One could hardly imagine a more civilized setting. A crisply sunny November afternoon at Colgate University, its campus of handsome nineteenth-century buildings tucked into the cadenced hills of upstate New York, all covered with the last fine glow of autumn foliage. The four hundred bright-eyed students, along with faculty and townsfolk, filled the auditorium, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. The great attraction, I was well aware, was Peter Singer. The controversial Peter Singer, as he is routinely called, holder of a chair in bioethics at Princetons University Center for Human Values. He and I were to debate the question, Who Should Live and Who Should Die? It was a standard format, with opening statements and rebuttals, followed by another hour of responding to questions from the audience. Dont ask me who won. As is usual with public debates, partisans on both sides claim victory and are reinforced in what they believed before. I dont think I did too poorly, but Singer, his forensic talents honed by the assumption that his views will meet with resistance, is an impressive performer.
I had not met Professor Singer before, although I had of course read a good bit of his work. After all, the New Yorker declares him to be the worlds most influential living philosopher, and even in the guild of professional philosophers there are some who agree with that estimate. In addition to the two hours of public exchange, we spent several hours in conversation, and I confess that there is much about him that one cannot help but like. He is a bright, articulate, and very personable bloke, as they might say in his native Australia. He does not mind at all being called a gadfly; on the contrary, he obviously relishes the role. He would like to think that he is also something more than a gadfly, but for him philosophy is clearly not defined, as the classical authors would have it, by the love of wisdom but by, as he is prone to putting it, getting people to think for themselves.
The opening line of Rethinking Life and Death sets forth what for him is self-evidently the case: After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed. That is the presupposition, variously phrased, that runs throughout his argument. And there is another, from the same text: The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended. Although he does not put it so baldly, he seems to believe that the fact that his argument clashes with accepted moral views is evidence of its superiority. One would expect no less of a gadfly.
His system of ethics, which he tends to assume is ethics tout court, is an individual preference version of utilitarianism, going back to the nineteenth century and Jeremy Benthams doctrine that each is to count as one and none is to count as more than one. The ethical goal is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Among the many traditions of ethical thought, this one, for Peter Singer, not only counts as more than one but is the only one. Utility, equality, universality, and individual choice”these are the dogmatic points of reference in a scheme presented as the enemy of dogma. This is pretty conventional stuff in some circles of academic philosophy, but in the utilitarian tradition Prof. Singer has gained fame and notoriety by drawing from it some unusual conclusions, or at least by promoting his conclusions with unusual candor. He also wants to believe that he is not rigidly tied to any system, utilitarian or otherwise. At times he declares that the lodestar of his thinking is one simple imperative: reduce suffering.
Singer has been widely quoted as saying that he and the Pope are the only ones who understand what the abortion debate is about. He says he does not remember saying that, but he allows that he well might have. I pointed out in the debate that, in his role as gadfly, Prof. Singer renders the very useful service of making clear that the logic supporting the unlimited abortion license imposed by the Supreme Court in 1973s Roe v. Wade decision necessarily extends to infanticide, euthanasia, eugenics, and other measures that he espouses, and for which many who support that license wrongly criticize him as an extremist. Peter Singer, with his scheme of individual preference utilitarianism, has simply thought the matter through more consistently than most supporters of the pro-choice position, which is a position of”although such people may never have heard the phrase before”individual preference utilitarianism.
Rights, Animal and Human
In our opposing positions, we were fairly pitted against one another. I defended the proposition that civilization is marked by an expansive definition of the human community for which we accept common responsibility, which requires, in turn, the uncompromisable rule that it is always and in every instance wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being. Prof. Singer defended the proposition that the ethical goal is to reduce suffering and respect preferences, and that goal may at times permit and even require the killing of the innocent. At many times, as it turns out. To be sure, his argument has important qualifications. Not all who are biologically human beings should be counted as human beings. Some human beings are more human than others. The unborn, the newborn, the anencephalic, and those in a vegetative state, for instance, do not count, or at least do not count fully, as human beings. The other qualifying prong of his argument is that it is not rational to draw a hard and fast line between human beings and other forms of animal life. To do so is an instance of speciesism.
Prof. Singers book on animal liberation has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in law schools today there are scholars developing a legal framework for the defense of animal rights based on his work. (In deference to Singer, the dinner at the presidents house was vegetarian and, I must admit, very tasty.) The natural result of Singers argument is to shrink the circle of those protected by virtue of human rights, and to expand the circle of beings protected by rights deemed to be superior to the rights of some human beings. The argumentative strategy requires, of course, the blurring of the line between human animals and other animals. Many commentators expressed shock when, in the past year, Prof. Singer came out in defense of sexual relations between human beings and animals, a practice traditionally known as bestiality. (He qualified his argument by emphasizing that it is not permissible to cause the animal pain.) Clearly, the commentators who were shocked had not been attending to his argument. It follows. Yet I admit that I am still puzzled about why, in the absence of clear consent on the animals part, such intercourse is not a form of rape. But we had so many things to discuss, and perhaps on some other occasion Prof. Singer can set me straight on that one.
We can all agree that contemporary medical technology presents some new circumstances in making life-and-death decisions, although some of us think they are not so new as the Singers of the world claim is the case. In the debate, I began with the rule that we are always to care and never to kill, and then considered hard cases in the light of that rule. Prof. Singer, as you might expect, began at the other end with the hard cases (the anencephalic infant being his prime example), which, he contended, discredit the rule. Of course he agrees that we are always to care; it is only that sometimes caring means killing. He does not object to my saying that he is a proponent of the kindness that kills. In his view, what matters is the kindness.
That is one reason why he resents so deeply the German universities that have denied him a platform. The Germans claim that his argument is reminiscent of, if not identical with, the Nazis and their doctrine of life unworthy of life. In his writings, Singer has protested vigorously that it is the German students who shout him down who are the real Nazis. I pointed out in response that, while it is true that the Nazis denied free speech, it is not for that that they are chiefly remembered. After the Holocaust and other atrocities of the Nazi era, the sanctity of human life was entrenched in the basic law of Germany, and Singer is very explicit about his goal of overthrowing the idea of the sanctity of human life, which he depicts as a discredited Christian imposition on clear thinking. Some Germans claim he is a Himmler in academic tweeds. Of course he is not a Himmler. He had grandparents killed in the Holocaust. Moreover, he is an intellectual and a gentleman, and his purpose is to reduce suffering.
A Spot of Unpleasantness
There was a spot of unpleasantness in the debate. Singers Benthamite principle that each counts as one and none as more than one has led him to insist again and again that, from an ethical viewpoint, our duties to friends and family are not different from our duties to strangers. That is part of what it means when he says his ethical theory is universal. One has no more ethical duty, for instance, to ones own daughter than to a girl of the same age ten thousand miles away in Bangladesh whom one has never seen and whose name one does not know. My family, my friends, my country”each must give way to the universal. Each person counts as one and no more than one. But then, in a long and generally sympathetic interview in the New Yorker , the question came up about Singers devoting many thousands of dollars and elaborate nursing care for his own mother who had Alzheimers. In the interview, Singer is reported to have explained, Perhaps its more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother.
Singers critics understandably seized on this blatant contradiction. Peter Berkowitz, writing in the New Republic , said: The ethicists innocence, at this late date in his career, of the most elemental features of his subject matter boggles the mind. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the well-heeled and well-ensconced academic discipline of practical ethics [Singers much-used text is titled Practical Ethics ] than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline, after an Oxford education, after twenty-five years as a university professor, and after the publication of thousands of pages laying down clear-cut rules on life-and-death issues, should reveal, only as the result of a reporters prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mothers suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex.
In my opening presentation, I suggested that Singers claim to neutrality, to representing the rationality of the disinterested observer, was a kind of view from Nowhere, and I pointed out that nobody actually lives in Nowhere. In this connection, I referred to the public discussion of Singers very preferential treatment of his mother. I said he was to be commended for what he did, but that it is a cockeyed ethical theory that is embarrassed by a sons caring for his elderly mother. Prof. Singer very sharply, one might say rudely, interrupted my presentation, protesting that I was invading his privacy, that his mother had recently died, and that the New Yorker article misrepresented his views. I was quite taken aback and apologized for any offense given, while noting that I thought he had made the subject a matter of public discussion, and that it did drive to the heart of his rule that none counts for more than one. But his appeal to his privacy and bereavement did score him points, as indicated by applause from much of the audience.
Later, in friendly conversation, I told him that I thought his eruption was more than a little unfair, and asked how the matter had been misrepresented in the New Yorker interview. He explained that the extensive care he had provided his mother was not entirely his idea, there were family pressures, and so forth. The striking thing is that he was clearly more interested in defending his curious theory than in defending his commendable care for his mother. In any event, his explanation does not detract from the force of Berkowitzs criticism. After all, it is Peter Singer himself who wrote in Practical Ethics , Ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse of this is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgment is to guide practice.
Not Christian Altruism
It is not only in relation to his mother, however, that Singers practice clashes with his theory. His view from Nowhere prescribes a universal and radically egalitarian altruism that is a formula for living a life of unappeasable guilt. He is reported to give away one-fifth of his very considerable income, mainly to organizations feeding the hungry around the world. He readily admits that he could give more, that some children are dying every day because he does not give more. Some writers claim it is an irony that Singer, who so inveighs against the Christian ethic, in fact subscribes to a Christian ethic of unlimited, and impossible, altruism. But, of course, the Christian ethic, in sharp contrast to the view from Nowhere, underscores that we are situated creatures with duties framed by specific place and time and possibility. Singers ethic is a form of angelism, meaning the human aspiration to an angelic status that is not and cannot be ours. Put differently, the view from Nowhere is a gnostic delusion of liberation from the particular. The Christian view is grounded in the particular, and most particularly in the incarnation of the universal in the child of Mary. And, of course, the traditional Western ethic that Singer repudiates also has roots in Greek traditions of virtue that are assiduously attentive to our being creatures of space and time. The vaulting ambitions of Singers concept of a morally decent person are implausible in theory and impossible in practice. He says he is proposing an ethical ideal, but it is, I believe, not an ideal but a delusion induced by moral hubris.
He believes that his view from Nowhere is a view from Everywhere, but just as nobody actually lives in Nowhere, so nobody actually lives in Everywhere. In this version of a universal ethic, Nowhere and Everywhere are synonymous. Both result in an ethic for a world that does not exist. The eerie sense of unreality induced by his argument was especially strong when the debate turned to his long-standing claim that it is sometimes permissible, even ethically required, to kill children after they have been born. In the past, Prof. Singer has urged a waiting period of twenty-eight days after birth before deciding whether a baby has rights that we are bound to respect. If the child is severely defective, and if the parents so decide, he or she can be killed. Now, after extensive discussion with medical authorities, he is persuaded that the twenty-eight day limit is arbitrary and too inflexible.
In the question and answer session, an undergraduate sharply challenged Singer, asking why, if Singers argument is right, his parents could not kill him or have him killed. Singer replied that the rule would not apply to the student because he was a conscious and responsible moral agent, or at least presumably so. This elicited appreciative chuckles from some in the audience. I was less than satisfied with his answer and asked Prof. Singer what, then, should be the cut-off age at which parents would no longer be free to kill their children. One year? Oh, he said, I should think it would be somewhat short of one year. But my point is that its not for me or anyone else to say. It should be up to the parents. He added that it is a decision that parents should make in consultation with their doctor.
Time Out for Reality
Perhaps you have experienced such moments. In the middle of a conversation, a person says something so striking that time seems to stop and an entire scenario unfolds in your mind. That is what happened to me at that point. It went something like this:
Mike and Elizabeth had one child, three-year-old Elizabeth, and had really hoped for a boy this time, but decided to go ahead with the pregnancy when the tests indicated another girl. They named her Anne, and they loved her very much. Their best friends, Bob and Debby, lived only a few houses away, and they all agreed that such an adorable and happy baby had never before been seen.
It was not until about the seventh month that Elizabeth and Mike noticed the odd twitching in Annes left leg and arm, and the way she refused to look them in the eye. She spent hours in the corner twirling her little yellow plastic duck, increasingly oblivious to everything and everyone around her. The doctor referred them to a specialist who spoke of a neurological problem and exploratory surgery. Even more troubling were the early signs of autism. They were told that there are wonderful programs now, most of them paid for by the state. With the help of therapists ten hours a day, there was a better than 50-50 chance that at age five or so Anne would be almost like other children. Although the neurological problem might leave her with the odd quirk and apparent vacancy of mind from time to time.
Thats when Elizabeth began to think, very tentatively at first, that they should send her back. When she finally got up nerve enough to suggest it to Mike, he was appalled. What do you mean send her back? You mean we should kill her? Not at all, Elizabeth explained, the law is very clear. You just sign some papers saying that you have decided it is the best thing for her, and then they gently put her to sleep. Its the merciful thing to do, Mike. She would have never had a really normal life. (By this time, she was beginning to talk about Anne in the past tense.) Anyway, there is my job to think about. I couldnt have been supervising all that therapy for five years, and youre on the road half the time. And next time we can have the boy that we wanted. Knowing that the burden of caring for Anne would fall unequally on Elizabeth, and loving Elizabeth very much, Mike finally relented.
When she told Debby that they had decided to send Anne back, Debby was horrified. But you cant do that, she said. Shes your baby, Elizabeth. You cant kill your own baby. Its one thing to have an abortion, but shes been part of your family, part of your life, for seven months. You cant just kill her. Elizabeth protested that they would not be doing it, that its done in the hospital, and anyway their doctor agreed with them. The doctor also explained how her body parts could save the lives of other children, so it isnt as though she had lived for nothing. Moreover, Anne wasnt really part of the family. She didnt really relate to anybody, and her autism would probably have gotten worse. It would be cruel to have forced her to live a life that was not worth living. Debby noted the past tense and knew the decision had been made. It was a painful conversation. That night Debby and Bob talked for a long time. They agreed they had lost their best friends; they would not be able to have Elizabeth and Mike over any more.
Elizabeths mother, Mary, told her she would never speak to her again. Grandmothers often are that way. Henry said, Listen, honey, youll get over it. Anne is their baby, after all, not ours. We have four other grandchildren, and Elizabeth and Mike can have another one who doesnt have all those problems. Its not as though theyre doing something criminal. Its legal, and more and more people are doing it. Remember the Schmidt baby, and he was almost two years old. I know how you feel, honey, and I dont like it either, but I dont see how we can impose our judgment on Elizabeth and Mike. Its their baby, after all. And you know she wouldnt have had a happy life. Maybe this is the best thing.
Mary was not convinced; not then, not ever. After a while, she did speak to Elizabeth again, but it was never the same. She remembered how Anne, then less than a month old, had giggled and let out that funny yelp when Father Rittle baptized her, and how they used to recall that, and laugh again. Mary took down from the mantle the Christmas photo of Elizabeth and Mike with little Elizabeth and littler Anne, and put it away in a drawer. Every once in a while, when she was alone, she would open the drawer to look at it, and to remember. She remembered Anne, and she remembered the day that Henry told her that they had sent her back. Elizabeth explained to her father that it wasnt so bad after all. The doctor was waiting for them at the hospital, and there was this really nice room where she and Mike could say their goodbyes, and then a very understanding nurse took Anne from her arms. Dont be embarrassed to cry, she said. Sometimes things just dont work out the way we hoped. Then Elizabeth knew that they had decided to do the right thing. It was with a smile of regret, but mainly of enormous relief, that she watched the nurse carry the poor thing off to another part of the hospital where they put down the babies.
We Have No Right to Say
That was the point at which I returned from my reverie, and it seemed that no time at all had elapsed. Prof. Singer was still talking. He was patiently explaining that people like Father Neuhaus were always worrying about the slippery slope, but what they forget is that most parents love their children and want what is best for them. Most parents would never have any reason to even think about killing their children. So why all the worry? In addition, he wanted it to be clearly understood that he supports the alternative of adoption for defective children, and some parents might be very happy to give up their unwanted child to a couple who would care for it. If such a couple is motivated by a belief in the discredited concept of the sanctity of life, thats their preference and they have a right to believe what they want. Their antiquated belief may help to meet their needs in some odd way.
His chief point was that neither Fr. Neuhaus nor he nor anyone else has a right to tell parents what is best for their own children. Or to tell old people how or when they should die. Although, he added, such decisions should be made with medical advice. He most particularly admires the progressive attitudes and practices of the Netherlands. There euthanasia has been legalized and each year thousands of old people are sent to their final rest, with or without their consent. Ethical progress, he notes, always meets with resistance from alarmists who go on about a supposed slippery slope. But once the step is taken, people get used to it. People are resilient, and it is amazing what they can get used to. The world doesnt come to an end, he observed. The Dutch are still a morally decent people; in his view, more decent since they abandoned outmoded religious inhibitions against doing the rational thing. And so he continued in a tone so reasonable and reassuring. Slippery slope? What slippery slope? Happily sliding downward, he invited the students to follow, and some were obviously asking that most insidious of moral questions, Why not?
As I say, there is much to like about Peter Singer. He has a boyishly mischievous manner, as gadflies often do. To shock conventions is to score points. And there is no doubt that he is very smart. In the course of my presentation I quoted”making clear that I meant no disrespect”Chestertons line. The problem with a madman, Chesterton wrote, is not that he is not logical; the problem is that he is only logical. Taking no offense, Prof. Singer seemed pleased that I thought him logical, mistakenly equating logical with reasonable. There are glaring contradictions in his argument”notably, but by no means only, with respect to the principle that each counts for one and none for more than one. But one gets the impression that in Singers view a ready admission of moral guilt covers a multitude of gaps in practice. Nobody said being a morally decent person is easy.
And if someone decides not to be a morally decent person? Well, that, too, is his or her choice. We are entitled to take measures to prevent their interfering with our choices, but what they do with themselves or with others”especially if it is determined that the others are not really human beings after all”is none of our business. Of course, if people act in such a way as to increase, rather than reduce, suffering”if, for instance, they protect and thus prolong painful and meaningless lives”we can let them know in no uncertain terms that we think they are not morally decent persons, or at least that they are morally misguided. The principle of equality requires that we respect their right to choose, even if they choose to believe that the sanctity of life means that all are equally deserving of respect, although they also believe that we are not able to, and should not, treat all in the same way. We may hope, in Prof. Singers view, that with the advancement of education and enlightened thought, they will come to see the error in their position. Meanwhile, he is sure, we do have a right to impose upon them the rule that they must not impose their rule upon us. That is only logical.
I was, all in all, glad for the debate, and grateful for the friendly discussion of a view from Nowhere. There is a certain charm in playing thought games of what if, as in what if we human beings were a different kind of creature than we are, in a world very different from the world that is. And what if reality, which Prof. Singer insists is accidental and meaningless, were amenable to the logical working out of whatever premises we prefer. Admittedly, the charm of the game pales somewhat when we remember how the world was when some premises, such as the sanctity of human life, were repudiated.
The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended. And we remember how difficult it is to come up with answers that will be recognized as arguments by those who ask, Why not? Yes to the sanctity of human beings, we say, because they are who they are and we are who we are, and everything depends upon our believing that is true. But to our universal and disinterested observer that is a quaint prejudice, at best a personal preference easily explained, and explained away, by cultural conditioning. Ethical progress requires that wisdom received from the experience and teaching of others must give way to conclusions reached by thinking for ourselves, disallowing the possibility that thinking for ourselves may lead us to gratefully embrace the wisdom received from others, and embrace it because we have been convinced that it is true. Ah yes, say the philosophers from Nowhere, but what is truth?
Between these positions it may seem that such a great gap is fixed that we may ask whether there is any purpose in debate or discussion. The answer is yes. Because the interlocutor has faculties of intelligence, will, and conscience that, no matter how disordered, are not beyond the reach of reason, and of grace. Because there is always something to be learned through intellectual engagement, no matter how wrongheaded the arguments proposed. Because such arguments must not be permitted to prevail by default. And because it is important to be reminded from time to time that barbarism, so brutal in its consequences, can appear in kindly mask and speak in tones ever so reassuringly civilized. I say that meaning no offense to Prof. Singer, and I expect that he will not take offense. To a certain kind of mind any question can be interesting. If it is addressed boldly, with intellectual independence, employing logical arguments untainted by the experience of life as it is lived, and especially if it clashes with accepted moral views. The next debate: Why not barbarism?
Humility and Determination
Of writing about the American character there is no end. And a good thing, too. There is never a time when it is not appropriate to say that the American character is being tested, and in this time of war it is necessary to say it. David Brooks, that insightful taker of the cultural pulse, addresses the subject by going back to look at newspaper clippings, books, and other evidences of the countrys mood following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and comparing it with how we are now. He writes: And yet when you look at todays media and compare them with the media of sixty years ago, it is clear that these days, our Americanness is more of a problem. We worry about being overbearing and causing people in other countries to hate us. It never would have occurred to journalists in 1941 to wonder why the Japanese hated Americans, or to think there could be any merit in their point of view. Today, we fret more and worry that we have been corrupted by affluence or relativism. We are more anxious about ourselves.
Brooks ends on a somewhat doleful note: This is a reflection of where the emphasis has been in American culture of late. We have become a country disproportionately familiar with our own failures. We have developed a hair-trigger sensitivity to the possibility that we may be hubristic. In our uncertainty about ourselves, we respond to disasters with an emotional sensitivity that would have been foreign to our countrymen sixty years ago. Its a weakness unbecoming to a great democratic power as it embarks on a long campaign against an indisputably evil set of foes.
It is always in order to call upon people to shape up and get serious about the tasks at hand, and it seems to me thats pretty much what is happening. Of course there are the incorrigible anti-Americans among us”see Brian Andersons The Ineducable Left in this issue”but they are being daily and deservedly trounced and denounced. The Weekly Standard , National Review , the Wall Street Journal , and the Andrew Sullivan website (www.andrewsullivan.com), to cite but a few trouncers and denouncers, are doing a splendid job, and obviously having a jolly time, discrediting the Susan Sontagers who feed the weakness that Brooks deplores. Yet the media have been, if I may risk a generalization, quite sober and steady since September 11. Of course thats been helped by the seemingly easy success of the American military campaign to date, and almost every day one can sense the New York Times editorials and news columns (the two are not easy to tell apart) eagerly anticipating the first major setback so that they can revert to their accustomed alarums about quagmires, American hubris, and Vietnam redux. That reversion may have happened by the time this sees print, when and if the U.S. takes the war to Iraq, but it hasnt happened yet, and maybe it wont happen at all.
In any event, a measure of humility and uncertainty about ourselves is not a bad thing. Im not so sure as Brooks that it was a good thing that it did not occur to journalists in 1941 to ask why the Japanese hated us, or whether there might be any merit in their point of view. In fact, I expect that many thoughtful people did ask those questions in private, but judged that there was no point in asking them in public since there was no doubt then that the nation was at war. It is not a sign of weakness today that Americans ask why we are hated by radical Muslims, concluding that, whatever the merit in their point of view, their purposes are evil and must be opposed. Reflectiveness need not be the enemy of resolve.
There is another big difference between now and then. Most opinion leaders today, and, I suspect, most Americans have not really internalized the reality of our being at war. Not in the way that their President has. He and our super-efficient military machine are at war on our behalf, but it is not as though we are at war. That, it seems to me, is the general mood. And it is not surprising, since we are repeatedly told that America is at war but Americans should get on with their lives as usual. That mood could change quickly, and the most likely cause of change would be a dramatic and costly setback, or several such setbacks. Then we will see whether the uncertainties, sensitivities, and self-critical habits we have developed since 1941 are, as David Brooks fears, signs of a weakness unbecoming to a great democratic power.
My hunch is that he is wrong, that when events drive home the fact that we are at war, there will be a fierce and politically unstoppable determination to prevail. And it may turn out that a great democratic power is the more powerful when its people know and have faced down the uncertainties that might undermine that determination. We will see who is right and who is wrong, and I expect we will see sooner rather than later.
Explaining the Strange Death of American Liberalism
Gilbert and Sullivan got it partly right when they had the fellow in Iolanthe observe
That every boy and every girl, Thats born into the world alive, Is either a little Liberal, Or else a little Conservative!
I dont spend much time writing about the subject, and, in fact, am rather pleased when we produce an entire issue that has not even one appearance of either the L-word or the C-word. Its not that the distinction is unimportant, but it is chattered to death, and one sometimes wonders whether there is anything new to be said about it.
But from time to time something on the stack of review books catches my fancy, in this case H. W. Brands The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Yale University Press, 200 pp., $22.50). Just the thing, I thought, for a short flight to Chicago. And it turns out to be worth a read. Brands is distinguished professor of history at Texas A&M, and author of a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, T.R.: The Last Romantic , and another book I discussed at some length in the December issue, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin . His argument in Strange Death would, in condensed form, be just the thing to spark a lively debate at a dinner party. The gist of it is that liberalism is not, contrary to what many liberals and conservatives are inclined to think, the default setting of American politics. Far from it. Liberalism is a departure from the two hundred year story line of our political life. It is an aberration most recently sustained by the Cold War, which was a liberal project against which liberals turned, thus producing what Brands calls the strange death of liberalism. There is, I think, quite a bit to that way of telling the story. And quite a bit left out. Brands writes:
Liberalism has had a hundred definitions since the concept surfaced in England in the early nineteenth century; these have ranged from antimonarchical individualism to anticlerical secularism to antitrust progressivism to antinuclear environmentalism, from abolition to prohibition to states rights to civil rights to human rights. There are economic liberals, social liberals, philosophical liberals; liberal realists, liberal idealists, liberal sentimentalists.
So what, then, does Brands mean by liberalism? In the context of contemporary American politics, few of either liberals or conservatives would dispute that whatever else it entails, liberalism is premised on a prevailing confidence in the ability of government”preeminently the federal government”to accomplish substantial good on behalf of the American people. We can go with that for the sake of the argument, but, once again, setting aside whatever else it entails leaves an awful lot out.
Liberalism, according to Brands, means confidence in big government, and Americans typically have that confidence only when the matter at hand”preferably understood as a crisis”is national security. In his ramble through history, he illustrates his theme by reference to the Continental Congress and the war against England, when politicians promptly dismantled government power as soon as the goal was achieved. The expansive ambitions of the Populists, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, never took hold, and Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson did only a little better with Progressivism. FDR was, by Brands definition of liberalism, a very timid liberal indeed, and with demagogues like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin breathing down his neck, his grander liberal hopes were done in by the (accurate) perception that his effort to pack the Supreme Court was a dangerous power grab. Lincoln and the undoubted crisis of the Civil War had greatly expanded federal power, including the introduction of the first income tax, but that power was subsequently and severely reduced by the Robber Barons in the North and by successful end-runs around the post-war constitutional amendments in the South.
World War II was great for liberalism, says Brands, and he supplies some lovely vignettes in that connection. The collectivist Old Left of the thirties did its best to exploit Americas dubious alliances. There was, for instance, this radio jingle to keep the patriotic juices flowing: Soviet Union hits the spot / Twelve million soldiers thats a lot / Timoshenko and Stalin too / Soviet Union is Red, White, and Blue. Then there was the War Production Board that took over vast sectors of the economy. It decided, for example, that the production of womens girdles would be suspended for the duration, but that face powder, lipstick, and rouge were okay. The WPB ruled that not only did a girl get a lift from a visit to the beauty shop, but her resultant vivacious spirit, self-confidence, and geniality, being infectious, are transmuted directly to the male members of the family. Now thats big government.
An All-Purpose Liberal Rationale
Truman, however, is the hero of liberalism. With the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the global commitment to support forces fighting communism, the Cold War was underway big time.
Truman, and after him Eisenhower”who Brands thinks was a pretty conventional liberal”expanded government on numerous fronts, from spending on science and education to the national highways program, and all in the name of natural security. Opposing the Communist threat was an all-purpose rationale for liberal advance. There was conservative opposition. Senator Robert Taft, for instance. In Tafts view the Cold War was a direct outgrowth of the big-government, save-the-world philosophy that had produced the New Deal and American involvement in the recent world war. We have quietly adopted a tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations, he said at the beginning of 1949, to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world. Apart from Pat Buchanan on the muddled right and anti-globalization activists on the muddled left, such language is little heard today. Eisenhowers decision to run in 1952 was motivated, in significant part, to prevent the nations return to the isolationism represented by Taft, the main contender for the Republican nomination.
John F. Kennedys short-lived New Frontier fit perfectly the liberal model of exploiting the Cold War for purposes of government expansion. LBJ, however, was singular in promoting massive government programs on the domestic front with only slight invocation of the cause of national security. This, writes Brands, was anomalous in American history, although Cold War-inspired trust in government was what allowed Johnsons Great Society to take root. The breathtaking reach of Great Society rhetoric is today largely forgotten. In 1965 LBJ addressed Congress:
I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races, all regions, and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.
That was the high-water mark of big government liberalism. Then everything began to unravel, with liberals doing the unraveling. The assault on U.S. policy in Vietnam ended up in discrediting the logic of the Cold War, while Watergate undermined the executive branch upon which government expansion depended. Liberal hatred for Nixon (apparently shared by Brands) blinded them to the fact that he was in many ways one of them, as evident in his support for affirmative action and much else. Carters ineptitude was monumental, including his attempt to replace the Cold War with a foreign policy focused on human rights, which ended in the humiliation of burning helicopters in the failed effort to free hostages in Iran. As for Reagan, Brands has nothing but derision for a likable clown who tried to have it both ways, but found that Americans, approving of his antigovernment agenda in domestic affairs, would not buy his big government solution for fighting the evil empire, and so had to resort to, for example, the bribery and deceit of the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton, in this telling, had no policy but personal ambition, and his announcement that the era of big government is over served that policy. From LBJ and 1965, it has been, from a liberal perspective, all downhill. Brands says, first, that it is the fault of liberals, and, second, that they were bucking the main story line of American history.
He concludes: To the extent anyone infers encouragement from the foregoing chapters, such heartened souls are bound to be conservatives. History would seem to be on their side, and therefore they on its. Americans are steadily, more or less, skeptical of government. Of course he wrote the book before September 11. If the past was any guide, another serious threat to American security would be required to displace this skepticism. As of the beginning of 2001, such a threat seemed years or decades in the future . . . . Until some other challenge surfaced that caused Americans to put their reliance in Washington as they had during earlier periods of national peril, it was difficult to see how-or why-Americans would alter the attitudes toward government they had developed over two centuries. He then adds, Of course, in the presence of a renewed security threat, the liberals will once again be called to power”Q.E.D. Q.E.D.? It was to be demonstrated, and in part is demonstrated in The Strange Death , but it does not seem to be demonstrated by what has happened since September 11”unless greatly increased military spending and expanded domestic security measures are to be counted as a victory for what liberalism has meant by big government.
One Good Point
Brands thesis about the death of liberalism was worth the read on that flight to Chicago, and is the kind of thing that makes for sprightly dinner conversation among political junkies. I think hes right about the deep strain of American skepticism toward government, and right about the way that liberals inadvertently undermined confidence in government in Vietnam, Watergate, and their sequels. But it is a very constricted view of liberalism that limits its definition to the desire to expand government planning and control. And it is a constricted view of conservatism that is limited to skepticism about government. At one point, Brands calls pro-family politics a false conservatism. Abortion is not mentioned once in two hundred pages. The culture wars do not make even a cameo appearance.
Yet consider the real-world conservatism that is the base constituency of the Bush Administration. Yes, there is the traditional skepticism toward government, shared by business and old-fashioned civil libertarians. But there is the huge pro-life, pro-family, traditional values constituency that cannot be contained within Brands constricted definitions of liberalism and conservatism. Is compassionate conservatism, with its stress on government support for the idea of subsidiarity and the use of mediating institutions, liberal or conservative by Brands definitions? In the real-world politics of our time, liberals have no doubt that it is conservative. So also with parental choice in education, and an assertive foreign policy premised upon unilateralism rather than on a consensus of the international community. In the current war against terrorism, there seems little prospect of liberalism being called back to take charge.
As suggestive as Brands thesis is, the distinction between skepticism or trust toward government cannot account for the political conflicts of our time, and I expect it would begin to crumble upon closer examination of other times. It is a distinction that ignores also the judicial usurpation of politics by one branch of government”in the case of abortion, affirmative action, homosexual rights, religious freedom, and much more. And the idea that liberalism as he defines it is dead ignores the continuing dominance of liberalism in the mass media, universities, old-line churches, philanthropies, and elsewhere. I suppose Brands can say that that isnt really liberalism, but the people who promote it call themselves liberals, and define their liberalism in opposition to the above-mentioned marks of contemporary conservatism. At the end of the dinner party, Brands is left with the one good point that, over the last forty years, liberalism defined as confidence in government was, in very large part, undermined by liberals.
And now I will go back to being very glad if we can get out an issue that does not use the L-word or the C-word even once. But not before mentioning once again the quadrilateral that I adopted many, many years ago. I said then that I hope always to be religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. The great change over the years has been in the understanding of politically liberal. And the most decisive turn in that connection was the planting of the pro-abortion flag on the liberal side of our politics, which pitted liberal individualism against the liberalism devoted to expanding the community for which we accept common responsibility. But thats a story for another time. It entails a very different way of explaining the strange death of liberalism.
Just War Truths and Fallacies
There is, as you might expect, a flood of Christian reflections on war and peace, and few are more informedly reflective than David S. Yeagos Just War: Reflections from the Lutheran Tradition in a Time of Crisis. Yeago, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, notes that Luther and the Lutheran confessional writings teach unambiguously that it is the duty of government to defend the innocent from attack and to punish the attackers.
Writing in Pro Ecclesia , Yeago explains: This already suggests something about war which is difficult for contemporary minds to comprehend. War, for the just war tradition, is a moral enterprise. Our culture, in both its militarist and anti-militarist wings, tends to think of war rather as a fall into a sub-moral realm, a break-out of raw savagery to which no moral rules apply. Militarists think we may from time to time need such a burst of savagery in order to preserve our civilization; anti-militarists think that such savagery is always degrading and never worth its cost. Both agree that war is a moral night in which all cats are gray. Luther and the tradition in which he stands do not deny that war is horrible, or that moral restraints inevitably become dangerously frayed and fragile amidst wars harshness. They nevertheless insist that those who make war are servants of the Judge of all the earth, and even in the extremity of war stand before Gods judgment and under His law.
Yeagos reflection, it might be noted, draws as much on the Catholic tradition as the Lutheran, giving particular attention to the work of the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). In the tradition that Lutherans and Catholics share it is understood that the government waging just war is not necessarily without faults, even grave faults. Yeago applies that insight to our current situation: Some opponents of military action seem to deny that the United States has suffered an injury sufficient to provide just cause. The United States, it is said, has itself injured and outraged other nations and peoples, and so lacks the moral authority to exact retribution when it is itself injured and outraged in turn. This argument seems to me to be entirely fallacious. The authority of the government to protect the law-abiding and impose penalties on evil-doers is not a reward for the governments virtue or good conduct. There is nothing in the scriptural account which suggests that this authority is contingent on merit or desert. The protection of citizens and the execution of penalty on peace-breakers is the commission which constitutes government, not a contingent right which it must somehow earn. In the mystery of Gods providence, many or indeed most of the individual and institutional bearers of governmental authority are unworthy of it, often flagrantly so, themselves stained with crime. But this does not make it any less the vocation of government to protect the innocent and punish evil-doers. A government which refused to safeguard citizens and exercise judgment on wrong out of a sense of the guilt of past crime would only add the further crime of dereliction of duty to its catalog of offenses. If the United States has oppressed and abused other nations and peoples, then we should stop it, and U.S. believers should plead Gods mercy for their guilty country. But there is no coherent relationship between acknowledgment of past sin and refusal of present duty.
Reinhold Niebuhr warned against defining temporal conflicts in terms of the children of light versus the children of darkness. In that connection, some Christians have worried out loud about President Bushs moral (moralistic?) depiction of a war against the evil-doers. But there is, Yeago points out, another argument that should be taken seriously: While contemporary culture worries that describing our enemies as guilty would lead us to unrestrained savagery against them, in reality this identification places our effort in a moral framework which both limits the scope of our retribution and requires us to distinguish the guilty from the innocent. It is the modern notion of war as a necessary evil rather than an act of just judgment that opens the door to unrestrained violence; for this suggests that war is a sheer expedient in which no moral distinctions apply and in the course of which we are permitted to do whatever it takes to achieve pragmatic ends.
Yeagos article is very long and very thorough, and it is worth getting the Fall 2001 issue of Pro Ecclesia to read it in full. He observes that there are still other issues to be addressed, and cites a few of them, including the distinctive mission of the Christian Church in time of war. One can hardly dispute his somber conclusion: I fear that the conflict before us will allow ample time for extended reflection on such issues.
While Were At It
Here are some of the great women and men of God [who are] the ancient foundation of our faith and our inspiration. The list, in a prayer written for All Saints Day and disseminated on the website of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, includes Buddha and Muhammad and all the prophets of old. They led Gods people to Gods light. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, said the inclusion of Buddha and Muhammad was very unfortunate. He added, Although they can be respected, they are not saints who fall within the Christian understanding. Bishop Stephen Sykes, who heads up the Church of Englands doctrinal commission, declared himself amazed. It is a triumph of good intentions over good theology, he added. The Rev. George Curry, chairman of the evangelical Church Society, said it is blasphemous, appalling, and an endorsement of a false prophet. Canon James Rosenthal, who oversees the website, says he has not heard from Archbishop Carey and the prayer will stay. He notes that it came from an official source, the Episcopal Church in the U.S., and its aim is to transform this world for the love of Jesus. But of course.
Pastors from a really mega megachurch, Southeast Christian in Louisville, Kentucky, traveled up to Ground Zero to hand out about half a million dollars they collected to help people in need as a consequence of September 11. Out of work? Cant pay the rent for the store? Medical bills coming due? No problem. No investigation. No paperwork needed. Heres a check for $1,000, or $2,500, or maybe even $5,000. We just want you to know that God loves you, and we do, too. A very unprofessional approach to philanthropy, you might well say. So also, according to this New York Times report, says John Keightley, spokesman for Catholic Charities USA. I would say we have a certain approach to how our agencies respond to disaster and the process of meeting peoples needs, he sniffed, and its based on professional social work. Were not trying to do something outside our expertise. Unlike those rubes from Kentucky who just go around helping people, in appalling disregard of the expertise required for the professional processing of meeting peoples needs. They probably dont even have an advanced degree in charity.
The Pope today called for world peace. That item in the paper, while not wrong, hardly does justice to the World Day of Peace message issued by John Paul II, No Peace Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness. The message begins with a reflection on September 11, and goes on to address the scourge of terrorism: When terrorist organizations use their own followers as weapons to be launched against defenseless and unsuspecting people they show clearly the death wish that feeds them. Terrorism springs from hatred, and it generates isolation, mistrust, and closure. Violence is added to violence in a tragic sequence that exasperates successive generations, each one inheriting the hatred which divided those that went before. Terrorism is built on contempt for human life. For this reason, not only does it commit intolerable crimes, but because it resorts to terror as a political and military means it is itself a true crime against humanity. There exists therefore a right to defend oneself against terrorism, a right which, as always, must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means. The guilty must be correctly identified, since criminal culpability is always personal and cannot be extended to the nation, ethnic group, or religion to which the terrorists may belong. International cooperation in the fight against terrorist activities must also include a courageous and resolute political, diplomatic, and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists. The recruitment of terrorists in fact is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated over a long period of time. Still, it must be firmly stated that the injustices existing in the world can never be used to excuse acts of terrorism, and it should be noted that the victims of the radical breakdown of order which terrorism seeks to achieve include above all the countless millions of men and women who are least well positioned to withstand a collapse of international solidarity”namely, the people of the developing world, who already live on a thin margin of survival and who would be most grievously affected by global economic and political chaos. The terrorist claim to be acting on behalf of the poor is a patent falsehood. The Popes message underscores St. Augustines understanding of tranquillitas ordinis ”peace through right order. Right order requires speaking the truth: In this whole effort, religious leaders have a weighty responsibility. The various Christian confessions, as well as the worlds great religions, need to work together to eliminate the social and cultural causes of terrorism. They can do this by teaching the greatness and dignity of the human person, and by spreading a clearer sense of the oneness of the human family. This is a specific area of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and cooperation, a pressing service which religion can offer to world peace. In particular, I am convinced that Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious leaders must now take the lead in publicly condemning terrorism and in denying terrorists any form of religious or moral legitimacy. The Popes gathering of the representatives of the worlds religions to meet in Assisi on January 24 to pray for peace is dismissed by some as no more than a piece of piously idealistic theater, but it is in fact the most sober realism. One day the current war against terrorism will give way to a new relationship among world civilizations, and especially between Islam and the West. If that deep conflict, now more than a millennium old, is to yield to a more hopeful future, we must recognize that the Popes initiatives are indispensable. The title of the message has it right: there is no peace without justice, and temporal justice is secured by the acknowledgment of a transcendent judgment that reveals our need to be forgiven and to forgive. This is said without any blurring of the line between good or evil, or any obscuring of the duty to defend the innocent. Rather, it anticipates the day when, beyond the present battles, there may be a new order based on a shared recognition of Gods justice and mercy. Some call that idealistic. The right word is prophetic.
One may be heartened, or not, by polls showing that the overwhelming majority of Americans back the security measures being imposed by the government. It depends upon whether one reads those polls as reflecting support for the war or indifference to civil liberties. Robert Harris, writing in the Daily Telegraph , wants it understood that he supports the war, but he is definitely disheartened. Drawing on the experience of World War II, he says that wars, even wars fought for freedom, are bad for freedoms. Terrorist wars are, if anything, even more insidious, for there is never any definite victory after which prewar conditions can once again prevail. If proposed new powers of arrest and detention, interception and suppression are pushed through in allied nations, we may take it as absolutely certain that the rights that are being taken away will never be restored. A problem with that is that we have never before been in this kind of war against terrorism. Another problem is that, in fact, after both world wars of the twentieth century, civil rights were not only restored but dramatically expanded. But he does have a good point about what constitutes definite victory in this kind of war. We are only a few months into the war, and so far there has been very little, if any, curtailment of the rights of citizens (unless it is a right not to have ones nail clipper confiscated at the airport check-in). In any event, as with David Yeagos assertion above, the conflict before us will likely provide ample time for reflection on, and debate about, such issues.
The Irish Times reports that, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Irish students rank second highest in reading and fifth highest in math among thirty-two industrial countries. There is one problem, however. The OECD sounded a disapproving note, pointing out that education spending in the Republic of Ireland is significantly lower than in many developed states. It suggests that students here are forced to work harder to achieve their grades because of lack of investment. Students succeeding by working harder? Clearly, something must be done.
You may recall the item on Professor Patrick Henrys relentless sleuthing to track down that Eisenhower remark on the importance of religion. Prof. Henry is a stickler for details and reminds me that on December 22, 1952, it would have been President- elect E