At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Manners and Civilization

posted by Jack Kerwick

Recently, Al Gore was permitted an opportunity to indulge his obsession with “global warming” at the Aspen Institute. 

The former Vice President had some rather choice words for critics of his anthropocentric conception of “climate change.”  They are the same people, he declared, who continue “washing back at you the same crap over and over and over again.”  Yet they have become so successful at dissembling, we have reached a point where it is now “unacceptable” in “mixed” or “bi-partisan company” to use the goddamned word ‘climate.’”  On three consecutive occasions during his speech, Gore referred to his opponents’ alternative accounts of climate change as “bull—!”

Gore isn’t the first high profile politician to curse in public.  Back in 2004, when he was campaigning for the presidency, John Kerry provided an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which he said he never thought President Bush would “f— up” the Iraq War as badly as he did.  And the other night, while on Bill Maher’s Real Time, President Obama’s former economic adviser, Christine Romer, described the United States as “pretty darned fu—ed” when speaking to the credit downgrade that it received courtesy of Standard and Poor’s. 

Public cursing has become common in our time.  It isn’t only politicians who partake of it; celebrities of various sorts do as well.  Judging from the relative lack of commentary on this phenomenon, few people are particularly bothered by it.  But it is at our peril as a culture, as a civilization, that we trivialize the ease and frequency with which “public figures” resort to profanity.

It would also be a mistake to either dismiss this concern of mine as hysteria or to mistake it for prudery.  It is the function of neither. 

Cursing itself is not the issue here; it is public cursing, the cursing of “public figures” especially, to which I allude.  Furthermore, it isn’t even this by itself that promises calamity for our world, but the host of other culturally corrosive trends by which it is accompanied.   

The casualness with which untold numbers of people sport tattoos that they have burned into their flesh, piercings that have been drilled into every conceivable body part, and exceedingly revealing attire—whether males wearing pants that hang down to their knees or females with shirts that are open to their stomachs—is an ominous sign of the cultural rot from which we suffer.

But there are other, more subtle, indicators of the immodesty into which we have lapsed.

The explosion of “reality” television, and its internet counterpart—such “social media” as facebook—at once disclose and exacerbate this malaise. Although I have never taken an interest in it, it is true that not all “reality” television is devoid of redeemable qualities.  Shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance encourage excellence.  And the internet is invaluable for a variety of reasons.  Be this as it may, though, there can be no denying that there is much in these venues that is complete trash. 

Shows like The Real Desperate Housewives of New Jersey, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and many others supply an opportunity for cognitively challenged and morally impoverished nobodies to achieve their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame while carving away ever further at some of our most time honored and sacred of institutions (like marriage and the family).  As for the internet, it is not necessarily the effortlessness with which anyone can submit their views that is the problem.  It is, instead, the anonymity that the internet affords us that scatters our inhibitions to the winds and renders the internet a bastion of incivility and even cruelty.

All of these phenomena, from public cursing to tattoos to “reality” television and more, reveal a substantial deterioration of manners.  The glaring lack of self-discipline and humility that we witness in our politics are just as easily seen in our culture, both in its “lower” and “higher” aspects.  Perhaps from a misguided—actually, destructive—idea of liberty, we have abandoned what our ancestors knew all too well, that, as Burke said, “liberty without wisdom, and without virtue…is the greatest of all possible evils,” for liberty unhindered by “tradition and restraint” is “folly, vice, and madness[.]”

It is appropriate to enlist Burke in the service of this discussion, for “the conservatism” of which he was among the most eloquent and impassioned advocates he helped to develop in response to an assault against traditional manners that in both its intensity and scope is not unlike that occurring in our own day. 

In one his many replies to the French Revolution, Burke too noted the relationship between vice or a loss of manners in politics and the same throughout the culture.  The political radicalism against which he railed was and could only be attended by a “correspondent system of manners” that no “thinking man” could seriously doubt reflected a “determined hostility to the human race.”  This is beyond tragic, for not only are manners essential to civilization; they constitute the cornerstone upon which civilization depends.   

Burke writes: “Manners are of more importance than laws.  Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.”  Unlike the political rationalists of his generation and ours, Burke was keenly aware of the limits of laws to inform human conduct.  It was “manners,” he knew, that make us who we are.  “The law touches us but here and there, now and then.  Manners,” on the other hand, “are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”  Manners “give their whole form and colour to our lives.” While they are not to be confused with “morals” proper, manners, if they are sound, “aid morals” and even “supply them[.]”  If, however, manners are bad, then they promise to “totally destroy” morality.       

It is high time that we once again revisit the importance of “manners” to our way of life.        

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Thoughts on the Charge of “Anti-Semitism”

posted by Jack Kerwick

A while ago, I received an email from a Jewish reader charging me with “anti-Semitism.”  Since, being a mere Christian, I lack those unique insights into the dark recesses of the Gentile psyche with which Jews are apparently gifted, I can only speculate as to what it was I said that compelled my critic to arrive at his verdict concerning my feelings. 

Since my article had nothing at all to do with Judaism, I suspect that it was my proclivity for the name “Old Testament” to describe the better part of the Christian Bible that revealed my “anti-Semitism.”  The reader was clear and to the point: “The correct term,” he insisted, “is the Hebrew Bible.”  To make sure that his diagnosis of my “anti-Semitism” wasn’t lost upon me, he concluded his perceptive analysis by telling me to send my regards to “your good friend, Mel Gibson.” 

This episode got me to thinking about “anti-Semitism.” 

First of all, like “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and every other transgression in the catalogue of “Politically Correct” sins, “anti-Semitism” is a term mired in ambiguity.  In fact, it may very well even be meaningless.  After all, when someone like myself, a Christian with the audacity to actually refer to the first part of my tradition’s Sacred Scriptures as the “Old Testament,” is branded with the same pejorative term as are the architects of the Holocaust, it should be obvious to anyone with the slightest familiarity with either rudimentary logic or moral sensibility that this is a term that, at a minimum, warrants inspection.   

Second, if, for argument’s sake, we are just going to accept that the “anti-Semite” is one who dislikes Jews, what is supposed to follow from this?  Three observations are here in order.

(1) Feelings are not action-specifying.  Hatred and love, indifference and partiality, anger and calm, belief in a group’s superiority and belief in that group’s inferiority can all lead to one and the same kinds of action.  The Humanitarian no less (and usually more often) than the misanthrope has resorted to murder and genocide.

(2) Feelings are irrelevant to whether the propositions from which they arise are true or not.  For example, for as ridiculous as I believe it is, let us just assume for the moment that Mel Gibson hated with every fiber of his being every Jew who rejects Christ.  Whether his depiction of the passion of Christ is historically or Biblically accurate, or whether it is an aesthetic masterpiece, or even whether it inspires or reinforces an animus toward Jews are questions that can and should be addressed independently of whether he personally dislikes Jews. 

(3) The charge of “anti-Semitism,” like the charge that one is “racist,” if it should be a part of a conversation at all, should be at its beginning.  As it currently stands, it is a conversation-stopper.  That one dislikes this person or group invites an inquiry into the reasons behind the feelings that one has.  Outside of these Politically Correct thought crimes, we seem to instinctively know this.  If you invite me to a party at so-and-so’s house and I refuse on account that I dislike that person, chances are your curiosity will be piqued as to why I feel as I do.  If we are close enough to one another, you may even indulge your curiosity by questioning me.  And when it comes to the issue of the animus that members of non-white groups have toward whites, the search for “root causes” is given top priority.

There is another thought that this allegation of “anti-Semitism” provoked in me.  While I would no more think to deny that Christians have committed violence against Jews than I would think to deny that Jews have committed violence against Christians, and while I am the first to admit that both Jews and Christians have been known to be all too forgetful of Christianity’s origins, the fact of the matter is that the Christian is the last person to be confused with one who hates all things Jewish. The reason for this is obvious: it is the Christian alone who regards a Jew as his God.  Far from deifying a Jew and accepting their Sacred Scriptures as one’s own, one would think that a person who truly hated Jews and Judaism would, quite literally, demonize them. 

Finally, the ease and frequency with which Christians are branded as “anti-Semites” leads me to conclude two things about the charge.  First, given its proven capacity to ruin reputations and professional lives, it is a weapon wielded to intimidate and suppress.  Second, it is for the most part a smokescreen intended to disguise what fundamentally amounts to the anti-Christian hostilities of the anti-“anti-Semite.” 

It is my hope that in the future, those Christians who find themselves on the receiving end of this allegation bear in mind these considerations, and those Jews (and others) who are disposed to launch this smear think twice about them before doing so.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.     

Black and Libertarian: A Look at Walter E. Williams

posted by Jack Kerwick

Walter E. Williams is associated with that paradoxical phenomenon typically known as “black conservatism.”  However, while Williams is a fierce opponent of the leftist political ideology that has overcome the majority of his fellow black Americans—he is a rightist—it is not altogether accurate to describe him as a conservative.

Unlike such black thinkers as George Schuyler and Thomas Sowell, as far as his ethical and political philosophical principles are concerned, the most appropriate label to ascribe to Williams is that of libertarian.  What this means is that he is a liberal in the classical sense of that term.

The concept of “tradition” or “habit” or “custom” has historically figured prominently, even centrally, in conservative thought.  With respect to libertarianism or classical liberalism, in contrast, matters are otherwise.  There need not be an adversarial relationship between libertarianism and tradition, it is true, but it is abstract principles, principles whose jurisdiction encompasses all human beings, irrespective of their culture or time, for which the libertarian tends to reserve a place of preeminence.

If Edmund Burke can be said to be “the patron saint” of conservatism, John Locke can claim this distinction vis-à-vis libertarianism.  In Do the Right Thing, a collection of his essays, Williams dispels any confusion as to which of these two philosophers has won over his sympathies.  It is worth quoting him here at length.

“At the root of my values system is the principle of natural law as expounded by philosophers like John Locke and William Blackstone and adopted by early American notables such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine, among others, and captured simply, elegantly, and compellingly in our Declaration of Independence in the phrase ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

As Williams correctly observes, Locke’s vision exerted no small measure of influence over many ofAmerica’s founders, and the Declaration of Independence specifically.  Yet “the right” to “the Pursuit of Happiness” was a modification of Locke’s “right to property”—a fact of which Williams is well aware and which he enthusiastically embraces.

Speaking as a true Lockean, he writes: “The first principle of natural law holds that each person owns himself.”  It is from this “first principle” that the individual right to property flows.  Recalling Locke, Williams refers to “the state of nature,” a pre-political situation that functioned as a sort of theoretical first step in the deliberations of many a thinker in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  In “the state of nature,” he says, “all people are free and equal,” yes, but they are “insecure” (emphasis mine).  They are insecure because they know “that other people may not respect” their “self-ownership rights and, through intimidation, threats, and coercion, wrongly confiscate” their “property and violate” their “persons.”  In order to abate this precarious condition, the inhabitants of the state of nature agree to “form governments” to which they will grant “certain limited powers.” 

The principle of self-ownership is the principle that all people own themselves.  This in turn implies that “we all have the right to protect ourselves, family, and property from encroachment by others.”  To the governments that we create “we grant these rights…in exchange for the guarantee that the state will perform these security functions.”

However, it is only these rights that we grant.  “We give up only the rights necessary for government to perform its only function—protecting our security.”  Most Americans, black, white, and other, have forgotten this.  Williams puts the matter even more bluntly, blasting Americans with having jettisoned “those basic ideals and principles on which our prosperous nation was built” for the sake of “other ideals, such as equality of income, sex and race balance, orderly markets, consumer protection, energy conservation, and environmentalism, just to name a few [.]”  The problem is that in order to realize these goals, our government that is supposed to be grounded in the consent of agents who own themselves necessarily transforms itself into something vastly more ambitious in scope, a tyrannical leviathan that has no option but to “confiscate…through intimidation, threats, and coercion” the legitimately acquired resources of its citizens.

Williams reasons that if redistributive measures of the sort that most Americans have come to expect from their government are morally impermissible when employed by individual agents, they cannot be made right just because they have been enacted into law.  “Americans must ask whether an act clearly immoral and criminal when done privately becomes moral when done collectively and given legal sanction.”  The answer to this question, Williams asserts, is a no-brainer.  “The unambiguous answer will be that legality is a poor guide to morality.”  History supplies no small number of examples to illustrate this contention.  “After all, slavery and apartheid were legal, as were the Nazi persecution of Jews and the Stalinist and Maoist purges.”  Still, “the fact of being legal did not make them moral acts.” 

Williams echoes the sentiments of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many other Christian thinkers who declared that an unjust law was no law at all.  “Immoral laws,” he states, “aren’t worthy of obedience.” 

If anything discloses the libertarian character of Williams’ thought it is his position on the criminalization of “vices.”  “For the government to declare a vice a crime is to violate those natural law guarantees of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, which are enunciated in our Declaration of Independence.”  Williams’ argument here is straightforward: Since no individual has the right to punish others for their vices, and since the only rights that government possesses are those that it derives from its citizens, government doesn’t have the right to punish individuals for their vices.  Thus, prostitution, drug usage, and discrimination in the private sector are among those activities that theUnited Statesgovernment illegitimately proscribes. 

Walter E. Williams is to be commended for the courage that he has exhibited in his lifelong campaign to combat the leftist illusions that have seized the minds of millions of his fellow Americans, white and black.  But it is important to recognize that while the substance of his positions on social issues is virtually identical to that of, say, Thomas Sowell, Williams arrives at many of his conclusions by means of premises reflective of his allegiance to, not conservatism, but libertarianism or classical liberalism.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 



Black and Conservative: A Look at Thomas Sowell

posted by Jack Kerwick

While it is true that the majority of black Americans lean leftward, and while it is no less true that the majority of black American intellectuals are full blown leftists, there are black American thinkers who have decidedly—and decisively—repudiated leftist ideology. 

Thomas Sowell is one such thinker.

Sowell is a conservative in the classical or traditional sense of that term. That is to say, Sowell’s thought is located squarely within the intellectual tradition of which Edmund Burke is widely recognized as the inspiration.

Burke, it may be recalled, articulated that vision that subsequent generations would call “conservatism” in response to the abstract, rationalist metaphysics that the Jacobins enlisted in the service of the French Revolution.  Although rationalism is a philosophical disposition that has manifested itself in many places and at many times, it reached its zenith during the Revolution.  That is, it is during this time that its erroneous character, translating, as it did, into an unmitigated disaster, compelled the attention of critics like Burke.

Like Burke and other conservatives before him, Sowell has distinguished himself as among the most notable—and scathing—critics of rationalism of our generation. In his seminal Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell says of rationalism that it “accepts only what can ‘justify’ itself to ‘reason’—with reason being narrowly conceived to mean articulated specifics.”  That the rationalist relies upon “highly rational intellectual ‘models’ of human behavior” that “suffer from an air of unreality” is born out by the consideration that they consist of “hypothetical, computer-like incremental adjustments by coolly calculating decision makers”—not “the flesh-and-blood reality of decision by inertia, whim, panic, or rule of thumb.” 

Apparently, many people who are familiar with Sowell’s work fail to realize that it is ultimately rationalistic accounts of inter-group differences that he has spent much of his life combating.  Sowell pays particularly close attention to “the animistic fallacy,” a staple of rationalist thought.  The animistic fallacy is the doctrine that whenever there is a pattern of some sort, there is “purposeful activity toward the goal achieved [.]”  When statistical disparities between racial, ethnic, and religious groups are attributed to “discrimination” or “racism,” you know that the animistic fallacy is at work.

However, rationalism is no less implicated by genetic-based theories of inter-group disparities.  This is especially interesting given the mutual exclusivity of the discrimination and genetic models.  Sowell writes:

“Ironically, the innate inferiority [genetic] doctrine and the opposed ‘equal representation’ [discrimination] doctrine proceed on the same intellectual premise—that one can go from innate ability to observed result without major concern for intervening cultural factors (emphasis mine).”

All rationalist theories, whether they are oriented toward racial or other issues, render culture or tradition negligible.  But since it is his study of racially-oriented topics that most accentuates the anti-rationalist, conservative presuppositions informing Sowell’s worldview, it is upon this topic that we will here focus.

The version of rationalism with which Sowell has spent considerable time reckoning is what he calls “the civil rights vision” (what I will term “CRV” from this point onward).  As we have already noted, at the heart of the CRV lies the principle that statistical inequalities among groups can only be accounted for in terms of discrimination.  This principle, in turn, presupposes three plausible yet demonstrably false assumptions. 

“The first,” Sowell explains, “is that discrimination leads to adverse effects on the observable achievements of those who are discriminated against, as compared to the discriminators or to society in general.”  The second is only slightly less evident than the first.  “The second assumption is…that statistical differences signal, imply and/or measure discrimination.”  And the third and perhaps most critical notion to the CRV is “that large statistical differences between groups do not usually arise and persist without discrimination”—i.e. discrimination is necessary in order to account for such differences.

The CRV, Sowell states bluntly, is false.  Statistical disparities are “commonplace” in societies throughout the world, a brute empirical fact owing to many “historical and cultural reasons” that haven’t anything at all to do with discrimination.  In fact, the historical record is replete with accounts of groups—Jews in lands throughout the world, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, East Indians throughout different continents, Japanese in America, etc.—that by any number of social indicia were more successful than the majority populations with which they co-existed in spite of having been systematically discriminated against by the latter. 

Take the Japanese in America, for example.  The Japanese “encountered persistent and escalating discrimination, culminating in their mass internment during World War II,” it is true; but within a little more than a decade following the war’s end, they “had about equaled the income of whites,” and a decade after that, “Japanese American families were earning nearly one-third higher incomes than the average American family.” 

Blacks, Sowell admits, constitute a “special case,” given their history inAmerica.  But even with respect to blacks, the idea that discrimination explains the statistical discrepancies between this group and others fails.  Blacks in Latin America, Sowell informs us, never suffered remotely the degree of discrimination that they suffered inAmerica.  However, economically speaking, blacks in, say,Brazil are significantly further behind blacks in the United States.

Even when we look more closely at blacks in the United States, we discover further strikes against the CRV’s discrimination model of inter-group disparities (and, for that matter, the genetic model).  If the high rates of crime, illegitimacy, incarceration, and other such pathological phenomena that we witness among contemporary blacks were either “a legacy of slavery” or rooted in nature, then we shouldn’t expect to learn that such pathologies are relatively recent.  But this is what we learn. 

Sowell states: “Most black children, even under slavery, grew up in two parent households.”  Moreover, “as late as the 1920’s, “a teenage girl raising a child with no man present was a rarity among blacks [.]”

As for crime, in 1984, Sowell wrote:

“Few people today are aware that the ghettos in many cities were far safer places just two generations ago than they are today, both for blacks and whites.  Incredulity often greets stories by older blacks as to their habit of sleeping out on fire escapes or on rooftops or in public parks on hot summer nights.  Many of those same people would not dare to walk through those same parks today in broad daylight.”

If crime among blacks is “a legacy of slavery,” if it is the product of discrimination, then one would expect for it to have been much worse during a time when discrimination was much worse.  But, what we see is that in generations past, when blacks encountered much more discrimination than anything of which contemporary blacks are familiar, crime, like illegitimacy, black youth unemployment, and other social indicia, didn’t remotely approximate the perilous levels at which they currently stand.  

There is indeed much in the way of their own intellectual tradition that conservatives, black, white, and other, can learn from Thomas Sowell.  And there is much in the way of race relations that Americans of all colors and political persuasions can learn from him as well.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


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