is a real sense in which He recreated the present and re-envisioned possibilities for the future.

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Jesus is what in another idiom we may describe as a “moral exemplar.” For Christians, it would be said that he is a moral exemplar par excellence.  Here is a man who immersed Himself in the tradition within which He was born and reared.  Jesus wasn’t content in achieving mere fluency in His tradition; He successfully sought connoisseurship in it.  Jesus made no ringing affirmations of such abstract notions as “human dignity,” “rational nature,” “personhood,” and “human nature,” much less “self-evident” “human rights.”  He knew that human flourishing could occur only within the concrete context of tradition—His tradition, the theological tradition of Judaism.  It was this tradition that Jesus sought to reshape and fulfill in His own Person, but ultimately in His passion, death, and resurrection from the dead.

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For Christians, then, “morality” is not essentially, or even primarily, a matter of observing “principles,” pursuing abstract ideals (like Equality or Justice), or following rules and commands.  “Morality” consists in the emulation of a person, or a Person. Jesus is indeed the exemplar of stellar conduct for Christians. But the conduct in question is not, strictly speaking, moral conduct; it is godly conduct.  Christians (and Jews) aspire toward godliness.  The religious are concerned with religiosity, not “morality.”

“Morality,” especially when it is a morality of abstract universal “principles” and “ideals,” is “the desiccated relic,” as one philosopher once put it, the residual fragments, of a tradition. 

More specifically, it is, at least in the West, the traces of a religious tradition.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

     

 

 

 

 

    

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Thoughts on the Shooting of Trayvon Martin

posted by Jack Kerwick

On the night of February 26, an irrational, gun-totting, white racist named George Zimmerman went out in search of trouble.  Not before long, he found it.  Neither Zimmerman nor his neighbors much appreciated the presence of racial minorities in their gated community inSanford,Florida.  So, when Zimmerman laid eyes on baby-faced Trayvon Martin, a young black boy from out of town who innocently—haplessly—careened through this exclusive neighborhood in pursuit of a box of Skittles that he planned on purchasing from the local 7-Eleven, Zimmerman found his target.  A short while later, Martin was dead, shot by Zimmerman. The latter, though, has yet to be charged with any crime.

This, at any rate, is the account that has now become national news.  It invites several comments.

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First, given the frequency with which commentators from across the political spectrum are speaking of this case, and given the moral certitude with which they condemn the Sanford Police Department and George Zimmerman, one could be forgiven for assuming that all of the facts of this situation are known. In reality, the public, as well as the pundits, know very few details about what actually happened. 

Second, this case is already a month old.  But it has only been within the last few days, since legions of angry black demonstrators began demanding “justice” for Martin, that the usual talking heads, with lightning speed, have assembled a remarkably bipartisan consensus regarding the “racism” of Zimmerman and the Sanford Police.  What this suggests is that it is most certainly not a desire for truth and justice that informs the expressions of indignation that drop from the mouths of the chatty.  Rather, it is much more likely a desire to jump on the proverbial bandwagon, an aching need to placate the “politically correct” Zeitgeist, that most wrathful and jealous of gods, that explains their readiness to declare their outrage from the rooftops. 

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Third, according to the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the times), something called “white racism” is the most abominable of all of the abominations from which the planet Earth has ever suffered.  It is the cancer of the human species.  More accurately, it is the colon cancer of humanity, for it is a “silent killer”: because of its ubiquity, “white racism” is not easily detected.  Well, it is not easily detected by whites.  Non-white minorities who have been made to endure its ravages from time immemorial, on the other hand, know it all too well; they can see it from miles away.

Sometimes, it is true, this “white racism” asserts itself bluntly, overtly, through acts of sheer, raw violence. More often than not, however, it expresses itself more subtly—through the most fundamental institutions of Western civilization. Thus, even the kindest, gentlest, most benevolent intentioned of whites are nevertheless “racist” just by virtue of having been reared within the framework of Western institutions.  This is what we call “institutional racism.”  

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Fourth, given the prevailing orthodoxy, then, the popular account of the Sanford, Floridaincident makes all of the sense in the world.  It is what we should expect in a “racist” society like America.  In fact, the story of a white man satiating his bigoted lust to slaughter a black person—any black person—by gunning down a naïve, innocent black youth seems tailor-made to fit the conventional politically correct narrative.  And this brings us to our next point.

Fifth, this story is shaped to gel with the prejudices of the self-appointed guardians of contemporary political virtue, for you see, it is not true.

Granted, it is indeed tragic that Trayvon Martin lost his life in what seems to have been an unnecessary confrontation.  But the idea that George Zimmerman is some hate-filled “white racist” who was on the hunt for any blacks that might dare to pass through his plush neighborhood is a fiction of the first order.

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For one thing, to judge from his picture, one would swear that Zimmerman hailed from Latin America.  There is a good reason for this: Zimmerman is part Hispanic.  Yet while only one of his parents is non-white, he looks not at all like a Caucasian.  Rather, he appears to be just as much “a person of color” as the young man who he killed.  But the crass opportunists who are already exploiting this tragedy for all that it is worth know full well how this game is played.  They know that the promotion of the image of one person of color killing another promises no political dividends.  From the story of a “white racist” shooting down a harmless black youth, on the other hand, the fruits that they can reap are potentially boundless.

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Another falsehood is the notion that Zimmerman is this lawless vigilante who was just itching to extinguish the existence of any minority on whom he could set his sights.  In reality, he had been part of a neighborhood watch group for years. That is, insofar as he devoted no small part of his life to watching out for the well being of his neighbors, he embodied the ideal of the good citizen extolled by the very same self-described “conservatives” who have abetted their leftist counterparts in purveying the idea that he is a trigger-happy trouble maker.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that Zimmerman didn’t overreact when he encountered Trayvon Martin.  Maybe he did overreact, and maybe he didn’t.  We just don’t know yet, contrary to what those who insist that he did would have us believe.

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There is a final regard in which this story is contrived.  The one picture of Martin that is being most circulated by the media is five years old.  What this means is that although Martin was pushing 18 when he was killed, the Martin with which the public is now acquainted was about 12.  This is obviously by design.  When I first heard of this story and saw that photograph of a smiling 12 year-old Trayvon Martin, I thought immediately: how could anyone, much less any man, think for a moment that this kid posed any sort of  threat?  During this time in a boy’s life, the difference between 12 and 17 is the difference between a boy and a man. 

For example, when I was 13 I had just barely over 11 inch arms (biceps) and weighed about 115 pounds.  I was about twenty pounds short of being able to bench press my own body weight.  After ten months of weightlifting, I had over 14 inch arms, weighed 145 pounds, and could put up 215 on the bench.  And I still wasn’t quite fourteen.  By the time I was 17 years old, I was well over 200 pounds, had 17 inch arms, and was handling about 300 pounds on the bench press. The thing is, when I was 17, I wasn’t even lifting all that often, yet my strength and size increased through nothing other than the process of physical maturation.

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Again, Martin may very well have been minding his own business on the night that his life was lost, but if we are to achieve a balanced perspective on this situation, it isn’t to dated photos of him as a pre-adolescent that we should be exposed.

Sixth and lastly, the popular media depiction of this incident is a fiction, yes, but the conventional political orthodoxy for the sake of which it was devised is a vastly larger, more invidious fiction. In fact, it is a lie.   

Hatred, when it is directed toward persons, is poisonous.  I fail to see how or why racial hatred is worse than any other.  But if it is racial hatred that is supposed to be the Mother of all Evils, if it is racial hatred around which the Martin shooting is supposed to coalesce, then it is toward the end of combating black racial hatred that we should be devoting the lion’s share of our resources. 

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As far as interracial crime and violence are concerned, blacks are overwhelmingly the perpetrators and whites the victims—a fact that no one who has attended to the data disputes.  Even the agents of the Racism Industrial Complex (RIC), the professional “anti-racists,” do not take issue with the numbers; they simply—and disingenuously—seek to explain away this inconvenient phenomenon by shifting attention from it to “the root cause” of—what else?—the “white racism” from which it allegedly takes flight. 

If the masses of demonstrators in the streets, and their abettors in the media, were really concerned about “racism” or racial hatred or whatever we choose to call this thing that we treat as the one unpardonable sin, then they would have spent the last so many decades screaming from the rooftops against the evil of the anti-white animus that consumes legions of blacks—and, evidently, whites as well. 

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Where were the “anti-racists” when two black brothers, Reginald and Jonathan Carr, massacred four whites inWichita,Kansas?  Did they storm the streets of America and suspend coverage of all other events to focus solely on this event?  Did the President feel the need to make a show of racial solidarity with the victims?  Where were the “anti-racists” in the days following the unimaginably barbaric slaying of the young white couple, Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, in Knoxville,Tennessee?   

In Wichita,Kansas, on December 14, 2000, at about 11:00 P.M, the Carr brothers brought their months-long crime spree to a climax that resulted in the deaths of four young white adults. 

Upon invading the home of Jason Befort, a science teacher and football coach, they beat him and his two male friends, Brad Heyka, a director of finance at Koch Financial Services, and Aaron Sander, a former employee with Koch who had decided to change course in careers by entering the priesthood.  In addition to Heyka and Sander, two women were also at Befort’s house: Heather Muller, a pre-school teacher who aspired to become a nun, and an unnamed woman to whom Befort planned on becoming engaged.

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This last woman remains anonymous because she is the lone survivor of the unspeakable acts of savagery that unfolded over the next several hours.

The Carr brothers not only beat Befort and his male friends; they repeatedly raped and sodomized the two women and made them engage sexually with one another as well as with the other men.  This nightmare of an ordeal was punctuated with multiple visits to the victims’ ATM accounts.  At night’s end, Reginald and Jonathan Carr drove the five victims to a snow covered field where they had them kneel before shooting them, execution-style, in the backs of their heads.  While fleeing this massacre, the Carr brothers drove over the naked, scarred bodies of their victims with a pick up truck.

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Incredibly, one of the victims managed to survive.  In subzero temperatures, in snow and ice, half-naked, tormented, injured, and traumatized, one brave, resilient soul trekked nearly a mile to get help.  Had she been black and her tormenters white, rather than the reverse, there isn’t a person in America who wouldn’t know of her—or her story—by now.  In any case, because of her Herculean efforts, these two predators were captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

This never became national news.  There were no demands that the Justice Department investigate, no comments from the President, no demonstrations calling for the heads of the monsters that brutally discarded four lives and forever traumatized a fifth.

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On Saturday January 6, 2007, inKnoxville,Tennessee, a young college couple, Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, were carjacked.  They were taken to a nearby home and, until the wee morning hours, made by their captors to endure unimaginable terror.  Christopher Newsom was continuously sodomized with an object of some kind.  Once his victimizers had tired of him, they blinded, gagged, and bound him. Christopher was led to a set of railroad tracks where he was shot in various parts of his body and then set on fire.

Channon Christian was repeatedly gang-raped.  In his court testimony, the medical examiner spoke to the vaginal, anal, and oral trauma that she suffered. Yet she was also violently penetrated by an object, perhaps a broken chair leg. So as to eliminate any traces of their DNA, her assailants poured a chemical of some sort down her throat, scrubbed her bloody and scarred genitalia with the same, and then “hog tied” her with ripped curtain and bedding.  They covered her face tightly with a small trash bag, stuffed her inside five larger trash bags, and left her in a garbage can covered with sheets. 

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Christian was alive while all of this was transpiring.  She died, slowly, of suffocation.

Where was the outpouring of national outrage over this explosion of sheer racial hatred?

There is another reason, though, why those who are genuinely concerned with injustice must talk about black criminality.  If innocent blacks, innocent young black males in particular, are more often than not suspected of being up to no good, it is because there are far too many guilty black males who definitely are up to no good.  Black criminals reflect poorly on other blacks and make life exponentially more difficult for the latter. 

This, too, is a topic that is never touched upon by “anti-racists.”

As at all times and places, decent people of all walks of life can only hope that justice is done in Sanford,Florida. 

Yet decent people also know that there can be no justice as long as it is left to irrational mobs and dishonest commentators to intimidate authorities into giving them the outcome that they want.      

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trayvon Martin and Obama the Racialist

posted by Jack Kerwick

Back in 2008, then Senator Barack Hussein Obama and his supporters on both the left and the right assured us that in the event of his election to the presidency,America would enter a new post-racial millennium. The utopian dreams of yesterday would become the reality of tomorrow if only Americans would vote for Obama today.

Some of us at the time called this nonsense out for what we knew it was. 

In 2012, there isn’t anyone who any longer believes it.

On Friday, March 23, the President couldn’t resist remarking upon the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  Martin is black.  Although the man who shot him is Hispanic, according to the conventional media narrative, George Zimmerman is “white,” or a “white Hispanic.”  Thus, what appears to have been a tragedy—the confrontation that terminated in Martin’s death at least seems to have been avoidable—has been spun by the agents of the “Racism Industrial Complex” (RIC) into a racial incident.

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As in the case of General Motors, Obama is “the captain” of this industry too.

Obama called for “all of us” to engage in “soul searching” so as to determine “how something…like this” could “happen.”  We must look at “the laws” and “the specifics of the incident,” of course, but also “the context for what happened (emphasis added) [.]”  By “context,” Obama clearly wasn’t talking about the immediate context of events within which Zimmerman and Martin encountered one another, for such events constitute “the specifics of the incident.” No, “the context” to which Obama referred was the larger racial narrative that has become the bread and butter for, well, people like Obama.  “If I had a son,” Obama insisted, “he’d look like Trayvon” (emphasis added).

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So, as it turns out, Obama agrees with his old friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. after all.  Gates is the Harvard University professor who in 2009 was arrested at his home when he was mistaken by the police of being an intruder.  He shouted at the arresting officer that it was due to the fact that “I’m a black man in America!” that the police set their sights on him.  As with respect to the Trayvon Martin case, hardly any of the facts of the Gates affair were known when Obama sided with Gates by claiming that theCambridgepolice “acted stupidly.” 

Obama did not have to weigh in on either of these two cases.  Furthermore, he should not have done so.  They are local events that are best left to local authorities to straighten out.  But he couldn’t help himself.  Why?  The question is rhetorical.  Obama couldn’t resist the impulse to speak to the Martin and Gates incidences for the same reason that he is the last person to whom we should turn for guidance toward a post-racial society: Obama is a racialist through and through. 

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More specifically, Obama is a black racialist.

Obama asserts that his son would look like Trayvon Martin. He just as easily—and truthfully—could have said that had he a son, his son would have looked like George Zimmerman, for Zimmerman, as his photo readily attests, isn’t much lighter, if he is lighter at all, than Obama.  But he would rather latch his political and ideological fortunes to this case by identifying with the black youth whose fate is now at the center of national controversy.

This is what we should expect from a man who, in spite of his biracial parentage, has spent his life laboring to forge for himself an explicitly racial identity.  Judged not just by our standards, but those of the world, both present and past, there are few people who have had it as well as Obama has had it.  For this, he has his mother and her family—not his African father who abandoned him when he was but two years-old—to thank.  Yet Obama chooses to regard himself as black.  As his memoir, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, makes abundantly clear, from the time he was an adolescent, Obama had been on a quest to achieve racial “authenticity.”  He wanted to become “authentically” black.

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His understanding of what this authenticity entails we can, if we would only summon the will to do so, piece together from what we now know of him. Obama is a hard leftist who, as such, endorses the conventional political narrative of unrelenting White Oppression and perpetual Black Suffering.  To be authentically black, then, in Obama’s eyes, is to have experienced “racist” oppression.  Yet it is also to be “down with the struggle” for liberation from this subjugation.  And since this “struggle” consists of demands for race-based preferential treatment policies of one sort or another, an “authentic” black person is one who must join the chorus of the enraged “oppressed” in pushing for more of the same.  One who is “authentically” black must never fail to express racial solidarity with his fellow blacks.

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This understanding of Obama coincides neatly with his choice of alliances, including and especially that of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, the man who is an enthusiastic proponent of “Black Liberation Theology” and a good friend of none other than Louis Farakkhan.

Republicans think that they can beat Obama this election season just by focusing on his failed policies.  Maybe they can.  However, I am doubtful.  Politics, as anyone who is at all familiar with it should know, is a contest of narratives or stories.  John McCain tried to focus solely on “the issues” when he contended with Obama in 2008.  It didn’t work.  This time around, I suspect that this approach will fail once more. 

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Republicans have got to re-present Obama to America.  His decisions and actions as President must be contextualized within the narrative of Obama’s life that they will weave, a narrative, much like that which he composed in Dreams, united by the theme of race.   

Not only will this narrative increase Republicans’ chances of defeating Obama in November.  It is, more importantly, a true story.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

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Change, Death, and Politics

posted by Jack Kerwick

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  A week or two after that, my grandmother passed away. 

Considered in themselves, each of these events is entirely distinct from the other.  But, interestingly, reflection upon the loss of my beloved grandmother has deepened my reflection upon the loss that Mercer relays in her book, the loss of her beloved homeland.  Although the death of which Mercer’s compelling Cannibal is an account has occurred sometime ago, the fact of the matter is that it is a death that its author mourns, the death of a country—her country, her world.

Regrettably—shamefully—it is only now, in the light of my own mourning, that this insight has taken hold of me. 

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But with it has come others.

Death is deprivation.  The reason that death, whether the death of a person, a country, a marriage, or an era, causes the living as much pain as it does is that death robs them of something that they valued.  When that something was the object of love, death is at its most merciless.  However, death’s sting is felt even by those who lose, not their beloved, but simply something to which they have grown habituated.

Now, change is an approximation to death.  Not every change is for the worst, of course, but every change, like death, inescapably entails loss.  In depriving us of what is, change plunges us head long toward what is not yet and what may never be—i.e. toward what is not.  Western philosophy itself entered the world struggling and wrestling with the phenomenon of change, for both those, like Heraclitus, who believed that there was nothing but change, as well as those, like Parmenides, who denied that change is real, recognized that change extinguishes identity.

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Change is something that we have no option but to endure.  Some of us are generally less averse to it than others, and none of us avoid all types of changes all of the time. Still, in addition to the fact that most of us view death—the Change of all changes—as the most dreadful of phenomena, there are other considerations that disclose that to all of us at most times, change is not unlike any other exhibition of untamed nature in that we feel the need to either flee from or domesticate it. 

One such consideration is the obvious fact that we are all “creatures of habit,” as we say.  There is a very good reason for why there isn’t one of us to whom this saying doesn’t apply: habit is steady, reliable, and familiar. 

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When we appeal to “human nature,” we see ourselves as appealing to that which is universal, that which is independent of the particularities of history and culture.  “Human nature” is supposed to be intractable, immutable, and, thus, permanent.  As such, invocations of “human nature” can, and undoubtedly do, have the effect of soothing the soul, for the concept of “human nature,” with its semblance of permanence, serves as a sort of fortress within which the change-weary soul seeks refuge.

Habit has been called “second nature” because, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows all too well, habit not infrequently feels as incorrigible as nature itself. The effortlessness with which our habits sustain us and the immense difficulty that we experience in trying to free ourselves from them render us forgetful of the fact that they are acquisitions, products of choice.  It is not for nothing that the philosopher Blaise Pascal once subverted the standard conception of the relationship between nature and habit by suggesting that perhaps nature was just “first habit.”

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Of course, habit doesn’t literally arrest change.  But it does abate it.  Habit simulates permanence insofar as it prevents change from tearing our lives asunder.

The counterpart to habit in politics is custom or tradition.  Like habit, tradition does not preclude change, but it supplies us with the resources to accommodate ourselves to it. Tradition manages to preserve the integrity of our institutions by insuring that the changes that affect them occur slowly and steadily.  In this respect, tradition is analogous to language, for although language is always suffering changes, those changes are incremental and, hence, readily absorbable. The identity of a language is not impaired by the changes that it experiences.  Neither is the identity of a tradition undercut by the changes that it undergoes.

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Given that in our personal lives we cling to habit to manage the relentless march of change, and given the equally vital role vis-à-vis change that tradition plays in the life of our politics, those visionaries among us who never tire of speaking of change as if it is an unqualified good can’t but strike us as the most bizarre of creatures.  Yet at the same time, if we really think about it, we must also judge them the most pitiful of men and women.

As Michael Oakeshott once said: “Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.” 

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Utopia’s champions, whether they are conventional leftists, libertarians of a certain sort, or neoconservatives, dream big dreams, dreams that they would love to impose upon the world and that have all too often proven to be nightmares for those who were supposed to be their beneficiaries.  They are foolish, narcissistic, and, more frequently than not, destructive people.    

Yet what makes these visionaries pitiful hasn’t anything to do with any of this.  That they dream, and what they dream, are irrelevant.  Even the ruinous consequences of their magisterial designs aren’t to the point here. 

The tragic character of the visionary derives from the fact that he doesn’t know love.  He is, as Oakeshott describes the person who lusts for change, a “stranger” to “love and affection.” 

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The visionary regards the present as nothing but a device—a “mere means,” to quote Immanuel Kant—to be conscripted into the service of an uncertain future.  Love tends to better the beloved, but it also delights in the beloved for what it is.  Once it insists upon transforming the beloved into what the latter is not it murders both the beloved as well as itself. For the visionary, the present offers nothing in which to delight; it is to be subjugated and exploited, not loved.  For the visionary, the grass is always greener in the pasture of the future.

These reflections on death and change have confirmed for me with new force my sympathy for political conservatism.  Unlike the leftist, the libertarian, and the neoconservative—with which he is all too frequently confused—the conservative knows that the greatest of life’s satisfactions are to be found in the present, however challenging the present may be.  If he is to achieve meaning in his life, it is going to be by way of his current relationships and attachments, for it is only these that can be said to exist: the past is no more and the future is not yet.

 Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

 

 

 

 

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