Brooks, Douthat, & Ponnuru On Bush's Big Ideas genre: Hip-Gnosis & Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Big Ideas

The other day David Brooks wrote about the President’s belief that freedom is a god given right and that our efforts to democratize Iraq and advance the spread of freedom around the world is a principled position. Brooks suggests that this belief serves to motivate an otherwise declining presidency.

Since Brooks’ piece appeared in the New York Times, the debate in the blogosphere has focused upon two prevailing premises. One is the existence of god and this presumed promise of freedom and the other is the degree to which the United States was founded upon that very precept.

From The New York Times:

Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist."

Conservatives are supposed to distrust government, but Bush clearly loves the presidency. Or to be more precise, he loves leadership. He’s convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference.

Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.

Frankly, I find Brooks’ article troubling evidence of the growing need to marry religion and politics into a virtually irrefutable equation for governance. Let me be clear…I have no objection to politicians holding religious beliefs. Notwithstanding, I have huge reservations when those religious beliefs are allowed to form the basis for justifying policies and actions that have been demonstrated to fail on their own merit.

In other words, I reject those who suggest that history is more a function of divine destiny driven by “deciders" who simply need time and determination to convince, persuade, or impose god’s vision. While that model can be found to have been employed at various junctures in human history, it has also been fraught with violence and intransigent imposition. That approach stands in direct opposition to a measured dialogue amongst disparate doctrinaires who each profess to have societal success as their primary goal…which is then ultimately decided by those who elect the preferred social contract and choose to enact and live under a structure that acts accordingly.

In simple terms the latter is, in many ways, an affirmation of the Tolstoy philosophy and evidence that the views of the many will almost always exceed the visions of the few…a view that is logically based upon an acknowledgment that those humans espousing a divine inspiration are instead more than likely delusional and desirous of the power reserved for a deity…hence they co-opt that authority and set out to achieve that objective.

Worse still, the means which they’re willing to employ will frequently discount the worth of those who disagree such that humans are artificially partitioned into subsets that are defined as good and bad, right and wrong…all of which defies the very freedom and equality supposedly intended by the supreme being.

In that regard, the invocation of a higher being to determine the interactions of human beings simply becomes another means of manipulating the masses. The promise of freedom therefore emanates from an acknowledgment by all humans that all humans are entitled to it…not from one human dictating it to all others. Democracy by dictation is not freedom just as dictation by democracy is not freedom…regardless of an assertion that it comes from a higher source.

Ross Douthat was outraged at the Bush notion that suggests our actions in Iraq are an attempt to transform god’s promise of freedom into a promise of universal democracy. Douthat points out that while the belief that freedom is a gift from god is consistent with Christian principles, it is, by no means, a political construct.

In response to Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru takes umbrage to Douthat’s assertion that the Bush doctrine is neither conservative nor Christian…stating that while a liberty promoting foreign policy may not be a conservative concept and while Christians are not compelled to believe as much, “it is a commonplace observation in the context of American political history."

I understand Ponnuru’s scholarly position, but I think he may misunderstand Douthat’s issue with the Bush doctrine. No doubt one can trace our historical belief in a god-given freedom…but conversely, one would be hard pressed to cite those historical instances whereby our actions as a nation began with a belief that we needed to preemptively export our beliefs and then set out to do so as a matter of foreign policy. In fact, our actions supporting the notion of a god-given freedom have primarily been exercised when other human beings sought to limit those freedoms either at home or abroad. We acted out of obligation to uphold a belief; not to implement or impose that vision upon those who currently don’t embrace as much.

Granted, the United States has enacted clandestine efforts to usurp regimes that routinely limited the freedoms of its citizenry. However, those actions were primarily motivated by the perceived threat that those in positions of authority in such countries posed to our way of life (they sought to remove our freedoms). On the other hand, in most instances, if a freedom denying regime posed no threat to the United States, we had no design on becoming the purveyors of freedom for those living under such conditions…nor did we see it as our obligation…especially an obligation that was divinely derived or for that matter from any other legitimately ascertained reason.

I think the relevant issue is to understand the role our benevolent beliefs played in our interactions with the world…regardless of their origin. I say as much because one would be hard pressed to argue that our benevolent actions were solely the result of those individuals in this country who held Christian beliefs.

Perhaps it comes down to nothing more than the unresolved chicken/egg conundrum…meaning it would be difficult to determine if our national origin and our identity emanated from our belief in freedom or from our Christian beliefs that endorsed freedom. Keep in mind that our formation didn’t result from oppression by a godless nation…it resulted from our displeasure with a freedom limiting…though Christian nation.

Hence, I would suggest that freedom and democracy are not fundamentally Christian concepts. Yes, they can be Christian concepts but history also suggests that a belief in god did not always equate with the granting of freedom. At the same time, democracy has almost exclusively had freedom as its fundamental construct…and that a’priori belief in freedom exists regardless of any god-given notion of freedom or human rights. In fact, democracy and/or freedom are, despite Ponnuru’s assertion to the contrary, human constructs that were derived from human experience. Perhaps the application of god to those beliefs serves to reinforce their worthiness but it by no means served to create them. We have human rights because we choose them.

In fact, our founding structure suggests as much. Our fundamental documents placed freedom before faith while acknowledging the value of faith to the individual though recognizing the threat it posed to the unbiased application of freedom by the state. The origin of our republic culminated from an understanding that the application of absolute religious doctrine would likely serve to undermine the equitable distribution of freedom.

George W. Bush has a propensity to disregard this essential distinction and in so doing his actions erode our most fundamental freedoms…the right to self-determination and the right to choose.

In the end, when George Bush places faith front and center, he once again injects someone’s arbitrary interpretation of god’s will between one human being and another and he begins a process of dividing…a process that values imposition over independence; doctrine over dialogue; and rhetoric over reality. We simply cannot allow this to continue.

Daniel DiRito | July 18, 2007 | 4:08 PM
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