(I wrote this about this time last year in response to an article by the incomprehensibly silly pundit Tony Perkins. I link a PDF of it here: http://admala.org/...)
It’s true, I suspect, that, in Washington, schemers abound in the ranks of our would-be politicians. In the ranks of those who will never reach voters, who cannot hold power, there is both a nastiness and a cunning that serves them well in the roles that they have to accept here, that enables them to thrive as propagandists, political eidola and rhetorical hatchet-men. A nastiness and a cunning that the wind breeds… Whether pundits, lobbyists, so-called ‘public relations consultants’, or simply well-publicized bloggers, these actors—let us call them ‘bent rhetoricians’—they always have a predictably sinister angle. They rarely come at you, rarely venture the swipe or the take down, without recourse to some measure of sophistry. Being intolerant of argument based exclusively in fact, they are rarely averse, in any attack, to pulling at least one trick out of a bag of rhetorical evils that is at least as old as Aristotle. Look into this bag… despite their best efforts—despite their deceit and their skills— you will recognize most of these subtile and clandestine evils. Here is the evil of quote mining; here, the hasty generalization… here we find recourse to the enthymeme, here a nurtured penchant for pedestrian exegesis. In this bag there are many tricks, many tools, many subtle ways of spinning truths—too many, of course, to catalogue here. Yet of the handful of sophists that govern discourse inside the Beltway today, I suspect there is not one whose body of work is not significantly characterized by at least one trick from this time-honored, if somewhat disreputable bag. ‘Somewhat’ disreputable, I say, knowing that, as regrettable as he art of ‘pulling tricks’ may strike the reader, every partisan hack I can think of will tell you that methods of duplicitous rhetoric are essential to the work of any effective Washington sophist.
As a bent rhetorician, of course, one is ‘effective’—one has been successfully ‘bent’, which is to say, not as obviously as was Sean Hannity—to the extent that one can doctor truth without allowing one’s rhetorical evils to be seen for what they are in fact: the earmarks of argument advanced in a moment of defeat and in bad faith. As a bent rhetorician, bent yourself but always looking to bend others similarly, you always work in what Nietzsche used to call ressentiment… you are always only staving off truth; you are the deflecting blunt force of an unwelcome reality.
In defeat and in bad faith… Here are terms, which when applied in the political arena, do tend to be taken for fighting words. (Should you hear them uttered about you, about your body of work, know you are being admonished for some Nixonian, Clintonian or Rumsfeldian indiscretion; you are being called out as obvious—which is to say, an inexcusable—fraud.) Now, these terms are all the more so—all the more partisan fighting words—when applied to the work of those bent rhetoricians for whom established intellectual dishonesty is not simply a fault but is interpreted in terms of sin. By the latter, I mean those that present themselves as advocates of the religious right… not your typical, unscrupulous right-wing libertarians, mind you—your Kochs, your LaPierres, your Norquists, and so forth—but those who present themselves as authentic, bible-thumping Christian conservatives. If the dubious oeuvres of Ayn Rand and Cleon Skousen are taken as scripture for the conservative libertarian… well, ‘Scripture’ is scripture to the Christian right, the New Testament in particular: a collection of writings advancing a moral code that not only makes lying problematic, but renders the pursuit of an ideological connection between Christ and many traditionally conservative causes something of a dicey proposition. Take the cause of free market capitalism, for example—as one Christian conservative lobbyist has, in fact¹: Mr. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the Christian conservative lobbying organization created by James Dobson in 1981…
As fond as is your dyed-in-the-wool Christian conservative of introducing the ‘WWJD’ (What Would Jesus Do?) question into political discourse, more often than not, he is reluctant to do so when arguing the virtues of privatization and the free market system. Reconciling one’s passion for capitalism—if not one’s own vested interests—with the legend of Christ and the Money Changers, the doctrine of poverty, and that problematic ‘Camel through the Eye of a Needle’ comment, this has never been a straight-forward task for the Christian conservative. It is complicated still further when he has to contend with the opinions offered by Christian big-wigs the likes of Popes John Paul II² and BenedictXVI³ on the subject—opinions which the latter man echoed earlier this year in advance of the G-8 summit in L’Aquila—the political efforts of progressive Christian organizations like the Center for Progressive Christianity and the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and the particularly ugly history of Liberation Theology in the Americas, a subject that necessarily invokes not only the specters of Archbishop Oscar Romero and Miss Jean Donovan—two of numerous Christian dissidents murdered back in the 1980s by Central American death squads with connections to the United States School of the Americas (now styled the ‘Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation’)—but the United States’ osculum infame in the case of Nicaragua (specifically, with regard to the Contras whom President Reagan once famously called “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”) and, moreover, the onerous thought that, like it or not, neither popular sentiment nor local Christians have ever been amenable to the advance of American free market capitalism throughout the Western Hemisphere. In a word, the ‘little people’ of whom it seems at least the biblical Jesus was so fond—and who knows what the real Jesus of Nazareth would have thought of them?… perhaps, neither a carpenter nor a clergyman, he was the Dead Sea Scroll equivalent of a hedge-fund manager—these have never quite learned enthusiasm for the manner of ‘freedom’ brought to them by free market capitalism. They are an obstacle to the truth the Christian conservative pundit would have us entertain, as is shadowy figure of the apostate Jesus…
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.John Kenneth Galbraith is famous and infamous for having issued this well-known barb. It is one that never fails to afflict your average free market enthusiast with a most intolerable irritation. To the conservative libertarian, indeed, it is fiberglass underwear.
“The word is ‘self-reliance’, not ‘selfishness’!” Thus, our libertarian protests. “Freedom—Freedom as we understand it—that needs neither justification nor verification. Statesmen, know that I have no need to pass myself off as an ‘other’!”
As fond as is the Christian conservative of introducing the ‘WWJD’ question into political discourse, he does so at his peril, at the peril of his faith—of his faiths, that is, in wealth on the one hand and its logical negation on the other—when he attempts to marry Christ and the free market. He is rolling the dice whenever he does so—hoping, in fact, beyond hope—on the implausible chance that the lapis philosophorum of which Galbraith speaks will find its way to the moment and into his hands. He is betting he will happen on precisely that superior justification of wealth that both ends one’s need to pander to the demos and ends the reign of two great haters over the landscape of his spirit—those being Calvin and Luther. He risks it all on a whim. But if he is smart—and, supposing that he is a legitimate sophist, I am willing to submit that he is—he will have always already hedged his bet on rhetorical grounds; he will have couched it in terms that inevitably allow for an escape, however ignominious. He will have protected himself with a veil of sorts—a veil less like the ‘veil of ignorance’ by means of which children and constituents are able to escape accountability and more like the one behind which guys like Bernie Madoff tend to work their magic—a trick which, with the prestesse of the pantomimist, he will have pulled out of the bag that I speak of and sprinkled over the language of the specific wager. He will have protected himself with comedy, in other words.
The reader may be forgiven, of course, for asking where it is I am going with this. I’m going precisely where the aforementioned Mr. Tony Perkins has gone with regard to the Occupy Movement in the blog entry I’ve linked below. “My Take: Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier…” here, rather surprisingly, Mr. Perkins puts himself in the position that I contend is so discomfiting for the Christian conservative pundit. In trying to justify Wall Street in Christian terms, he’s placed exactly the perilous wager I’ve indicated. Here is his osculum infame… pulled off, at any rate, with exactly the kind of sleight of hand we have come to expect from the Washington sophist. If he effectively turns in his Christian credentials when he ventures to conflate Jesus with Mammon, he can reclaim them at any time by ducking behind the implicit mea culpa, “Well that’s what the Bible says!” His gambit runs, for the most part, as follows.
Taking the Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19 as his starting point, Perkins argues that what Jesus meant by this teaching was not what is conveyed in its traditional interpretation—the gist of which is “Take what I have given thee and run with it”—but something altogether more concrete and specific. If Perkins’ Midrash of this parable is not quite reducible either to a Gekkoian “Greed is good” or a libertarian “Live free or die!”—both watchwords of today’s Randian conservative—it could very well run as follows: “I’ma give you ten grand a piece, my brothers… turn a profit with it by the time I get back and I will have you in the Big Club!” (Mr. Perkins is sufficiently diligent to cherry-pick from Luke 19, avoiding mention of either the besotted fat cat Zacchaeus⁴ who proposes to pay back four-fold what he has gained by fraud—a proposition that would not at all sit well with AIG or Citigroup—or Christ’s perilous flirtation with insurrectionary anarchism in the infamous ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ episode⁵.) Perkins even offers viable exchange rates: 1 mina = $225 USD. What he also offers is a canny scheme delivered up by the wording of the King James Version of Luke 19:13, which is rendered thus:
And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.
Of course, the bells and whistles go off in the heads of conservative readers of this line. “Aha! ‘Occupy’… Betcha them commie punks in Zuccotti Park think they got an angle here!” (And indeed, if the subtile Christian irony inherent in Luke 19 has not yet been discovered as ideological weapon for the Occupy Movement, perhaps it should be.) It is in the word, in fact, in ‘Occupy’, that Mr. Perkins scheme takes its form. He is not simply engaging in quote mining, mind you, although his extraction the Parable of the Ten Minas from the context of Luke 19—his description of the invocation of the master of the parable, moreover as, a direct “order” from Christ himself—this clearly is quote mining. Mr. Perkins chief and most insidious trick lies in fallacious verbal association. I quote him directly:
The Greek term behind the old English translation literally means “be occupied with business.”Indeed, if “Πραγματεύσασθε ἐν ᾧ ἔρχομαι”, the precise words of the Septuagint in Luke 19:13, if these are faithfully translated as ‘do your business’—’engage’ or ‘engage in affairs’ would be as good a translation, in my opinion—there is no logical or stylistic reason to associate them with the word ‘Occupy’ other than a 400 year old translation of the Bible and the bug in the butt the Occupy Movement constitutes for American ‘Free Market Corporatism and, in particular, the Republican Party.
Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.Here, Big Tony augments partisan chicanery with right-wing propaganda: Christ’s purported flirtation with Social Darwinism. And, verily, I say unto you, life is a zero-sum game. Here Perkins most clearly shows his hand: a lapse that invariably gives the impression that he is not quite the sophist some might make him out to be but simply an ideological bumbler. If, for nothing else, I suppose it does qualify him for one of Sean Hannity’s ‘Great American Panels’.
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