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Posts For: February 18, 2013

Moral Presuppositions and Politics

In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, though much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote, “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”

Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways. 

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by, interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilize our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.

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In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, though much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote, “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”

Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways. 

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by, interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilize our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.

Most of us assume people see issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, higher taxes on top income earners, entitlement reform, illegal immigration, climate change, judicial originalism, criminal justice, enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes, the Iraq war, and many others – through essentially the same prism we do. But it’s rather more complicated than that. 

Our interpretative frame and intellectual and moral tropisms are the product of many factors. The philosopher Cornelius Van Til once said that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Our presumptions alter the way we interpret things, including justice. For example, if one views abortion entirely through the lens of a woman’s right to choose, then restricting abortions is a gratuitous offense. If one views abortion through the prism of the rights of an unborn child, on the other hand, then subsidizing abortion is a grave transgression.

Or take same sex marriage. Some believe championing gay marriage places one on the side of equality, tolerance, and human dignity, as heirs of the civil rights struggle. On the flip side, opponents of gay marriage often root their views in their understanding of male-female complementarity, procreation and the health of the institution of marriage. They are acting to defend what they believe are traditional and necessary social norms. The differences on this issue can be explained by reasons other than bigotry on the one hand or wanting to rip apart our social fabric on the other.

What happens is we tend to deny to those with whom we disagree any benefit of the doubt. We assume they see facts, events and justice just as we do, which makes their differing conclusions from us very nearly inexplicable. This in turn makes it easy to characterize one’s opponents as malignant. Only a cretin could hold views at odds with ours. See Paul Krugman’s attitude toward those who differ with him for more.

It really would help our political culture if we understood that every one of us has an imperfect angle on reality and that our presuppositions refract truth. That our perception of justice is always distorted, even just a little bit. All of us see through a glass darkly and know things only in part. 

That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t much closer than others to apprehending truth, beauty, and goodness. Nor do I believe for a moment that efforts at persuasion are fruitless. I just happen to believe that Professor Davison’s illustration is a good one to bear in mind from time to time. If we did, our politics might be characterized by a touch more grace, a bit less anger, and a little more sympathy. There are worse things in the world.

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The Hagel-Cruz Bait and Switch

The effort to confirm Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense never seemed in as much trouble than it did this weekend. The Senate failed to pass a cloture measure last Thursday that would have cut off debate about the nomination. A new revelation about yet another offensive statement by Hagel in which he claimed the U.S. State Department was controlled by the Israeli Foreign Ministry not only forced the former senator to issue another unpersuasive and ambivalent disavowal. It also raised the possibility that many of the national Jewish organizations that had been silent about the nomination would now help build pressure on pro-Israel Democrats to abandon Hagel. But the building evidence of Hagel’s unsuitability and incompetence was not the subject of much of the conversation on the weekend cable talk shows and in the opinion columns of newspapers. Instead of Hagel, the liberal talking heads, reporters and columnists were all agog about the supposed beastliness of Senator Ted Cruz.

The freshman from Texas has ruffled a lot of feathers in his first six weeks in office on both sides of the aisle. His rough questioning of Hagel during the committee hearing and subsequent questions about the nominee’s financial records also raised the hackles of some senators and Washington insiders but there’s something slightly suspicious about the over the top reaction to Cruz on the news shows as well as from New York Times and Washington Post columnists. Even if we were to accept their dubious assertion that Cruz’s take-no-prisoners style of political combat is a shocking departure from the traditions of DC politics, the sudden interest in slamming the Texan is nothing more than a transparent attempt to change the subject just at the moment when Hagel’s nomination seems to be hanging in the balance. The herd instinct of liberal journalists is prompting them, as if on cue, to try and gull the public into thinking the real issue at stake here is not the elevation of a prejudiced and unqualified man to run the Pentagon but the supposed bad manners of one of Hagel’s most energetic critics.

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The effort to confirm Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense never seemed in as much trouble than it did this weekend. The Senate failed to pass a cloture measure last Thursday that would have cut off debate about the nomination. A new revelation about yet another offensive statement by Hagel in which he claimed the U.S. State Department was controlled by the Israeli Foreign Ministry not only forced the former senator to issue another unpersuasive and ambivalent disavowal. It also raised the possibility that many of the national Jewish organizations that had been silent about the nomination would now help build pressure on pro-Israel Democrats to abandon Hagel. But the building evidence of Hagel’s unsuitability and incompetence was not the subject of much of the conversation on the weekend cable talk shows and in the opinion columns of newspapers. Instead of Hagel, the liberal talking heads, reporters and columnists were all agog about the supposed beastliness of Senator Ted Cruz.

The freshman from Texas has ruffled a lot of feathers in his first six weeks in office on both sides of the aisle. His rough questioning of Hagel during the committee hearing and subsequent questions about the nominee’s financial records also raised the hackles of some senators and Washington insiders but there’s something slightly suspicious about the over the top reaction to Cruz on the news shows as well as from New York Times and Washington Post columnists. Even if we were to accept their dubious assertion that Cruz’s take-no-prisoners style of political combat is a shocking departure from the traditions of DC politics, the sudden interest in slamming the Texan is nothing more than a transparent attempt to change the subject just at the moment when Hagel’s nomination seems to be hanging in the balance. The herd instinct of liberal journalists is prompting them, as if on cue, to try and gull the public into thinking the real issue at stake here is not the elevation of a prejudiced and unqualified man to run the Pentagon but the supposed bad manners of one of Hagel’s most energetic critics.

Let’s first dispense with the notion that Cruz is, as left-wing bloviator Chris Matthews would have it, the second coming of Joseph McCarthy. Cruz’s demand for Hagel’s financial records and suspicions that some of his speeches or other advocacy activities since he left the Senate might have been financed by foreign powers may have seemed harsh. But his queries, which are spoken of as being nothing less than smears, are not as unreasonable as the talking heads assume them to be. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Middle East studies in academia and non-profit agencies is aware that Saudi Arabia and other gulf principalities have been throwing money around in that sphere like it was going out of style for decades. I doubt anyone had to pay Chuck Hagel a cent to spout his views encouraging outreach to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran or criticizing Israel and its supporters. Yet if his speaking honorariums did come from dubious sources, is that really none of the public’s business now that he is slated to be secretary of defense? Hagel’s controversial views on the Middle East that he has been forced to disavow in order to gain confirmation are a matter of record. To compare Cruz’s questions to McCarthy or a witch-hunt is the real smear here.

But the real insight to be gleaned from this sudden interest in Cruz is that it is a desperate diversionary tactic. Cruz’s elevation to the rank of the liberals’ public enemy number one is nothing more than a bait and switch scheme to help the White House shove Hagel down the threats of a clearly reluctant Senate.

Cruz may well prove to be an important player in the Senate but the timing of the rush to brand him as emblematic of everything that liberals detest about conservatives is a little too convenient. If the hapless Hagel, whose befuddled day in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee deepened the already serious doubts about his fitness for high office, can be transformed into a victim of Cruz’s inquisition rather than an obviously unqualified nominee then it will be possible for President Obama to successfully strong arm a dubious Democratic majority into rubber stamping his pick. It is this sort of political funny business and not Ted Cruz’s rough edges that is the real scandal.

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The Strange Return of Hugo Chavez

“Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care,” announced the BBC. “Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela,” reported the Associated Press. “Chavez in surprise return from Cuba,” said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.

Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: “Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.” Even Venezuela’s state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez’s return are three tweets issued from the Comandante’s feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.

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“Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care,” announced the BBC. “Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela,” reported the Associated Press. “Chavez in surprise return from Cuba,” said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.

Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: “Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.” Even Venezuela’s state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez’s return are three tweets issued from the Comandante’s feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.

In quick succession, Chavez thanks God for returning him to his Venezuelan fatherland, thanks Fidel and Raul Castro for their hospitality in Cuba, and assures us that through his faith in both Christ and his medical team, Venezuelans are going “ever onward to victory!!” (“Hasta la victoria siempre!!”)

Surely after two years of mischief and deceit on the part of the Venezuelan regime over Chavez’s physical state, some correspondingly healthy skepticism on the part of the media is warranted? If all we have to go on are tweets supposedly written by a man who is breathing through a tracheal tube, shouldn’t the headlines more properly read “Venezuelan Government Claims Chavez Return,” thus leaving room for a modicum of doubt?

And if, in fact, Chavez did arrive in Caracas at 2.30AM, and was then transferred to a military hospital, according to the account of Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, this begs more questions than it answers. We still know virtually nothing about Chavez’s condition. We have no idea when or whether he will be able to take the reins of government. It is precisely because of this power vacuum that Venezuela’s Supreme Court, long packed with Chavista judges, defied constitutional provisions on the absence of the president by ruling that Chavez, who missed his January 10 inauguration, could be sworn in for a fourth term at a later, unspecified date.

The continuing telenovela that is Chavez remains useful for deflecting attention from the crisis in which Venezuela is currently mired. The recent devaluation of the Bolivar by 32 per cent set off panic buying in the stores and threatens to put the price of basic goods beyond the reach of poorer Venezuelans. Open political debate is being actively muzzled; one day before Chavez’s return was announced on Twitter, the regime confirmed that it would be pursuing criminal charges against a prominent opposition politician, Leopoldo Lopez, as well as his mother, for “presumed irregularities” in accepting political donations in 1998, the year preceding Chavez’s accession to power. Ironically, the donations are said to have come from PVDSA, the state oil company that has, under Chavez’s rule, become the principal means of subsidizing Chavez’s high-profile, low-impact social programs, as well as cut price oil for Chavez’s Cuban allies.

The decision to prosecute Lopez went largely unnoticed over the weekend, as did the suggestion of the Foreign Minister, Elias Jaua, that Venezuela would be open to improved relations with the United States. For its part, the U.S. should make clear that any closer ties are contingent upon knowing who it is, exactly, we are dealing with in Caracas.

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McCain: Incompetence Is No Disqualifier

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator John McCain signaled that he would no longer hold up his former colleague Chuck Hagel’s nomination after Congress returns. “I don’t believe he is qualified,” Mr. McCain said. “But I don’t believe that we should hold up his nomination any further because I think it’s a reasonable amount of time to have questions answered.”

McCain’s answer does more to sum up what’s wrong with partisanship, comity, and how senators treat national security than any other recent comment. When a cabinet nominee comes before the Senate, senators should consider any number of factors. Before deference to the president’s choice, friendship, or consideration of that nominee’s past or present statements, one question should be considered disqualifying, and that is the question of competence.

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Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator John McCain signaled that he would no longer hold up his former colleague Chuck Hagel’s nomination after Congress returns. “I don’t believe he is qualified,” Mr. McCain said. “But I don’t believe that we should hold up his nomination any further because I think it’s a reasonable amount of time to have questions answered.”

McCain’s answer does more to sum up what’s wrong with partisanship, comity, and how senators treat national security than any other recent comment. When a cabinet nominee comes before the Senate, senators should consider any number of factors. Before deference to the president’s choice, friendship, or consideration of that nominee’s past or present statements, one question should be considered disqualifying, and that is the question of competence.

What McCain is, in effect, saying is that he has no personal or professional problem with putting an incompetent man in charge not only of America’s defense but also—because of what falls under the Pentagon’s umbrella—most of America’s intelligence assets as well.

McCain prides himself on being a maverick. How sad it is that in the twilight of his great career, McCain now is so willing to knowingly undercut U.S. national security. How reassuring it must be to Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, and Ali Khamenei in Iran that McCain is so willing to help install an unqualified Defense Secretary. The only questions now is not whether the will test the United States, but when and how many U.S. serviceman will die because of it.

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