Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ben Carson

Reclaiming Our Love for America

My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

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My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

Now let me turn to a more substantial note I received from a friend, who wrote this:

Are you sure about this? I remember the attacks of the Left; they were that the very idea of America, its own ideals, were corrupt and irredeemable. This critique, perhaps lacking in sophistication, seems to derive from their perception that we are, transiently, failing our ideals. One attack was on fundamental principle, the other seems more situational, calling us back. Perhaps ham-handedly. But do you see no difference?

This statement is a fair one, at least up to a point. Over the years some on the left have vilified the founders, while those on the right (myself included) have tended to lionize them. So to be precise: some on the right are saying we used be good but now we’re evil. That is different than saying we have been evil from the start. But it is not much less divorced from reality or hardly less pernicious. It looks for the impossible ideal in the past rather than in the future, but it still disparages the actual living, breathing America.

I’d add that my friend–intelligent, well-educated, and a person of good will–could only say that the rhetoric I cited in my post was “perhaps” lacking in sophistication and “perhaps” ham-handed. 

“Perhaps”?

It is more than unsophisticated and ham-handed; it is a grotesque libel. Yet it happens frequently enough that it hardly elicits a critical reaction. Are we now to the point where conservatives who depict America as a replica of Hitler’s Germany, a police state, a borderline tyranny, and a dystopian society are viewed as having made slight if understandable overstatements? I for one hope not.

In this context it’s worth people reading, or re-reading, Norman Podhoretz’s My Love Affair With America, a book that expresses his deep affection for his native land. In it he urges his fellow conservatives to rediscover their faith in America. It is, among other things, an act of gratitude, one of the most important if overlooked human qualities.  

Near the end of his elegant and touching book Podhoretz writes that the United States is entitled to 

a place among the very greatest of human societies. And even more surely, it entitles this country to the love and gratitude of all whom a benevolent providence has deposited on the shores of – yes, a thousand times yes – “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to live their lives and make their livings under the sublime beauty of its “spacious skies” and “from sea to shining sea.”

This spirit of love and gratitude for America, even (and sometimes especially) in difficult times, is worth reclaiming. Because America, whatever its shortcomings, surely deserves it. 

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When the Right Turns on America

Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

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Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

But it is quite another thing to describe America as the New Left did in the late 1960s, when America itself was spelled with a “k” (“Amerika”) in an effort to identify it with Nazi Germany. Among the young and left-wing academics there was talk about the need for revolution. The United States was viewed as fundamentally corrupt. Once upon a time conservatives fought against this. Today, however, some on the right are turning on America. They employ language you would associate with Noam Chomsky.

Now to be sure, the reasons the left and right are unhappy with America are quite different. But the indictment is still searing and often reckless. It describes an unrecognizable country. Whatever problems America has, we are light years away from Nazi Germany; and to argue that the United States is on the edge of tyranny can only come from those who don’t understand what life in a tyranny is really and truly and hellishly like.

This kind of rhetoric, which can only incite and never persuade, is alienating to everyone who is not part of the Apocalypse Now crowd. It is also, in deep ways, profoundly unconservative, in good part because it is overwrought and detached from reality. It is also evidence of a backward-looking conservatism that sees how America has changed and laments it rather than a forward-looking conservatism that sees the great promise and opportunities that still exist in America and seeks to take advantage of them.

“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy?” the late, great United States Senator (and United Nations Ambassador) Daniel Patrick Moynihan once asked. “Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”

That is still the case, even today, even in Barack Obama’s America. Conservatives should continue to oppose his agenda with all their might. But they will do serious and lasting damage to themselves and their cause if in the process they are seen as turning on their country. And I worry that in some quarters, from some voices, that is precisely what is happening.

Amor Patriae is still a virtue in America, and conservatives should both claim it and cherish the deeper meaning of it.

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Ben Carson and God’s Calling

The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, an outstanding political reporter over the decades, writes this in a story about Ben Carson:

“Over the years, there have been many attempts to get me to throw my hat in the political arena,” Carson writes in his new book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.  “I have been offered support from around the country and tremendous financial resources if I decide to run for national office. But I have not felt the call to run.”

Carson writes that he suspects many others interested in high office would be better candidates.  But in his book he has a caveat: “If I felt called by God to officially enter the world of politics, I would certainly not hesitate to do so.”

Interviewed this week, Carson said he’s “starting to feel it.  Because every place I go, it’s unbelievable.”  One lady “really touched me the other night … She just kept clinging to my hand and said, ‘You have to run. You have to run.’  And so many people tell me that, and so I think I’m starting to hear something.”

Dr. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, is by all accounts an admirable person and a man of faith. (He was the subject of the movie Gifted Hands.) I have my doubts that he should run for president and I’m certain he won’t be nominated to be president, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on his theology.

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The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, an outstanding political reporter over the decades, writes this in a story about Ben Carson:

“Over the years, there have been many attempts to get me to throw my hat in the political arena,” Carson writes in his new book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.  “I have been offered support from around the country and tremendous financial resources if I decide to run for national office. But I have not felt the call to run.”

Carson writes that he suspects many others interested in high office would be better candidates.  But in his book he has a caveat: “If I felt called by God to officially enter the world of politics, I would certainly not hesitate to do so.”

Interviewed this week, Carson said he’s “starting to feel it.  Because every place I go, it’s unbelievable.”  One lady “really touched me the other night … She just kept clinging to my hand and said, ‘You have to run. You have to run.’  And so many people tell me that, and so I think I’m starting to hear something.”

Dr. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, is by all accounts an admirable person and a man of faith. (He was the subject of the movie Gifted Hands.) I have my doubts that he should run for president and I’m certain he won’t be nominated to be president, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on his theology.

My own view is that to discern the call of God on matters like this requires extraordinary discernment. What makes this even more complicated is that there is a constant temptation among people of faith to take worldly ambitions and place upon them the imprimatur of God; to turn selfish (though not necessarily bad) desires and give to them the patina of holiness and selfless obedience. That at least has been true for me.

Politicians in particular are susceptible to a variation of this, often speaking as if their quest for power is done solely for altruistic reasons. They have a comfortable life they thoroughly enjoy, this narrative goes, but they just happen to be the one person in a nation of 315 million who can right the listing ship of state. Like most of what we do, however, running for public office usually involves a mix of factors, some more admirable than others. Running for president involves both personal sacrifices and personal aggrandizement. The distortion comes by focusing only on the former and never the latter; by pretending it’s always about us (or the will of God) and never about them.

It’s impossible for me to speak dispositively on this subject when it comes to Dr. Carson. But as a general matter, I would caution against confusing the words of enraptured supporters as Vox Dei, of taking ego strokes and making them synonymous with the call of God. Certainly for those of the Christian faith like Dr. Carson, a much more common (and good deal less comfortable) theme is dying to self, the least among us being the greatest, and taking up your cross. The wisest people I know would tend to warn that the adoration of the crowd is a temptation one needs to guard against. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I’m familiar with the parable of the talents and I’m certainly open to the prospect that God can take our gifts and interests and use them for good. My point is that we moderns tend to be somewhat less alert to the dangers of self-deception and (wittingly or not) using faith as a way to disguise our vanity.

The human heart is divided against itself; as a result, most of us are far too quick to ascribe to our less-than-saintly ambitions the full favor of God.

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