At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Byron York is perplexed by what he perceives to be the glaring discrepancy between the Mitt Romney of the GOP primary season and the Mitt Romney who is the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

Borrowing from the Star Wars mythos, York refers to the first Mitt as “the Death Star.”  In the primaries, Romney spared neither expense nor opportunity to eviscerate his opponents.  Though his ruthlessness vis-à-vis his rivals generally and Newt Gingrich particularly was off-putting to some of the party faithful, the optimists among them viewed it as a potentially promising sign of Romney’s ability to reckon with “the Obama killing machine,” as York puts it, that was waiting in the wings.   

Thus far, however, the second Mitt has dashed these expectations. York writes:

“Now, the general election campaign is here, and the talk is of the Obama killing machine, not the Romney death star.  By most accounts, the Romney campaign is not displaying the super-aggressive effectiveness it showed in the primaries.”

York identifies five reasons to account for this seemingly enigmatic phenomenon.

The first pertains to what he summarily calls “the facts”—i.e. Romney’s business record and taxes.  Simply put, while these were not an issue with Republican voters, they do matter with Democrats and independents.  This,York thinks, explains the effectiveness of President Obama’s relentless campaign against Romney’s time at Bain Capital.

The second reason for the lackluster performance of the second Mitt is “the media.”  Even in this age of “the new media,” the majority of the most influential media outlets remain under the dominance of Democratic-friendly journalists and commentators. So, while Romney had very little media scrutiny with which to contend during the primaries, he is bound to receive the lion’s share of it now that he is the Republican presidential nominee.

Third, both Romney aides as well as some Democrats—like James Carville—believe that the pro-Obama SuperPACs have so far managed to more effectively direct the course of the campaign.    

Fourth, campaign finance laws prevent Romney from spending one penny of the money that he has raised for the general election until the commencement of the Republican National Convention on August 27.  Hence, Obama—who didn’t have any competitors in a primary race—has been able to far and away outspend his rival.

The fifth and final reason that explains Romney’s lack of aggressiveness is his “complaining.”  The second Mitt ought to take the advice that the first Mitt offered to Newt Gingrich when the latter complained loudly about the negative attacks with which Mitt bombard him: “Just take it and hit back harder—that was the way they saw it,” as York says.  He concludes: “Romney is far more self-controlled than Gingrich, but the effect is the same; he’s whining about the other guy treating him badly.”

York’s analysis is not implausible, but, ultimately, it is wanting.  Let’s look at reasons (1)-(5).

Obama’s attacks against Romney’s business record and taxes have not been terribly effective at all.  Granted, they have had Romney on the defensive, but the thing of it is, the former governor of Massachusetts has had no small measure of support from a number of the least likely people—namely, Democrats, and prominent Democrats at that.  From former President Bill Clinton to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, to present Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, distinguished voices from the President’s own party have publicly denounced his attacks against Bain Capital and Romney’s record while presiding over it.

As for the media,York’s judgment is not wide of the mark.  Still, it overlooks the significant fact that even those who are otherwise Democratic sympathizers have taken their fellow partisans to task for the Bain Capital attacks.  CNN’s Candy Crawley and David Gergen are two examples.  ABC’s George Stephanopoulos is another.

For sure, there is anything but a level playing field for Republicans and Democrats when it comes to media coverage.  However, if media hostility toward Romney is a factor at all in accounting for his tame treatment of Obama, it shouldn’t be exaggerated. As the aforementioned examples establish, reasonably fair coverage is not impossible for a Republican to secure.

Maybe the Obama SuperPACs have been more “effective” than the Romney SuperPACs and maybe they haven’t been.  But if they have been, asYorkapparently believes, then this raises but another question: Why?  To this question, we will turn momentarily.

That Obama is outspending Romney in some places due to the restrictions that campaign finance laws impose upon the latter needn’t have anything to do with the problem under discussion—i.e. Romney’s lack of aggression.

First of all, though money is important in a campaign, as we saw in the 2008 GOP primaries, the guy with the most money—in that case, Romney—can’t always buy the prize.

Second, if it is Romney’s lack of aggression that we seek to explain, then it doesn’t matter who is spending what.  The real question should be: what is Romney doing with the money that he is spending?

Finally, Romney’s “complaining” or “whining” is irrelevant. 

For one, all politicians tend to cry foul when they are being assaulted by their opponents. In doing so, they hope to present themselves as the good guys and their attackers as the bad guys.  Furthermore, no one cares whether Romney is complaining or not. People no more care about this than they would care that he is spending his time playing chess or swimming. 

What they care about is that he is not spending his time hitting Obama as forcefully as Obama has been hitting him.

So, we are back to square one.

But, in all honesty, to some of us, there is nothing in the least mysterious about Romney’s refusal to unleash the same fury on Obama that he released on his fellow Republicans. 

We may call it the John McCain Syndrome (JMS).

Recall that the same things that York, myself, and others now say about Romney were said four years ago about 2008 Republican nominee, McCain: the Arizona Senator could be ruthless, even contemptible, toward other Republicans, but toward Democrats, especially his opponent, Senator Obama, he was remarkably restrained, even unduly deferential at times.

Yet McCain’s rival then is Romney’s rival now. 

To put it more clearly, then as now, it is a black politician against whom Republicans have to do battle. 

In 2008, it was a young black man who aspired to be the country’s “first black president.”

In 2012, it is America’s “first black president.”

And it is a black politician who has proven himself time and time again eager to play the race card in order to advance his interests.

Does Byron York, or any American who has been alive longer than five minutes, genuinely think that the paralyzing fear of being accused of “racism” doesn’t figure substantially in explaining Romney’s and the Republicans’ aversion to coming at Obama with guns blazing?   

A couple of months ago there was some talk about a Romney SuperPAC that was considering reintroducing America to Obama’s one-time “spiritual mentor,” as Obama characterized his pastor of over twenty years, Jeremiah Wright.  In light of the fact that this issue, courtesy of the media and McCain, was never explored to the extent that it should have been, and the fact that it now assumes new significance in view of Obama’s conduct since assuming the office of the presidency, the ad would have been highly germane to this election.

But as McCain ran from the topic four years ago, so too was Romney quick to renounce just the possibility of such an advertisement.

Until Romney relieves himself of the fear of being branded with the dreaded “R” word, he will not display the same aggression that he exhibited during the primaries.

This is what is missing fromYork’s analysis.

originally published at American Thinker


The phenomenally successful restaurant franchise Chick-Fil-A is once again at the center of national controversy. And, once again, it is a controversy generated by those who waste not a moment to equate opposition to so-called “same sex marriage” with “hate.”

A couple of weeks ago, Chick-Fil-A’s CEO, Dan Cathy, told Online Baptist Press that his restaurant was committed to advancing the well being of “the family—the biblical definition of the family unit.”  He continued: “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives.” For this, Cathy said that he gives “God thanks [.]”

He also mentioned that he prays that we are not “inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’”  Such an attitude, Cathy asserts, is unduly “prideful” and “arrogant.”

In response to Cathy’s remarks, mayors from American’s metropolises have “disinvited” Chick-Fil-A from opening any new restaurants in their cities. For example, former White House Chief of Staff to Barack Obama and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated: “Chick-Fil-A’s values are notChicago’s values. They [Chick-Fil-A] disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents.”

Considering that Chicago has been a killing field under his watch, Mayor Emanuel’s remarks may very well have done more than anything else could have to help make Chick-Fil-A even more successful than it already is. 

In all seriousness, though, we need to really observe what is happening here.

As Dan Cathy says, Chick-Fil-A is a family-owned business. More specifically, it is a Christian family-owned business.  And although he is reluctant to characterize his business in terms of Christianity—only individuals can have a relationship with Christ, corporations can’t—the fact of the matter is that Chick-Fil-A is designed to resolutely affirm what can only be described as Christian values. 

The most salient of such signs is its decision to do business only six days of every week: every Sunday Chick-Fil-A is closed.

But it also routinely—incessantly—sponsors all manner of family-friendly events, and donates substantial sums of money to the most deserving of charities.

In short, Chick-Fil-A most definitely is a Christian organization.

This is why it continually comes under attack by those who are determined to insure that the voice of anything that can remotely be construed as a traditional form of Christianity is silenced.  Cathy’s latest comments are but a pretext for what amounts to nothing more or less than a relentless campaign by radical leftist forces to relegate the Christian to the periphery of the culture.

If we think about it for more than the length of a standard sound bite, we will discover that this verdict is inescapable.

Think about what Cathy is not saying.  He is not saying that Chick-Fil-A refuses to serve homosexuals. He is not even saying that his business would refuse to hire homosexuals.  He hasn’t said anything even close to this.

Chick-Fil-A does indeed engage in discriminatory hiring practices.  Yet there is one simple criterion that it employs, and it hasn’t a thing to do with sexuality (or race, gender, etc.).  Being a dutiful Chick-Fil-A customer, I have gotten to know some of its managers over the last so many years, and they have all told me the same thing: all members of the Chick-Fil-A staff must be able to provide excellent customer service. 

What this in turn means is that they must not only be efficient in providing customers with the goods that they purchase; they must do so with a smile.

In other words, applicants must either possess a cheery disposition at the time of being hired, or they must possess the will to acquire such a disposition during on-the-job training.   

In terms of hospitality, there is no fast food restaurant on the planet quite like Chick-Fil-A.   To this, everyone who has ever eaten there, regardless of their opinion regarding the quality of its food, can readily attest.

Chick-Fil-A supplies people—its customers, its employees, and untold legions of human beings who have been the beneficiaries of its charitable activities—a service that is immeasurable in worth.  Without exaggeration, it can be said that Chick-Fil-A has gone a great distance in helping the lives that it has touched achieve what, as Aristotle long ago recognized, all of us ultimately want: happiness.

Chick-Fil-A is a character molding institution insofar as it aspires to cultivate within its employees those habits that have traditionally been recognized as human excellences or virtues.  The staff at the organization that the Cathy family founded promotes diligence, conscientiousness, humility, generosity, and hospitality.

And it even encourages—by way of its observance of the Christian Sabbath and the innumerable events that it sponsors on behalf of families and local communities—the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

This is the organization that Chick-Fil-A’s enemies relentlessly smear as a promoter of “hate.”  We must be clear, for clarity concerning the nature of Chick-Fil-A provides us in spades with clarity concerning the nature of its nemeses.

That the campaign against Chick-Fil-A is part and parcel of a much wider campaign against traditional Christianity becomes obvious once we consider that Cathy’s position on so-called “same sex marriage” is no different than that taken by the entire world up until yesterday, as far as history is measured.  Even our “transformative” President, that “world-historical,” “multi-cultural” figure himself, Barack Obama, subscribed, or claimed to subscribe, to the same exact position as Cathy’s up until just a couple of months ago.

Here is what we must grasp: if Cathy is “homophobic” because he does not support “gay marriage” or even homosexual activity, then what his enemies are actually charging is that traditional Christianity, from biblical days up until just a few decades ago, is “homophobic.”

More simply put, the God of the Bible is a moral degenerate, for the God that is depicted from Genesis through Revelations is an unreconstructed “homophobe.”

If Cathy and most of the two billion people who constitute the Christian world are “homophobes,” it is because the God who they aspire to honor was a “homophobe” first.

Admittedly, no text or tradition is self-interpreting.  Cathy and those of his theological ilk—i.e. most of his contemporaries and all of his predecessors of the last couple of millennia—may be mistaken in how they read Christianity.  But if this is so, then it is incumbent upon his critics to point out to him the error of his ways.

This they haven’t done.

Yet even if they could prove that Cathy and the overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived were incorrect, this would most definitely not justify the allegations of “hatred” and “homophobia” that Chick-Fil-A’s enemies insist on substituting for rational and civil argument.    







Chalk up another summer for the genre of the superhero film.  The latest—and most anticipated—is the third and, supposedly, final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises.

Being a committed superhero fan from way back, I admit to having something of an emotional interest invested in seeing to it that these cinematic adaptations of iconic comic book characters remain faithful to the traditional lore. 

It is this desire that accounts for why I despised all four chapters of the first Batman franchise just as much as I loved Nolan’s reimagining of the Dark Knight.

I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman on the night that it first opened back in the summer of 1989.  Michael Keaton portrayed the hero and Jack Nicholson his arch nemesis, the infamous “Joker.”  The movie was a phenomenal financial and critical success.

Though the best of the series that it spawned, I hated it.

And I hated it for a variety of reasons.

As of now, there are at least three things that I can recall vividly: Batman killed criminals without hesitation; among the criminals that he killed was “the Clown Prince of crime,” the Joker; and his unfailingly loyal butler, Alfred, took it upon himself to disclose his master’s duel identity to his love interest, Kim Basinger’s Vickie Vale.

For those of you who are in the least familiar with the history of Batman, I needn’t explain any further why a Batman fan would find all of this utterly unacceptable. Besides, inasmuch as it stands in glaring contrast to the 1990’s non-canonical depiction, Christopher Nolan’s conception of Gotham City’s caped crusader illuminates these inadequacies of its predecessor and more.

Bruce Wayne is a mega-billionaire whose parents were gunned down, before his very eyes, by a mugger when he was but a child.  The Waynes’ trusted butler raises him, supplying him with all of the love and emotional support that one would expect from a father.  Still, Bruce is forever traumatized by his parents’ slaying.  He is obsessed with it, and it is this obsession that all but compels him to devote all of his energies into transforming his whole person—mind and body—into the perfect weapon with which to combat evil.

Repeat: Batman is a hero, yes, but he is concerned first and foremost with fighting evil—not inspiring goodness. 

In Batman Begins, Nolan seems to get this.  It is in the first of the trilogy that Bruce Wayne resolves to become Batman so as to serve as a symbol—a symbol of fear: as Batman, he hopes to instill dread into the hearts of the lawless. 

Here, Nolan is consistent with the Batman mythos.  But by the time the most recent film comes to a close, he seems to have forgotten this, for it is here that Batman reveals that all along the idea behind the cape and cowl has been to inspire others to heroism.

Sorry, but this doesn’t wash.

Superman is a figure who is self-consciously committed to inspiring the good in others.  With his bright, flashy colors—and, crucially, bare face—he intends to be a symbol of hope, truth, and justice, a light in an otherwise dim world.  Thus, it is not for nothing that parallels between the Man of Steel and Jesus have been drawn for decades.

In other words, if Bruce Wayne sought to make others heroic through the symbol of The Batman, then he should not have chosen to dress as a creepy, nocturnal creature like a bat!

No, Batman may very well inspire goodness. And he may be pleased that he is able to do so. But this is not what he sets out to do.

He sets out to battle evil.  In fact, this may be too strong a characterization of his intentions, for Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman is just barely a choice.

He is driven to it.

Batman is a hero, but he is a tragic hero.  He doesn’t enjoy his life.  But he can’t have it any other way.  He refrains from killing his rivals, not because he has the least bit of compassion for them—he doesn’t—but because he is perpetually haunted by the fear that unless he draws that line for himself, he will become them.

Nolan brilliantly executes a happy ending for Batman. Yet this is a mistake, for in so doing, he fundamentally transforms the character into something that it isn’t.

We may as well arrange for Romeo and Juliet to go riding off into the sunset together.   






A while back, I reviewed Ilana Mercer’s, Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  Shortly afterwards, her and I began to correspond with one another.  On the eve of the release of the book’s paperback edition, its author graciously invited me to write its Afterword.  I was honored to do so. 

The classics of political philosophy are no different from those of any other genre inasmuch as they reflect, even if subtly, the relativities of time and place from which they sprang.  Highly theoretical works like Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, are no exceptions.

Still, while such works emerged from their progenitors’ preoccupations with the concrete political realities of their time, it would be a mistake of the first order to equate them with these concerns.  In other words, there isn’t a single contributor to the political-philosophical imagination of the Western mind who didn’t labor mightily to connect the particularities that initially arrested his attention to the universal. 

It is in this light that we must approach Ilana’s work.  That many of Cannibal’s reviewers appear to have come at it from a decidedly different vantage point makes it all the more imperative that we guard against making their error our own.

With an intimacy of which only a native is capable of supplying, Ilana escorts her reader through the history of her native homeland to the present day.  A place of which many of us have only heard, a place on a map, soon comes into crystal clear focus as reading about South Africa gives way to seeing it—or perhaps, more accurately, feeling it. That both its past fortunes and present sufferings should be recapitulated with an equally intense passion is, after all, what we should expect from a woman who characterizes her work as “a labor of love” to her homeland.

Lest its author’s intentions be misread, it should be stated unequivocally at the outset that Ilana was no friend of apartheid. Her commitment to the classical liberal tradition, a line of thought distinguished on account of its resounding affirmation of individuality, resolutely precludes sympathy with any set of institutional arrangements that are centered in race.  Still, facts are facts—however painful to reckon with they may be—and Ilana is nothing if not eminently capable of and just as willing to confront fact.

And the ugly fact is that whatever can be said of apartheid, by virtually every measure—especially rates of crime—the new South Africa is exponentially worse than the old.

Doubtless, stripped of all of the hideous details regarding the quality of life that serve to distinguish post-apartheid South Africa from its counterpart of yesteryear—astronomical rates of crime, corrupt and incompetent government, etc.—Cannibal loses its identity as the work that it is.  However, no less indispensable to its integrity, and probably even more so, are the larger theoretical, philosophical questions with which it wrestles.

Because life under the rule of the African National Congress has become unbearable for the residents of South Africa, Ilana left her home.  She left her family.  She left her friends.  The complex of institutions within which she was nurtured, that made her who she is, Ilana was compelled to leave behind. 

Change and permanence are the two themes with which the earliest Western philosophers were initially mesmerized.  They have influenced the course of Western philosophy ever since.  The same can be said for the themes of the universal and the particular, nature and culture.

Such sets of themes constitute the framework within which Cannibal unfolds.

Ilana’s book is, in a sense, an obituary. It is an obituary for her home, her country. For centuries, conservative theorists have been noted for nothing if not their resistance to radical change. Change, they knew, is inevitable. Yet, as the twentieth century philosopher Michael Oakeshott memorably remarked, it is also emblematic of death.  

Each and every change is a step toward non-being.  For this reason, it is to be approached cautiously, prudently: changes that are slight are preferable to those that are vast, changes that are necessary to those that are not, and changes that are gradual to those that are radical.  Changes that are “fundamentally transformative” siphon the life out of a society by severing its present from its past.

That is to say, every proposal for radical or fundamental change is a proposal for the destruction of one social order and the creation, ex nihilo, as it were, of a new one.  

Unlike most of us, Ilana knows this all too well, for the radical alterations that, like all radical changes, were hastily—and recklessly—imposed upon her homeland essentially destroyed it.  It is nothing less than her experience of the death of a loved one that Ilana relays to readers in Cannibal.  

However, while Cannibal is nothing less than this, it is indeed something more than this.

Ilana, you see, doesn’t just mourn the loss of South Africa; she dares to love once more.

Her new beloved is the United States, her new home.

But, as is the case with all lovers who have had to endure unimaginable suffering, Ilana is at great pains to insure that her new love is spared the same murderous folly that befell her old.  Thus far, though, things are not looking that promising for America on this score, for it is the pursuit of universal abstractions at the cost of neglecting concrete contingencies—an enterprise that consumes the entire Western world generally and the U.S.A. specifically—that imperiled South Africa in the ‘90’s and America today.

Universal ideals like “Democracy,” say, sound wonderful, but when attempts are made to implement them without any regard for the cultural complexities of those to whom they are applied; when timeless abstractions are spoken of as if they were written in human or rational nature rather than the hard won fruits of a civilization that has been centuries and millennia in the making, all manner of chaos is going to ensue.

This Ilana has seen in South Africa, and this is what she sees transpiring for America as it embarks upon a foreign policy that has as its objective “the fundamental transformation” of the Middle East (and beyond) into an oasis of Democracy.

Despite both my affection for this work as well as my admiration for the perceptiveness and courage of its author, this review would be remiss if I didn’t point out one major objection to which Cannibal is vulnerable.

Given her painful awareness of both the conflict that exists between the universal and abstract, on the one hand, and the particular and concrete, on the other, and her admonishment to avoid the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter, it is more than a bit ironic that Ilana subscribes to the doctrine of “natural rights.” It is also more than a bit problematic that she does so.

The foreign policy that Ilana abhors is rooted in the abstraction of “Democracy,” as she contends, but it is rooted no less in the equally abstract concept of natural or human rights. Of course, a belief in natural rights doesn’t require that its holder support this kind of a foreign policy.  Yet this is one of its shortcomings: it is in principle compatible with all manner of policies—even those that strike us as being radically incompatible with one another. 

And this is but another way of saying that, like the worst of abstractions, it can mean all things to all people.

To Ilana’s credit, she readily concedes that this tension between the universal and the particular pervades Cannibal throughout.  In fairness, it is a healthy tension, for it provokes us to continue a discussion over the relationship between the two that even the best and brightest minds of the Western tradition have found impossible to avoid.  All great works of political and ethical thought, from Plato onward, have wrestled with this issue. 

To this long and illustrious collection we can now add Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.


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