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The Big "O" Those Mean-spirited Liberals

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War and Its Moral Equivalent

by Christopher Chantrill
June 23, 2008 at 8:07 pm

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LAST WEEK, in a decision that everyone except conservatives agreed was a defeat for the Bush administration, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the inmates of Guantanamo Bay could sue in federal courts to challenge their imprisonment. For the Washington Post the decision was a “cool assertion” of “an essential role for the judiciary.” For Newt Gingrich, appearing on Face the Nation, the decision was “a disaster, which could cost us a city.”

Conservatives were also disappointed last week on energy when Republican presidential nominee appeared on NBC’s Today Show and called not for the release of federal lands and the outer continental shelf for oil and gas drilling but instead for a plan to expand nuclear power and develop battery technology. In response to his plan, McCain seemed to imply, oil prices would stop going up.

And so it goes.

Whether or not the present detainees at Guantanamo Bay are released or not is a minor question. The larger issue is: what happens down the road? Have we now set a precedent that will force a future president to give every prisoner of war a government lawyer? Have we prevented the president from defending the United States from attacks by enemy combatants?

The energy question is a matter of faith. Some people believe that energy prices are determined in the global energy market. Other people believe that the oil companies set the price of oil at whatever price they like. Still other people think that OPEC sets the price of oil. But energy policy also depends on judgments about the recent increase in global temperature and an accompanying a rise in carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. Some people believe that there is a direct connection, that increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have caused a global rise in temperature. Other people think that the simultaneous increase in temperature and carbon dioxide proves nothing.

But there is a big difference between the issue of the Guantanamo detainees and the problem of energy prices and climate change. It is the difference between war and the moral equivalent of war.

Ever since philosopher William James invented the concept of the “moral equivalent of war” our liberal friends have wanted to regard almost all conflicts between nations as misunderstandings that ought to be resolved by negotiation and diplomacy. But in situations not involving conflicts between nations they prefer to declare the moral equivalent of war and mobilize the nation into the moral equivalent of an army in order to defeat the forces of evil.

This seems to conservatives to be upside down. But it makes perfect sense if you take a look at James’s understanding of the moral equivalent of war.

Writing in 1906 William James worried about what to do if pacific socialists like him ever got to stop war and militarism. “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy.” There would still be hard work to do in this “only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings.” James wanted to replace military honor with civic honor, to transfer patriotic pride from military victories to civic triumphs, from shame in weakness to shame in anything that is “vile” in the community. He wanted to conscript young men to battle social evils, not foreign foes.

What James neglects to realize is that when you conduct domestic politics using the moral equivalent of war metaphor you do not just conduct a War on Poverty or a war for Energy Independence. Wars are not conducted against an idea but against people. You end up making your fellow Americans into a hated enemy. You declare, in other words, a “moral equivalent of civil war” against people who disagree with your call to fight wars on poverty or who fail to grasp the Inconvenient Truth of the need to save the planet.

Our liberal friends are quick to worry about the dangers of “nationalism” and are ultra-sensitive about anyone questioning their patriotism. But they have no problem in questioning the motives of anyone that dares to oppose their militant campaigns for universal health care and gay marriage.

All this is rather unfortunate. Pace William James, we have a rather effective system to engage the martial enthusiasms of young men without setting blue staters against red staters. It is called American business. And the good thing is that when the captains of industry battle each other for market share they are not firing the opening shots in the moral equivalent of a US civil war. There’s no need in business to stigmatize half the nation as racists, sexists, or homophobes—or as mean-spirited Republicans.

It is true, of course, that the losers in the corporate wars may be bitter, and may seek solace in God and guns. But that is better than the stew of hatreds and resentments that bubble up out of real wars—and the wars of moral equivalence that liberals inspired by William James have stirred up in the US over the last century.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


presented by Christopher Chantrill

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