Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough.

Thus says Batman to Jim Gordon in the concluding scene of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.   

Americans disagree.  To know anything at all about our public policies and discourse is to know that Americans hold that the truth is never good enough. 

Plato long ago referred to “convenient fictions,” untruths that every society needs in order to preserve itself.  Surely, however tempted we are to think otherwise, there is no society in the annals of history that is as dependent upon convenient fictions as is contemporaryAmerica.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our political-cultural existence is nothing more than a house of such fictions.

Take fiction #1, what the early 20th century political theorist Joseph Schumpeter once called the “classical doctrine of democracy.”  Americans still speak as if they believed that there is something privileged, even sacred, about democracy, for it is only within a democracy that human beings are free to choose their elected representatives. 

Or so goes the fiction.

As Schumpeter and others long ago noted, there is all of the difference in the world between the democratic ideal and the actual practices of voters under a democratically constituted government.  In reality, voters don’t choose their representatives as much as their representatives choose them.  What we call “the will of the people” is not “the motive power” but “the product” of “the political process,” Schumpeter informs us. 

The average voter’s will, far from being “determinate” and “rational,” is actually “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions” thrust upon him by “pressure groups and propaganda[.]”  For the average voter, “mere assertion, often repeated” is much weightier than “rational argument” could ever hope to be.

Gaetano Mosca wrote that voters don’t choose their representatives but, rather, “the representative has himself elected by the voters [.]”  More exactly, “his friends have him elected.”  However unbelievable we may find this, the truth is that life under so-called representative government or democracy is no different than life under any other form of government in that it is always an “organized minority” that runs the show by imposing “its will on the disorganized majority.”

If the truth was good enough, we would have to admit that the voter exists to be manipulated by politicians and their supporters in media.

Another fiction, never more loudly proclaimed than during a presidential election season, is that there are dramatic differences between our two national political parties.

The truth is that is that there are far more similarities between Republicans and Democrats than there are differences.  Take any issue, domestic or foreign: if there are any differences at all between their positions, they are difference in detail, not in kind.  Republicans are every bit as much in favor of a large, centralized national government as are Democrats. 

At the very least, the vision of government held byAmerica’s founders and embodied in the Constitution is eons removed from the government that both Republicans and Democrats are fighting to maintain today.  Jefferson and Madison would look aghast at George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike.

If the truth was good enough, we would admit that life under one party is not bound to be all that different from life under the other.

A third fiction is that America remains the freest country that has ever existed.  In reality, America ceased to be a free country probably as early on as 1865.  The liberty for which our founding fathers wagered their lives was not some abstract idea.  It was inseparable from the federalized government guaranteed by and delineated in the Constitution.

More directly, American liberty, as our founders understood it, consisted in a wide dispersion of authority and power.  And it consisted in a national government that, with respect to most matters, was required to defer to the individual states that produced it.

Beginning with the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, this vision of liberty began its retreat toward the dustbin of history.  Today, it is as much a relic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as are the musket ball and the horse-and-buggy carriage.

That life is more pleasant in America than in most of the world is neither here nor there. As students of the institution of slavery have long noted, some slaves lived far more pleasantly than others—and far more pleasantly than many freeborn men.  Those slaves who were closest to the Sultan all but ruled the Ottoman Empire, and even in the antebellum South, there were slaves whose masters allowed them to establish their own businesses (as blacksmiths, say) and residences miles away from the plantation.

But however pleasant their lives may have been, slaves were still slaves because, even if only legally, they were subject, not to law, but to the wills of their masters.

If the truth was good enough, we would admit that the size and scope of our national government has long ago divested us of our liberty.

Sadly, for Americans, the truth is never good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

At the second presidential debate, Barack Obama claimed that within hours of its occurrence, he referred to the September 11th attack on the American embassy inLibya as an “act of terror.” When Mitt Romney proceeded to challenge the President’s veracity on this score, moderator Candy Crowley insisted that Obama was correct. 

This brief exchange is now being treated as the single most important event of the evening.  Today, Crowley is as much at the center of media attention, of controversy, as are Romney and Obama.

Crowley and Obama are both correct that, within 24 hours or so of the murder of our ambassador and three others, the latter did indeed use the expression “act of terror” in connection with the Libya incident.  From the Rose Garden, Obama said that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

This is fine and well.  Every American can sleep just a bit easier knowing that the Obama administration will not tolerate acts of terror.  But Mr. President, we were still left wondering, is this act such an act?   

Grammatically and logically, there is all of the difference between those propositions that are universal and those that are particular.  Knowing a thing or two about all acts of terror is not the same as knowing whether any particular act deserves to be treated as a member of that class.  

Objectors will claim that even though he didn’t explicitly identify the Libyan attack as an act of terror, given the context of Obama’s remarks, it is clear that he implicitly described it as such. 

The problem, though, with this line of reasoning, is that not only is it not clear that this is what Obama did; the context makes it pretty clear that he did not identify the Libyan attack an act of terror.

An analogy may help here.  As a college instructor, I give my students writing assignments. Now, suppose that one of my students, Bill, say, submits work that is suspiciously similar in wording to the work of another one of my students, say, Joe.  It is possible that neither Bill nor Joe acted inappropriately, but it is also possible that they either plagiarized one another or a third person.

Now, I stand before my students and indignantly declare: “No acts of plagiarism will ever shake the resolve of this great institution of higher learning, alter the character, or eclipse the light of the values that it stands for.” 

Given this context, all that an observer is justified in inferring is that I have zero tolerance for plagiarism and that I suspect that plagiarism may have occurred. 

No one would be justified in concluding that I hold either Bill or Joe to be a plagiarist.

Similarly, all that the President’s remarks established is that his administration has zero tolerance for acts of terror and that he recognizes the possibility that the Libyan attack was an act of terror.

They most decidedly do not establish that he was convinced that it was an act of terror.

There are other considerations that render Obama’s andCrowley’s claim even more suspect.

For one, for a couple of weeks following the Libyan attack, the President’s administration insisted that it was a “spontaneous” reaction to an amateurish “anti-Islam” video made by some obscure American.  This was the line regurgitated on multiple occasions by Obama’s UN ambassador, Hillary Clinton, Jay Carney, and the President himself.  In fact, when Obama addressed the world via the United Nations, he mentioned this video six times.  He called the Libyan attack an act of terror not once.

A spontaneous reaction, an uprising or revolt, is not an act of terror.  The attack in Libya could be one or the other, but it cannot be both.  Obama clearly made his choice before it was no longer possible for him to stick by it.

But there is another consideration that may be lost upon commentators.

The President has repeatedly castigated Romney for jumping to conclusions.  Romney, he once said, tends to “shoot first and aim later.”  Recall, Romney was excoriated by the left-wing media for pronouncing the Libya attack a terrorist attack shortly after it transpired.

Yet if Obama beat Romney to the punch and called it a terrorist attack at roughly the same time, as he and Crowley now maintain, then, we are compelled to ask, didn’t Obama shoot before aiming?  Wouldn’t he be guilty of doing what he has been warning all of us against by drawing premature conclusions?

Granted, this wouldn’t be the first time that the President’s preaching contradicted his practice.  But in this case, I think the more likely explanation for such a glaring contradiction is that he simply isn’t telling the truth when he said that he called out the Libya attack as an act of terror on September 12th.

 

The second presidential debate is now history.

As was the case in Mitt Romney’s first encounter with President Obama a couple of weeks ago in Denver, the former prevailed.

That Obama was feistier than he was in the first debate is undeniable.  However, equally undeniable is that, as far as his electoral prospects are concerned, he didn’t do himself any favors.

Actually, I think when this election is all said and done, we will realize that the President harmed himself.  

Obama, you see, wasn’t just feisty.  He was insulting.  He was cocky.  He was condescending.

In short, Obama simply didn’t appear presidential.

In fact, he appeared resolutely un-presidential. 

In contrast, Romney, though firm and factual, was measured. But perhaps he can afford to be, for Romney is a man who exudes authority without uttering a syllable.

And when he does speak, such is his command over the facts—and his opponent’s lies—that one could be forgiven for having to constantly remind oneself that it is Romney who is the challenger and Obama the president.

Obama was trying hard to redeem himself from the beating that he suffered at Romney’s hands in Denver, what may have been the most one-sided pummeling in the history of presidential debates.  And he was laboring diligently to establish to the world that he is not the incompetent president that legions of Americans have come to see him as.

Yet this was Obama’s problem: he was trying hard, yes, but he was trying too hard.

And it showed.

In other words, a person who really knows his stuff and who possesses a healthy, justified confidence in himself will not appear to be trying at all.  Whatever he says or does, he will say or do effortlessly.

The person who has mastered his craft will make it look easy.  The mathematician, the dancer, the martial artist, and the Olympic ice skater leave us thinking that anyone, with the greatest of ease, can do what they do.

Most of us, however, once we try our hand at any of these activities, are instantly relieved our delusions.  The recognition that one is an amateur still is sobering, humbling.

Yet Obama is and has always been intoxicated on his own hype.  Humility, long regarded as a cardinal Christian virtue, is an excellence in which Obama is in exceedingly short supply.   

The good actor is the actor who doesn’t appear to be acting. But while Obama was all theater last night, he has neither the sobriety nor the humility to realize that he is just not that good of an actor.  

Not only is this not going to help his sagging poll numbers.  It is going to harm him.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there will be no second act for Obama.

The third debate is going to transpire on a very different sort of stage than the one Obama performed upon last night.  He will not be free to walk around, to work a crowd, and to turn his back on Romney when the latter punches one hole after the other in his script.

What is infinitely worse for Obama is that, because he is such a thoughtless actor, he apparently never even paused to consider that one of his lines from last night’s show may have just undercut the whole narrative that he and his team have worked so tirelessly (yet sloppily) to compose. 

Obama, without missing a beat, claimed to have identified from the outset the September 11th attack on our embassy in Libya as a terrorist attack.  This, though, is nothing more or less than a boldfaced lie.

That it is a lie was confirmed—but again—within seconds of the completion of the debate.  Far from undoing the scandal over our second 9/11 in which his administration has been embroiled, Obama’s lie has just exacerbated it.  He added a whopper of a lie upon a house of lies that has been in the making ever since this grisly attack occurred.  In doing so, he contradicted the narrative of innocence that his team has been busy at work spinning.

Obama also provided Romney with red meat that the Republican challenger will be sure to grab hold of for all that it is worth when the two meet to discuss foreign policy in their third and final debate on Monday night.

So, my verdict is this: not only did Obama’s arrogance cost him last night’s debate, it paved the way for but another Romney victory on Monday evening.       

 

 

 

 

During the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan—both Roman Catholics—were asked about their respective views on abortion. 

Biden’s answer is one that we have come to expect from Catholic Democrats.  Personally, he said, he shares his Church’s perennial position against abortion.  However, this is a belief that he refuses to “impose” upon others. Thus, Biden remains, along with the Democratic Party of which he has been a life-long member, rigorously “pro-choice.”

This point of view is as intellectually as it is morally bankrupt.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion for the same reason that it opposes murder: abortion, like murder, inescapably entails the destruction of an innocent human being.  If Biden subscribes to Catholic teaching on this score, then this is what he believes.  What this means is that he has no basis, neither within his faith tradition nor without, upon which to justify his refusal to do what he can to prevent people from pursuing abortion. 

Yet for as indefensible as Biden’s position is, Paul Ryan’s was confused as well.

Ryan unabashedly identified himself as “pro-life.” He rejects abortion, he said, because of “reason” and “science,” yes, but, ultimately, because of his faith.  However, Ryan immediately insisted that he and Mitt Romney are willing to allow for abortion under some circumstances.  Abortion, he explained, is morally permissible if a woman conceives as a result of incest, say, or rape.  If a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, an abortion is a morally acceptable course of action for her to pursue under this condition as well.

The problem for Ryan is that his Church agrees with none of this.  For that matter, neither will his invocation of reason and science save him here.

Recall, for the Church, abortion is an evil because it consists in the destruction of an innocent human life.  Now, regardless of how or why this life came into being, it is still innocent of any wrongdoing. That being so, if it is immoral to deliberately kill an innocent human being some of the time, then it is immoral to do so all of the time.  After all, it is the innocence of the human being, and most definitely not the circumstances of that being’s conception, that is morally relevant.

So, Ryan’s Catholic faith simply will not supply him with a justification for these exceptions that he appears willing to make for abortion.

But “reason” and “science” are equally impotent in this regard.  Let’s take the latter first. 

When Ryan alluded to science to justify his opposition to abortion, presumably he was trying to make the point that even science confirms that life begins at conception.  This is true.  Yet, in itself, it is also morally irrelevant, for science is science—not morality.  And if science hasn’t the authority to speak to the moral import of abortion or even life itself, then it certainly doesn’t have any authority to speak to the moral import of the circumstances surrounding conception.

Reason, though, unlike science, isn’t silent with respect to the sensibleness (or not) of the concessions that Ryan is willing to make to abortionists.  In fact, it actually militates against them. 

If, as he says, reason tells Ryan that abortion is impermissible because reason establishes that a human life comes into being at conception, then reason must dictate with just as much force that the circumstances of conception are irrelevant.

But, it may be asked, what about when a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy? Is not Ryan correct?  Isn’t it morally permissible in such an extraordinary situation to choose an abortion?

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the answer is a resounding “no.” 

It is here that the traditional Catholic doctrine of “double effect” comes into play.

According to double effect, even if such-and-such an action has consequences that are undesirable and even otherwise evil, as long as those consequences are unintended and unavoidable, it is permissible to choose the action in order to escape a more evil choice.

For example, suppose a woman is, say, suffering from an ectopic pregnancy.  It is permissible, Ryan’s faith teaches, for her doctor to “abort” her unborn child, for unless so, both mother and child will die; this way, in contrast, at least one life—that of the mother—can be spared.  In other words, since, according to Catholic morality, it is the intention of an action that makes it what it is, insofar as the doctor’s intention here is to save the mother’s life—not kill her unborn child—the act in question is not truly an abortion at all. No one can be said to have chosen an abortion.

The point, however, in all of this is that Paul Ryan has no basis in his faith to qualify his opposition to abortion in the ways that he has. He may not have strayed as widely from his faith as has his opponent, but it would be dishonest to deny that he has indeed strayed.