Tag Archives: Politics

Private Milk and Social Vinegar

Photo credit: biography.com

Photo credit: biography.com

According to the sort of wisdom one gleans from overhearing people at social gatherings and coffee shops, as with milk and vinegar one ought never to mix religion and politics. The degree to which this is true depends heavily on what is meant by the word “mix”; for theocracies have certainly in most cases been of the most tyrannical variety, tending as they do to place a divine impetus behind any and every moral atrocity. C.S. Lewis observed that “theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us” (The Weight of Glory). Indeed, history makes a truly damning case against any system of governance that grants tremendous power to broken and afflicted men – which is to say all men.

It is, however, a great error to suppose that, as Mr. Hitchens bitterly put it, it is religion that poisons everything. This is an increasingly popular sentiment, and its refrain echoes down the halls of the university and is reverberated by young atheists before they have scarcely learned how to spell “Nietzsche.”

But even if Mr. Hitchens were correct, then surely none of us, not even the ostensibly impervious Mr. Hitchens himself, is exempt; for whatever ill effects we may be forced by circumstance to endure at the hands of others – as in a theocrac­y – the greater and necessarily more potent dose of poison is the one self-administered. Philosophy – for that is what a religion is, after all – cannot be escaped. If a person believes anything, he believes in a religion. As any parent will attest, this religion is from the earliest moments of childhood one of Self. It is only later that some children learn clever nomenclature by which to declare in exalted tones their religion of Self as being one of utilitarianism or humanism or collectivism – all various philosophical rearrangements of social self-service.

Contrary to what one might initially be inclined to suppose on the basis of the terminology, there is no atheistic utilitarianism, no atheistic system of ethics, that is not at its very core selfish. Materialism has the very unpleasant consequence of making selfish even the motivations for altruism. The opening line of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, reads, “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody” (emphasis mine). Wilde’s honesty is exceedingly rare in such circles. Any notions of selflessness espoused by a materialist cannot be anything but farcical; and any materialist who is not a hedonist must be a very foolish materialist indeed, for he has been duped into thinking that there is some “greater good” that exists outside himself, beyond his short life, and for which he ought to sacrifice. Reflecting on his eventual abandonment of Leftist ideals in the conclusion to his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes:

I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.” I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison island to which the quest has led. (p. 420)

The only kind of sacrifice that a materialist can consistently endorse is the kind that has some prospect of benefit in the here and now. Any notions of the “greater good” or objective progress, political or otherwise, necessarily assume the existence of a kind of transcendence that can only reside in the supernatural. Thus, the professing materialist who fiercely defends selflessness as a virtue is not really a materialist at all.

It cannot be called clever – cute, perhaps­­ – the way in which some atheists claim in bouts of counterproductive conceit to only “lack belief” in God, rather than believing positively that God does not exist. Nevermind that this places them squarely on par with rocks, cats, and every other thing incapable of thought or rationality. Theists, on this view, are literally the only exception to that which may be called “atheist.” Yet how mendacious it would be of theists to espouse a lack of belief in atheism rather than to assume the burden of proof that necessarily accompanies every positive claim! Atheists ought not to get a pass in fancying themselves devoid of religion simply because they have defined religion in such a way as to exclude themselves. They are like the politician who fancies himself above politics by referring to himself as an “independent.” The person who considers himself a strictly objective observer simply because he ascribes to a form of philosophical materialism exhibits a very crass sort of disingenuousness, as if because of his rejection of the supernatural his actions (and therefore his politics) do not arise as a direct result of his deeply held beliefs.

The person who thinks it possible to separate religious conviction from political influence shows that he understands neither religion nor politics. One’s religion necessarily touches everything, or else it touches nothing, and therefore cannot be said to be a religion in any meaningful sense of the word. A professing Muslim, for example, who neither prays, nor exercises charity, nor fasts, nor makes the hajj is as good a Muslim as any atheist, and indeed–if he were honest with himself–might very well be one. He is like the atheist who acts selflessly.

Acting on the basis of religious conviction does not necessarily imply a coercive governmental system (i.e. theocracy). A person is not only able to exercise his convictions without becoming onerous, he truly has no choice in the matter. He can choose not to oppress those with whom he disagrees, but he cannot choose to act apart from his convictions. Claims that any influence of religious conviction upon politics is oppressive (or preventable) cannot be regarded seriously. A person claiming to act in denial of his personal philosophy only serves to clarify just what is his true philosophy. A politician claiming, for instance, to value the lives of unborn children, yet who endorses legislation to the contrary by way of appeals to a Jeffersonian “wall of separation,” only shows that his true beliefs (and therefore his religion­) afford a higher value to personal “liberty” – a truly vulgar use of the word in this context – than to the preservation of life. We may well argue the degree to which one’s beliefs ought to take shape in public policy – a distinction similar to that between applied ethics and morality – but it is not my intent to do so here; only to suggest that a complete detachment is impossible.

Thus, conceptions of politics that envision policy derived apart from one’s fundamental beliefs are illusory. In justification for such a notion, however, one often hears atheists make monopoloid claims upon “reason” as being their sole guide. These atheists exhibit a fundamentalism worse than even the most legalistic Christian; for at least the Christian realizes he has a religion. This sort of atheist is so religious, so blindly devoted to reason, that he is not even aware of it. (Nevermind that, despite Kant’s impressive efforts, virtue seems not to be explained–at the very least not without great difficulty–by the proposal that it is grounded in rational principle.)

But a person need not be aware of his own religion in order to exercise it, for it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34). Everyone lives his life by what he believes, consciously or not, to be true; that is his religion, and no amount of semantic squirming or disdain for the word is capable of severing the necessary dependence of his actions (and votes) upon it.

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The Regression of Progressivism: Chasing Ephemeral Carrot Sticks

If among the political factions into which America has carved itself there is one point of agreement, it is that one ought to seek progress above all else. I am well aware that it is precisely the differing opinions about just what the word “progress” means that form the party lines, but it is nonetheless the one truly common interest. It is for this reason that we must suspiciously regard any political sect that seeks to absorb the word “progress” into its title, as if this were not also the goal of every one of its competitors. It is as good as a sports team calling itself “The Winners” or adherents to secular philosophy, “Brights”; it is at best presumptuous, and at worst compensation for some real deficit.

Progress of any sort, if we are to avoid talking nonsense, is impossible if there is not some understood End towards which we are advancing. Practically, such an End may be arbitrary, and even a cursory historical survey will reveal that men have never found themselves at a loss in contriving plenteous and contradictory goals for which they are willing to sacrifice themselves (or, more likely, everything and everyone but themselves). Napoleon sought to attain land above all else; the Nazis sought to attain racial purity above all else; the American Revolutionaries sought to attain liberty above all else; and it is against these sort of Ends that every other action within a particular paradigm is weighed.

As it concerns progressivism, we must ask: just what does it regard as its supreme goal? Doubtless, in asking a hundred different progressives one is likely to get at least two-hundred different answers, but we may at least look at the cause as it has manifested itself thus far. One may take its regard for human life, for example; for “progressivism” is in this case really only a moral regression. It is a morbid fact that progressives cheerfully offer up the lives of children on the altar of “personal liberty”. It is made worse by the fact that they think they have done something truly revolutionary in human history, and all, quite ironically and reprehensibly, in the name of moral and political “progress”. The Canaanites were sacrificing their children to the Baals long before even the Greeks decided (very progressively) to leave theirs to die in the elements simply for convenience’s sake. Having more sophisticated instruments for such tasks only serves to advance one thing: efficiency; and it is the combination of moral depravity and efficiency that has birthed such monstrosities as Auschwitz. If societal efficiency is itself the goal, as it is with bees and ants and any other swarming creature, the progressive movement is very dangerous indeed; for there is no barbarity too great so long as it is committed in the name of the colony. There is not one vice which cannot be made more efficient through either science or politics.

On the subject of economics, the progressive is rather unsure how he feels about the matter. Though he feels strongly that he wants money (and as much of it as possible), he knows just as strongly that people who actually do possess a lot of money should not have it, or at least not as much. He seeks to raise taxes, but only on those who have more money than himself. He maintains that one ought always to act charitably towards the impoverished, but only when coerced by the state. He believes that the government exists to provide him with a job, and, if it fails, to pay him anyway. If there is something he cannot have, neither should anyone else; after all, it is only fair. Thus, progressivism is really just a kind of socialism masquerading under a different guise.

If liberalism was the correction of tyranny, progressivism is its vast overcorrection.

It might be suggested that not everyone desires political progress (in the case of anarchists and the politically apathetic, for example); but the anarchist merely regards the dissolution of the state as the height of political progress; that is his goal. It is his carrot on a stick, so-to-speak. As to the politically apathetic, I am fairly certain there are really no such persons, at least in an absolute sense. There would be none so unreasonable as to greet the Gestapo with a shrug of the shoulders and invite them in for tea; apathy meets its limit precisely when the state’s encroachment becomes impossible to ignore. It is then when apathy undergoes a fierce metamorphosis: it is changed in an instant from a grub into the fiery butterfly of revolutionary fervor. One who asserts his political apathy is like the Pompeiian who claims indifference to volcanoes: Either he will wake one morning to find his indifference suddenly buried under a heap of ash, or he will not wake at all.

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Postmodern Baby Strollers

Having previously swallowed the bitter pill of modernism, contemporary society, apparently having found lacking satisfaction in the acceptance of false truths, has given up the trouble of assessing propositions and seen fit to dispense with the idea of truth altogether. The embrace of the postmodern paradigm, properly understood as it pertains to the alleged relativity of truth, is an act as impossible as erecting a house without a foundation; but considerations of consistency have not seemed to bother its adherents or in any way slowed its societal advance.

The contemporary postmodern is at every turn plagued by contradiction. He regards tolerance as the highest virtue, though he grants himself a special exemption insofar as it concerns his treatment of the exclusivists. He will argue until he is blue in the face that, since there is no truth, arguing is pointless. He knows absolutely that we can know absolutely nothing. He repudiates morality on the basis of his own moral law. In the same breath he praises science and spurns the metaphysics on which science necessarily relies. He is worse than a pot calling a kettle black; he is a pot denouncing the very idea of cooking ware.

Postmodernism has in politics come under the auspicious title of “Progressivism”, and its spindly fingers have left almost nothing untouched; and whatever it has touched, it has turned squarely on its head. I mean, of course, that supreme guiding principle of American and European politics: political correctness. For instance, in thinking that by tolerating everything they are elevating the virtue of fairness, postmoderns have got it exactly backwards; for fairness is necessarily based on the assumption of justice, and justice must have some Standard. Though it knows nothing, postmodernism knows, at least, that words like “Standard”, “absolute”, and “universal” are only deserving of contempt. Thus, there is hardly any exception for which the postmodern or progressive is not perfectly happy to make a new rule. Nevermind that swimming is enjoyable, we must do away with it to prevent drowning. Nevermind that cake is delicious, it must be forbidden lest children become obese. Nevermind that young boys have always pretended to shoot each other, they must be suspended lest they become murderers.

I once saw a warning on a baby stroller that said “REMOVE BABY BEFORE FOLDING”. While I appreciated the manufacturer’s willingness to provide assistance to what must certainly be the most modest of intelligences, I wondered that it did not also say “DO NOT LEAVE BABY UNATTENDED IN AIRPORTS, STREETS, BARS, BEAR CAVES, ABORTION CLINICS, OR VOLCANOS, ETC”. But, more likely, the manufacturer was not trying to be helpful at all but was only taking precautionary measures against a potential lawsuit. A society in which a person can fold their own baby into a stroller and not only attempt to sue the manufacturer of the stroller, but win, has certainly not got long left.

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Tactical Voting

Concerning the election of individuals to public office, there often arises a situation in which voters are presented with a certain kind of moral dilemma; namely, a dilemma in which there are at least three potential candidates: one whom one really wishes to win, one who is undesirable, and a third, much better than candidate number two but not as strong as the first, who is more likely to actually win. Should one vote for the candidate he thinks is best, at the risk of splitting the vote and causing a total loss; or should one compromise on certain issues and vote instead for a partial, but more certain victory? This dilemma forms the basic premise for game shows in which contestants are forced to choose between taking the quick cash or risking everything in order to potentially win much more. Insofar as it concerns elections the question is a valid one.

The man wishing to vote on principle would assert that, for the sake of one’s conscience, one ought to vote for the very best candidate; but perhaps such a response is too hasty. In the case that projections of the potential winner are truly uncertain, the decision is simple. However, if one votes for the best candidate knowing that the vote is likely to be wasted, is it truly the higher good? If it turns out that the worst candidate wins because of a split vote, is not at least some degree of regret merited? One might ask Ross Perot’s former supporters. Or, consider the man who, having grown disillusioned with the reigning political parties in a two-party system, and knowing his vote for a preferred independent candidate would be wasted, chooses to fold his arms rather than dignify the status quo by casting a vote for less than his druthers. He is like the child who, having been denied cake, chooses on principle to forgo his dinner. The point is made but the hunger remains.

It should be noted that a person’s refusal to vote is not the same thing as opting out of electoral influence. On the contrary, a person must necessarily influence a given election; for in every election the non-voters play as much a part, if indirect, in influencing the outcome as the voters themselves. Inaction is just as susceptible to blowback as action. My decision not to drink anything has symptomatic consequences distinct from my decision to drink only whiskey, but it has consequences nonetheless. In this case, inaction is but a vote in a different guise. Regardless of one’s intentions, it is in practice a vote for the candidate with the advantage.

Regrettable as it is, effective politics cannot be conducted without a shrewd understanding of political tactics. (Regrettable because pure motivations and sound doctrine are almost never enough to achieve victory in today’s political climate). By ‘tactics’ I do not necessarily mean unethical political maneuvers, but all those of which a keen grasp will aid a politician in achieving his goals. This is why candidates undertaking a campaign often have large staffs, replete with advisors, analysts, and various other experts, in order that they may take the steps that will best enhance their chances of winning. Though the nature of contemporary politics and campaigning seems in many ways to encourage the use of contrived efforts to manipulate voters, it is not necessary to do so – at least, not in an unethical way – and it is a reality we must accept. Given this state of affairs, responsible citizens must often make difficult electoral choices in light of the knowledge available to them regarding the political atmosphere.

I do not buy the contemporary libertarian line that says both major parties are entirely but distinctly broken. But even if I did, it would not alter the fact that someone will lead this country come November. If we must have a flawed leader (and we must), we had better choose the flaws with which we are willing to live. Let us not sink proudly to our deaths beneath the banner of “principle”.

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