Saturday 2/11/17

  1. Where’s Dean Acheson when we need him?
  2. “Sound Eisegesis” and the Free Speech Fairness Act
  3. The Central Evil of Torture
  4. What gift for Trump?
  5. Besetting rhetorical sins


Peggy Noonan gets the place of honor today. I’m going to quote her extensively, but evocatively — I’m specifically omitting her five bullet-point synthesis:

Last fall at a defense forum a significant military figure was asked: If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one big thing you’d give the U.S. military right now?

… [H]e said: We need to know what the U.S. government wants from us. We need to know the overarching plan because if there’s no higher plan we can’t make plans to meet the plan.

The world is in crisis. The old order that more or less governed things after World War II has been swept away. The changed world that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall is also over.

I always notice that a day after a terrible tornado hits the Midwest the television crews swarm in and film the victims picking through what’s left …

That’s sort of what a lot of those interested in foreign policy have been doing in recent years—staring in shock at the wreckage.

But something has to be rebuilt. Everyone now has to be an architect, or a cement-pourer, or a master craftsman carpenter.

It’s been instructive the past week to reread a small classic of statecraft, “Present at the Creation” by Dean Acheson, published in 1969. As undersecretary and then secretary of state he was involved in the creation of the postwar order.

What came after the crisis was the Marshall Plan, in which the U.S., itself exhausted by the war, helped its allies, and enemies, survive and resist communism …

It is exciting at a time like this to read of the development of a successful foreign-policy effort from conception to execution. And—how to say it?—Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is inspiring …

What is inspiring about Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is that he’s like a lot of those we have developing foreign policy right now.

(What Comes After Acheson’s Creation?)

Dare we hope for such a vision today? I’m skeptical. Noonan quotes Acheson that Truman “learned from mistakes (though he seldom admitted them), and did not waste time bemoaning them.” The Mad Twitter King issues 140-character 3 am prevarications and personal petulance. It’s unclear that he’s capable of learning from his mistakes in governance.

But can anyone doubt that we need an overarching plan better than “eradicating tyranny” or selectively “bringing democratic reform” at the point of a gun to nation-states that piss us off (i.e., toppling governments, creating chaos, and then either bugging out on the friendly locals who aided us or slogging on for decades on a “you broke it, you bought it” theory)?


First runner-up today is Erik Stanley, also in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.

But first, an anecdote. When I finally got out of six-and-a-half years in “the greenhouse” (private Christian schools and colleges), I became active in leading a Christian group on a “secular” campus. As the leadership planned the coming year’s meetings, we realized that we really must invite a local Presbyterian pastor, who led a large church many of us attended but who also was known for his obsessive anti-Catholicism. Since some of those who attended were Catholic, we wanted to avoid that.

So we decided to flatter his exegetical abilities by asking him to speak on a specific Old Testament passage of our choosing — one that couldn’t reasonably be twisted into an anti-Catholic diatribe: Hannah’s Prayer, a sort of Old Testament Magnificat.

We underestimated his eisegetical ability: Somehow, he found in it the occasion of a brief, embarrassing anti-Catholic aside in the presence of some Catholic students.

Back to Stanley:

In 2008, Alliance Defending Freedom launched an effort to overturn the Johnson Amendment, known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Over the years, more than 4,000 pastors have participated by preaching sermons that make specific scriptural recommendations about the candidates running for office. They have publicized their sermons, and many even sent recordings directly to the IRS. The effort was designed to provoke a court challenge to the law and ultimately have it declared unconstitutional …

My Church has never participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and, deo volente, never will. How can we agree that our Priest shall “make specific scriptural recommendations about the candidates running for office” when we follow a lectionary that might have the Magnificat for a Gospel reading and I Corinthians 13 for an epistle (an unlikely pairing I just made up)? Whether by design or unintended bonus, a lectionary should keep preachers off their pet topics, forcing a more complete instruction of the faithful. Thus, Pulpit Freedom Sunday has been a phenomenon largely of free-range Christian churches (i.e., Churches that won’t survive without reclaiming historic practices like lectionaries) where people may go precisely because they share Pastor Billybob’s obsessions, and crave the reassurance of “sound eisegisis.”

Back to Stanley:

Yet the IRS hasn’t investigated any of the pastors who have participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The agency has made a confusing situation worse by providing no explanation for why it has refused to enforce the law against these pastors. Thus many religious leaders remain in legal limbo while the IRS continues to pronounce its ability to monitor and punish them. This inaction has stymied the possibility of a civil-rights lawsuit, making a legislative fix necessary.

The Free Speech Fairness Act would get the IRS out of the speech-police business while prohibiting political expenditures or contributions by tax-exempt organizations. It would provide a relief valve for speech by allowing all charities to speak on political issues, as long as the speech is done in the course of carrying out the group’s regular activities. Because the bill doesn’t allow for political contributions or expenditures, dark money can’t flow through exempt organizations to campaigns.

All snarkiness aside, I love this “in the course of carrying out the group’s regular activities,” which seems to me to protect pulpit freedom — and the freedom of other non-profits to protect their political interests — without opening Pandora’s box.


The central evil of torture is the attempt to break the victim, to reduce him to a mere instrument of the torturer’s will — in common parlance, to “break” him. In this it resembles rape as an instrument of war.

And it is, on one dimension at least, worse than murder, since the victim is kept alive as a mere means to his tormentor’s purposes. Though the defenders of torture often describe their victims as “animals”, a brute animal can be tormented but not tortured.

In my judgment, the prohibition on torture is at least a virtual absolute – which is the strongest form of moral condemnation arguable on strictly philosophical grounds. Permitting torture threatens morality in every department, from business ethics to medical ethics to sexual ethics. No theoretical argument can fit the horror that torture should evoke; such behaviour is not only wrong but also unthinkable.

(Phil Devine, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Providence College)


In the spirit of the anecdote Peggy Noonan used in introduction:

If you could give Donald Trump the gift of a single trait to help his presidency, what would it be?

My first thought was that prudence was the most important gift one could give him. Prudence is the ability to govern oneself with the use of reason. It is the ability to suppress one’s impulses for the sake of long-term goals. It is the ability to see the specific circumstances in which you are placed, and to master the art of navigating within them.

My basic thought was that a prudent President Trump wouldn’t spend his mornings angrily tweeting out his resentments. A prudent Trump wouldn’t spend his afternoons barking at foreign leaders and risking nuclear war. “Prudence is what differentiates action from impulse and heroes from hotheads,” writes the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville.

So far, so good, but then David Brooks goes off the rails, if only briefly:

But the more I thought about it the more I realized prudence might not be the most important trait Trump needs. He seems intent on destroying the postwar world order ….

As Noonan notes, the postwar world order is dead, as is the post-coldwar world order.

Brooks is worth hearing out beyond that brief mis-step, but I think I still prefer “prudence” over his ultimate choice.

I doubt that Trump will develop a capacity for [Brooks’ ultimate choice] any time soon, but to be human is to hold out hope, and to believe that even a guy as old and self-destructive as Trump is still 0.001 percent open to a transformation of the heart.


I find, upon deep reflection, that my besetting rhetorical sins are probably (1) parenthetical asides and (2) alliteration (which sometimes starts spontaneously). #TooManySermonsHeard

* * * * *

“The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.