Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 13, 2011

Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Gilbert Meilaender

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.

First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.

First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future.

Second, claiming a measure of agnosticism seems to me the right way to respond to this question. America’s future is finally in the providence of God, not in our hands. In the greatest political speech ever given in our country’s history, Lincoln—while fondly hoping and fervently praying that the bloody Civil War might cease—left the question of its duration up to the true and righteous judgments of the Lord. That seems right to me. What we need is not so much optimism or pessimism, but a willingness to carry out the public and private tasks set before us with care and devotion: “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” The results can be left in the hands of those more knowledgeable than us.

Finally, we can grant that there are plenty of political reasons for pessimism: an economy in which many people may be permanently unable to find work, the racial divide that has burdened our entire history and still does, the threat of Islamism around the world but especially in the Middle East, an aging population that is setting us up for a clash of generations. What we need in the face of such difficulties is not optimism but hope, and they are not the same. As G.K. Chesterton noted, external conditions can never—in good times or bad—give sufficient reason for hope. We need the virtue of hope precisely when circumstances seem to offer no grounds for optimism. “For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Which means that the question that most needs our reflection is: How does one elicit, nourish, and sustain the virtue of hope?

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Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

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Bahrain Says it Averted Terror Attack

The Bahraini Interior Ministry on Saturday released a statement announcing that, with the help of Qatar, it has narrowly averted a terrorist attack that it says had an Iranian component:

…The Ministry confirms that it has discovered a terror cell that was planning to carry out terror attacks against vital establishments and individuals in the Kingdom. The Qatari security authority officially called its Bahraini counterpart about the arrest of four Bahrainis who had entered Qatar through Saudi Arabia. The concerned Qatari authority found in the possession of the suspects documents and a laptop containing sensitive security information and details about some places and vital establishments in Bahrain, as well as airline bookings to Syria. Significant cash amounts in U.S. dollars and Iranian toman were also found on them.

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The Bahraini Interior Ministry on Saturday released a statement announcing that, with the help of Qatar, it has narrowly averted a terrorist attack that it says had an Iranian component:

…The Ministry confirms that it has discovered a terror cell that was planning to carry out terror attacks against vital establishments and individuals in the Kingdom. The Qatari security authority officially called its Bahraini counterpart about the arrest of four Bahrainis who had entered Qatar through Saudi Arabia. The concerned Qatari authority found in the possession of the suspects documents and a laptop containing sensitive security information and details about some places and vital establishments in Bahrain, as well as airline bookings to Syria. Significant cash amounts in U.S. dollars and Iranian toman were also found on them.

The Qatari Security Authority questioned the suspects and inquiries in Qatar revealed that the suspects had illegally left Bahrain after being incited by others to head to Iran, passing through Qatar and Syria, to establish a group that carries out armed terrorist operations in Bahrain against vital establishments and individuals….

Inquiries to-date have confirmed that the suspects were targeting the King Fahd Causeway, Ministry of Interior building, Saudi Arabia Eebassy and individuals.

If the Bahraini government’s allegations are true, it appears that:

(1)    The alleged terror plot in Washington, D.C., was one of many terrorist attacks Iranian authorities have plotted.

(2)    When plots multiply, suggestions that they are rogue become less credible.

(3)    Iranian sloppiness is not exculpatory.

(4)   As Iranian leaders convince themselves the United States and its allies are paper tigers, it believes it can launch terror attacks with impunity.

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The Arab League Suspends Syria

A few days ago, Bashar al-Assad pretended to accept an Arab League proposal to end the massacre of civilians in Syria. It’s not likely the Arab League was foolish enough to think Damascus was serious. At this late date you’d have to be very foolish indeed to believe anyone can make an honest deal with this man. So when Assad’s minions spent the next few days shooting up the place as though nothing had happened, the League voted to suspend Assad until he stops.

Of course he won’t stop until the country is quiet or he’s driven from power. He knows it, I know it, you know it, and the Arab League knows it. Even our most foolish representatives in Washington—with the possible exceptions of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich—must know it by now.

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A few days ago, Bashar al-Assad pretended to accept an Arab League proposal to end the massacre of civilians in Syria. It’s not likely the Arab League was foolish enough to think Damascus was serious. At this late date you’d have to be very foolish indeed to believe anyone can make an honest deal with this man. So when Assad’s minions spent the next few days shooting up the place as though nothing had happened, the League voted to suspend Assad until he stops.

Of course he won’t stop until the country is quiet or he’s driven from power. He knows it, I know it, you know it, and the Arab League knows it. Even our most foolish representatives in Washington—with the possible exceptions of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich—must know it by now.

Syria has been an outlier in the Arab world for a long time, partly because it’s ruled by non-Muslim Alawites, and also because it’s regionally allied with Persian Shias against Arab Sunnis. Assad’s championship of the great “cause” against Israel is no longer enough. His insistence that Syria is the beating heart of Arab nationalism is a lie no one of import can pretend to believe anymore.

Lebanon and Yemen voted against the Arab League suspension; Yemen because its government is also in a fight for its life and Lebanon because it has been reconquered by proxy. Iraq abstained. All the others voted to at least temporarily kick Syria out.

Assad may now even face sanctions from Arabs. If the Arab world decides to ratchet up the pressure just one notch from sanctions, Assad might actually fall. The Middle East will be a different place in his wake.

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More on Penn State….

“The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart did a marvelous job condemning, with both wit and restrained moral anger, the Penn State students who rioted in reaction to
the firing of Joe Paterno. You can see it here: 

“The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart did a marvelous job condemning, with both wit and restrained moral anger, the Penn State students who rioted in reaction to
the firing of Joe Paterno. You can see it here: 

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Arthur C. Brooks

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Recent statistics about America’s levels of debt and tax burden make for depressing reading. Our national debt has increased from 42 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent of GDP today. Government spending (27 percent of GDP in 1960) is 37 percent of GDP now—and is set to hit 50 percent in 2038. Between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent of Americans has risen from 43 percent to 59 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who pay zero or negative income taxes has risen from 18.5 percent to 51 percent.

Numbers like these have led some to despair that there are really only two possible scenarios for America’s future. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that we embrace European-style social democracy. (Think France.) In the other scenario, our growing welfare state slowly collapses under its own weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity once the rest of the world finally realizes the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.) Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

Recent statistics about America’s levels of debt and tax burden make for depressing reading. Our national debt has increased from 42 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent of GDP today. Government spending (27 percent of GDP in 1960) is 37 percent of GDP now—and is set to hit 50 percent in 2038. Between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent of Americans has risen from 43 percent to 59 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who pay zero or negative income taxes has risen from 18.5 percent to 51 percent.

Numbers like these have led some to despair that there are really only two possible scenarios for America’s future. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that we embrace European-style social democracy. (Think France.) In the other scenario, our growing welfare state slowly collapses under its own weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity once the rest of the world finally realizes the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.)

These are not, however, the only two choices. We can make the hard choices as a nation to consolidate fiscally in a way that cuts government spending and stops penalizing entrepreneurs. But the way to achieve this is not the way conservatives typically advocate, which is doubling down with scary data about terrible economic growth and distortionary taxation. Instead, what conservatives must do is turn to the moral case for free enterprise: that it allows individuals to flourish as they earn their own success, is fundamentally fair in rewarding merit, and is the best way to give opportunities to the less fortunate.

This prescription would hardly sound foreign to our Founders, who in the Declaration of Independence asserted our right to pursue happiness instead of the mere possession of property. On the other side of the Atlantic, the father of free-market economics, Adam Smith, was articulating a soulful defense of human liberty in which every man “is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way.” He wrote these words 17 years before penning The Wealth of Nations.

How is it that today’s free-enterprise warriors have forgotten how to use the language of morality? Statists may talk about fairness and “social justice,” but free marketers seem content to console themselves with the language of economic efficiency and productivity. They are right about free enterprise being good for economic growth, but their arguments rarely move the soul. Yet it is the moral, cultural case for free enterprise that America most needs to hear today if it is willing to make sacrifices for the future.

Rather than making the business case, free-enterprise advocates must stop talking about dollars and cents and start talking about what is written on their hearts. They must talk again about why America is an exceptional nation and about what its system of free enterprise offers—the possibilities of self-realization, matching our skills with our passions, and pursuing happiness in whatever way we choose to define it.

If we do this, then Americans may help us change course before statism changes our nation for good.

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Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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