Category Archives: Michael Gerson

Strategic incite

Hard to believe people still say certain things with a straight face. But Michael Gerson’s previous job consisted in the nearly impossible task of putting words in President Bush’s mouth: the words that went in were abhorrent; the words that came out were nonsense.

>President Bush’s emphasis on democracy has been driven not by outside pressure but by a strategic insight. He is convinced that the status quo of tyranny, stagnation and extremism in the Middle East is not sustainable — that the rage and ideologies it produces will cause increasing carnage in the world. The eventual solution to this problem, in his view, is the proliferation of hopeful, representative societies in the Middle East.

Just for the record–“insight” is what you call an “achievement verb.” It indicates that the person has been successful at creative ideation. All signs point to no at this point. You can’t be insightful if you don’t see anything.

Of course, Gerson seems to know that, so he continues:

>This argument is debatable. But it is at least as likely as Walt and Mearsheimer’s naive belief that “the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel” — the equivalent of arguing that Britain had a Nazi problem in the 1930s because it was so closely allied with Czechoslovakia.

Holy weak analogies!

Anything’s possible

According to well documented accounts, what Michael Gerson, prose warrior, says in today’s Post op-ed is flatly wrong. Later in the day the blogosphere will be alive with links to documents which will establish that is the case (start here for factual rebuttal). If I find time today I’ll post an update. I was more intrigued by the following claim:

>Four months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could confidently declare: “This war is lost.” Now that is an open question. A recent Zogby poll found that a majority of Americans do not believe the war is lost. And this makes Democratic policies based on the assumption of hopelessness — rigid timetables and funding cuts — strategically irresponsible and politically risky. If defeat is inevitable, it makes sense to cut our losses. If defeat is only possible, preemptively ensuring it would confirm a long-standing Democratic image of weakness.

I’m going to break that down.

>1. Harry Reid said the “war is lost.”

>2. But a Zogby poll found that Americans–a majority of them–disagree.

>3. Therefore, “funding cuts and timetables” are (a) strategically irresponsible and (b) politically risky.

Out of curiosity, both victory and defeat ought to issue in “funding cuts and timetables.” If we win, we leave; if we lose we leave. But it’s odd that 3b finds its way into Gerson’s argument. As far as I know, Americans don’t have a vote in day to day military affairs. Even if true, in other words, whether Americans think the war is lost is irrelevant.

Naturally it’s not irrelevant politically. Democrats can appear weak, but that discussion should be meaningless to anyone but political hacks. Having been right about the prospects for success in military conflict has nothing to do with actual strength and weakness.

Finally, there’s a wide gulf between the inevitable defeat and the possible victory. In addition to the confused notions of victory and defeat for whatever is going on in Iraq (what’s defeated? Us? A strategy? A goal–what was the goal, and so on and so on), some on the right (SOR) hold fast to the “one-percent doctrine.” This involves treating as inevitable that which is merely barely possible. The whole thing, of course, is a raging sophistry (if sophistries can “rage”). “Victory” may still be possible in Iraq, but that depends on the meaning of possible. The irrelevant meaning is whether victory is possible all things considered.

The relevant question is given what whether victory is likely (if so, how likely), given what we are willing to commit to attaining it.


Without knowing it, Michael Gerson makes some points about believing.

>According to a recent television ad run by the Louisiana Democratic Party, the leading Republican candidate for governor, Bobby Jindal, has “insulted thousands of Louisiana Protestants” by describing their beliefs as “scandalous, depraved, selfish and heretical.” Jindal, the attack goes on, “doubts the morals and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions.”

>The ad is theologically ignorant — Methodism and the others are not “religions,” they are denominations. The main problem, however, is that the ad stretches the truth so phyllo-thin it can only be called a smear.

Gerson is nit-picking with the “denominations” point, for Jindal thinks the other Christian denominations are wrong, as wrong as anything non Christian, if not more. But here’s why the truth is “phyllo-thin”:

>And Jindal’s chosen tradition is a muscular Roman Catholicism. In an article published in the 1990s, he argued, “The same Catholic Church which infallibly determined the canon of the Bible must be trusted to interpret her handiwork; the alternative is to trust individual Christians, burdened with, as Calvin termed it, their ‘utterly depraved’ minds, to overcome their tendency to rationalize, their selfish desires, and other effects of original sin.” And elsewhere: “The choice is between Catholicism’s authoritative Magisterium and subjective interpretation which leads to anarchy and heresy.

It seems to me that what Jindal says is actually worse than the ad makes it sound. Not to Gerson’s ears, however:

>This is the whole basis for the Democratic attack — that Jindal holds an orthodox view of his own faith and rejects the Protestant Reformation. He has asserted, in short, that Roman Catholicism is correct — and that other religious traditions, by implication, are prone to error. This is presumably the main reason to convert to Catholicism: because it most closely approximates the truth. And speaking for a moment as a Protestant: How does it insult us that Roman Catholics believe in . . . Roman Catholicism? We had gathered that much.

Way too much fudging going on in this paragraph for my taste. Jindal has asserted that views (religious or not) are heretical and false (not “prone to error” as if they might stray but might not). Besides, heresy is more than an innocuous epistemological designation–it’s more than just ordinary wrongness. It’s outright moral condemnation for people who ought to know better and will or should pay the price for their moral epistemological failing. Speaking of Roman Catholicism, nobody said it most closely “approximates” anything: Jindal said that the alternatives involved “anarchy and heresy.” From all of this, Gerson concludes that Jindal is just being Catholic, as one would expect.

That’s probably not the case (even with the current Pope’s recent pronouncement). But that’s another matter that doesn’t concern us. For us the more interesting question is the way Gerson handles the question of “believing.” Jindal is a Catholic, as a Catholic he will, in Gerson’s world, think everyone else is wrong; the same will be true of Gerson presumably (but maybe not, that’s not the point).

Here’s how Gerson reads this:

>On the receiving end of those expectations, Jindal has given these issues considerable thought. “This would be a poorer society,” he told me, “if pluralism meant the least common denominator, if we couldn’t hold a passionate, well-articulated belief system. If you enforce a liberalism devoid of content, you end up with the very violations of freedom you were trying to prevent in the first place.”

There’s considerable ground, I’d say, between Jindal’s claim that Protestants are dumb-ass heretics and the wishy-washy caricature of “liberalism” he considers the alternative. Beyond that, perhaps people find it strange that Jindal finds it necessary to pass judgment on other people’s religious orthodoxy in light of his fairly new and obviously partial understanding the “magisterium.” And indeed, in light of the role of the magisterium, it is strange indeed that Jindal would find himself qualified to pronounce heresy in the first place.

Since the dawn

I can’t make any sense of this:

>In a time deluged by ideology — when everyone is urged to take a side and join the political battle — Shakespeare offers a different message: that the most important and dramatic choices are made in the human soul. Some steps, once taken, cannot be retraced. Some appetites, once freed, become a prison.

“Choices made in the human soul” may involve taking sides in a political battle–and they may not be retraced: you can’t unkill all those people. After all.

Talk the walk

Michael Gerson has a profound view of liberals:

>These messages of responsibility are often reinforced by tightknit religious communities, but they are not owned by them. Wilcox notes that American liberal elites often “talk left and walk right, living disciplined lives and expecting their children to do the same, even when they hold liberal social views.” Divorce rates among college-educated Americans, he points out, have fallen since the 1980s, as it became more evident that casual divorce did not serve the long-term interests of their children.

Well, it’s not him, but some guy he quotes.

Perhaps he ought to be reminded that some liberals–probably most–were against “abstinence-only” sex-education because it was moronically ineffective at its stated goal of reducing teen pregnancy, STDs and so forth, not, as he seems to suggest (via Wilcox) because “liberal elites” embrace consequence-free licentiousness.


In a related matter, “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy, not a kind of cogent argument. The National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez writes:

>Slippery Slope?

>Just a coincidence that this happened in Massachusetts [where gay marriage is legal–NS editors]?

>”Sherborn teen charged with bestiality”

Someone please inform the National Review.

To her credit, however, she links to this from Alabama.

And then she apologizes–but not for the silly argument.

Let them eat yellow cake

Sometimes one can only laugh. Yesterday, for instance, Michael Gerson–former speech writer to George W.Bush–turns his attention to Iraq. Keep in mind that Gerson’s man, in Gerson’s words, was fantastically wrong about Iraq. But he was wrong about Iraq in the company of another man–Tony Blair, the now former British PM. This is why the following is so dumbfounding:

>One of the most infuriating problems in Iraq seems to generate precious little fury.

>In a kind of malicious chemistry experiment, hostile powers are adding accelerants to Iraq’s frothing chaos. Iran smuggles in the advanced explosive devices that kill and maim American soldiers. Syria allows the transit of suicide bombers who kill Iraqis at markets and mosques, feeding sectarian rage.

>This is not a complete explanation for the difficulties in Iraq. Poor governance and political paralysis would exist whether Iran and Syria meddled or not.

Not to mention sectarian rage. But no mind:

>But without these outside influences, Tony Blair told me recently, the situation in Iraq would be “very nearly manageable.”

Tony Blair! Those who listened to Tony Blair (and Bush, and many, many others) the first time found themselves in a bloody mess. You’d think that Gerson, architect and first person witness of the nonsense that put us there, might perhaps be sensitive to question of diminished credibility. Just a whisper perhaps.

But then again, maybe not.


Can’t go wrong with little theological disputation on a Saturday morning: Michael Gerson offers up the old saw that morality without Theism is vacuous or unjustifiable. Christopher Hitchens replies by arguing that theism is not a necessary condition of morality.

First Gerson.

>So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

>Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

>Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

1. Human beings have good and bad instincts.
2. Morality requires choosing the good instincts over the bad instincts.
3. Moral choice requires an objective standard for judging desires.
4. Atheists have no objective standard for judging desires.
5. Therefore, Atheists cannot be moral.

That’s one construal of the argument. Gerson seems, however, to vacillate between this and something like

\6. Therefore, Atheists have no reason to be moral.

and something like

\7. Therefore, Atheists have no objective moral standards.

Probably part of the problem lies with the slippery notion of what it means to be “moral.” But, setting that aside, 4 is the crucial claim in any version of the argument. And here, I think, Gerson gets a little simplistic.

>In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them?

I’m not sure whether Atheists are committed to a “purely material universe.” Seems as though they could hold to the existence of the mental as well. And whether or not they hold that, there are plenty of plausible accounts of morality that ground moral judgment in the nature of reason. If the evolutionary account of ethics explains the origin of reason in evolution need it thereby undermine its authority? If an evolutionary account of mathematical reasoning were developed, would it remove the authority of mathematical proof?

This is, of course, a superficial response, but this argument and the earlier one from Stanley Fish seem to rest on the either deliberate or ignorant disregard of recent moral philosophy. Both blithely dismiss the possibility of a non-theistic justification of morality with several straw man arguments (“purely material universes”) ignoring great bookshelves full of candidate justifications for morality.

It may turn out that there isn’t a coherent non-theistic justification of morality. But to claim that there isn’t, at this point in time, requires some serious response to numerous alternative positions. Until that happens, there seems little reason to me to accept Gerson’s argument. Nonetheless, it would be desirable if the proponents of this argument in the popular press would spend a little more time justifying the controversial premise.

Second, Hitchens. When we strip his characteristic verve from his column we get essentially.

1. Some theists are not moral.
2. Some moral people are not theists.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that theism is a necessary condition of being moral.

As Hitchens points out, Gerson waffles a bit on his conclusion. Sometimes he suggests that theism is necessary for morality, sometimes that it encourages it, sometimes he even seems to grant Hitchen’s argument, but then hold that theism makes sense of the morality that both theists and non-theists can possess.

De vera religione

Michael Gerson, the evangelical Christian whose sparkling oratory sent soldiers off to a pointless war knows all about true religion:

>Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.

>The whole enterprise — there are examples on the right and left — of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” on the earned-income tax credit or missile defense is presumptuous. Jesus, were he around again in the flesh, would probably be doing sensible things such as healing the sick, embracing outcasts and preaching sacrificial love. After all, he showed little interest in issuing a “Contract With the Roman Empire.” But his followers eventually found that “love your neighbor” had political consequences, leading them to challenge slavery, infanticide and the mistreatment of women and children.

>This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

>Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.

It’s presumptuous to talk about what Jesus would do, but Gerson does so anyway by way of telling us what Jesus would not do as well as what sorts of things you can’t say Jesus would do. You can’t speak, he says, about specific policy proposals Jesus would support–e.g., welfare reform (from the right) or welfare (from the left). Aside from the fact that that’s precisely what the Christian right has been doing for years, Obama hasn’t endorsed policies (at least on Gerson’s presentation of them) as somehow necessarily following from the Christian faith without meaningful debate or non-sectarian justification. Gerson hasn’t given any indication, in other words, that Obama has invoked the commands of his Christian faith as the sole justification for his myriad policy proposals.

Of course, whether some given policy–say preemptive war–is consistent with the Christian faith is another question, the one that Obama is probably asking.