Torch is up

The November issue of The Torch is online. It includes the first letter to the editor from a member of the religious right written in response to one of my columns (Good for gays, good for liberty — the September issue). I’m so happy! I’ve always wanted to elicit a letter like this. It’s not worth going into a detailed reply, but I will note that the author misses the point by continuing to frame the debate in terms of “good” and “evil.” Homosexuality is increasingly seen as a morally neutral preference, which is why the Court could strike down the Texas anti-sodomy law on the grounds that the state could give no justification for its restriction of individual liberty.

My column this issue is my first foray into foreign policy, and in it I tackle my uneasiness with the way so many liberals (including libertarians) so stridently oppose(d) military action in Iraq. I argue that we should view the war as an experiment, perhaps a good one at that, and favor at least seeing it through to its conclusion. I’m open to later deciding that it was a terrible idea. For now, though, I’m withholding judgment.


14 thoughts on “Torch is up”

  1. The guy who wrote that letter is a jackass. His argument is basically “I’m going to assert without evidence that my brand of Judeo-Christian ethics is true. Now prove to me that I’m wrong.” Say what?

    I personally think it’s going to take a miracle for the war in Iraq to have a positive outcome sufficient to justify the costs. At *best*, I think we can expect an unstable secular democracy like Turkey after 5-10 years of nation-building. At worst, we could be driven out of the country Vietnam-style, and Iraq could face a civil war followed by a generation of theocratic oppression by another anti-American regime. I’m not sure how to assign probabilities to those possibilities, but it seems to me that the worst-case scenario is a very real possibility.

  2. Unfortunately, Tim, my skepticism of success grows daily. Bush’s leadership isn’t encouraging either. Promising a quick exit early on would likely have been preferable to changing course now for apparently political reasons, which just demonstrates lack of “the vision thing.”

  3. Well, you sure know how to elicit comments from one of the most “strident” libertarians you know.

    Constitutional provisions and moral restraint keep the US military from adventures to promote moving scenes of liberation. For every positive scene it has created, US intervention has created many nightmarish scenes, not only those that lead to the rise of despots that terrorize their own people, but also those that create and entrench those who present actual and real threats to our own national security, like Osama bin Laden.

    Neoconservatism is not a specter, nor the oft-cited “codeword for Jewish conspiracy”. It is a very real, cogent ideology that allowed for our adventure in Iraq. It posits an American State that has the power to remake the Middle East into an open, liberal society through military force and nation building. The most cursory look at our experience with the latter will make any thinking observer pessimistic at best.

    With regard to the first of the two responsibilities of libertarians, you may want to look to the writing of Sheldon Richman. He has seriously examined the situation in the Middle East, fairly by all acounts, and has come to the conclusion that forcing freedom won’t work. With regard to the second responsibility, you might want to look to a brilliant text published by a little outfit in Washington, DC. It’s available online:

    I don’t know why it would be incumbent on liberals to come up with a liberal defense of a war that is inherently illiberal. As one of my colleagues recently pointed out, if the US government can successfully CREATE a liberal democracy in the Middle East, then winning a War on Poverty, Drugs, et cetera at home, where we already have a liberal democracy, should be a piece of cake. We ought, perhaps, come up with liberal defenses of them as well, no?

    I’m puzzled by the sentence “If the war must also sometimes be a military one, liberals and libertarians should be able to reluctantly support that, even if we cannot support the leaders who prosecute it.” I don’t think I adequately understand what you mean there.

    If we’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath, and your assertion that “[w]e don’t know yet if what has been accomplished in Iraq will last or if the net effect on terrorism will be positive or negative” is true, then we’ve done elective surgery when we’re unsure of the result. Sounds like malpractice to me.

    Using the US military electively to try to remake the Muslim world in our image is not, and cannot be, in my view, a “noble experiment”. Killing thousands of people, forcibly extracting from the American people hundreds of billions of dollars to do so, and subjecting Americans to what will no doubt be an increased risk of terrorism is intrinsically an ignoble endeavor, and, one might say, even a naive one.

    I write this in the best of faith, with the best of intentions, to a person who I know is thoughtful and caring in his analysis. It seems to me that sometimes liberals can think too abstractly about these things, let the debate get too convoluted, let the terms of the debate get away from them. Sometimes, I think, we should see things in a simple light, because they’re just that simple.

  4. Justin, the link isn’t going directly to the book, but you told me you’re referring to Ted Galen Carpenter’s Peace and Freedom. I haven’t read that yet, but I’ll add it to my list.

    The “specter of neoconservatism” wasn’t the best word choice, because you’re right about it having real consequences. What I was going for there was that it seems some people I talk to use the concept as a label for any defense of military intervention, which hurts debate by grouping disparate threads together. But that’s a minor issue.

    I don’t say that it is necessarily incumbent upon liberals to provide a defense of the war, only to do so if they can’t come up with an alternative strategy. Perhaps because it is so easy to criticize Bush, I haven’t seen them presenting credible alternatives. I would like very much to be whole-heartedly against the war and it would be a lot easier if the opposition was doing more to show that they’re engaging seriously with the growth of terrorism and have some ideas for how to stem it from where we are now (libertarian Carpenter was impressive in person, so maybe reading his book will win me over).

    The War on Terror may be comparable to the War on Drugs in terms of futility. That’s an arguable point, but a fair one. But the drug war uses force against individuals’ free actions in an open society; the terror war seeks to prevent destructive force emanating from very closed societies. I think this makes a liberal defense of the latter possible, but not the former.

    In the sentence “If the war must also sometimes be a military one, liberals and libertarians should be able to reluctantly support that, even if we cannot support the leaders who prosecute it,” I meant only that the aims may be worthy of support (debatable) even though we’re stuck with regrettably poor leadership (much less debatable).

    That we should “first do no harm” could be the knockdown argument against interventionism. The war in Iraq looks increasingly like it won’t meet this standard, and if that holds true in the long term as well as the short term I’ll eat all the crow you care to serve up (though I’ve never been anything more than a very reluctant supporter of intervention).

    You may be right that the situation is much more simple than I make it out to be. If things collapse in Iraq then we’ll know you are. On the other hand, if we do succeed in getting a semi-liberal government in place, it may be a few years before I’m willing to say that our perspective of the situation is good enough to judge if the effort was worthwhile.

    Thanks for the criticism; you know I take it on good terms. Be sure to check back next month, when I will probably return to the much safer realm of domestic policy analysis.

  5. I wasn’t going to comment again, for fear this would turn into a protracted comment-fest, but since I’d welcome a protracted comment-fest on my own blog, I figured I’d do unto others…

    I agree that a liberal defense of the War on Terror (though I despise that term with every fiber of my being — I like horror movies!) can be made. We should attack viciously those who attacked us. It’s a liberal defense of the War on Iraq that I think can’t be made. It is becoming more and more clear that the War was fought to remake the Middle East in the hopes that that would prevent closed societies from existing, or prevent possible threats from ever emerging (as enunciated in Bush’s national security strategy) or to make the world “not just safer, but better” (from the same document). It’s using military violence to achieve those goals, which increasingly seem to have been the motivation for Iraq, that seems inherently illiberal.

    As for whether the effort was worthwhile, I think that will remain the wrong question, and a dangerous one. If, by some providence, we don’t turn Iraq into a failed state, it will only add fuel to the fire of those who think that our state is so cool that it can just turn other, crappy states into cool ones. If it does turn out not to be a disaster, and I think there is about a 0.000376% chance of that happening, we’ll still have much more experience creating messes with nation building than successes. The real question, I think, is whether we were “justified”. That puts the burden on the war-making power before the fact. Worthwhile implies post-event justification by the initiating power. Worthwhile depends on who is answering the question. I prefer justification as the clearing-point, because it is a much more stringent, precise judgment to make, based on just war theory and a realist strategic assessment. This, of course, firmly plants me in the “heretic” category of foreign affairs observer these days. Just ask Niall Ferguson…

  6. At the expense of adding intelligent thought to this lively and interesting debate, I will dumb it down a little for all the fellow South Park fans out there:


    Keep up the good blog J.

  7. I love it when your opponents resort to name calling. If you cannot deal with the substance of the argument, then call them a “jackass” or a member of the dreaded “religious right”. Let’s take the basic reply since it was “not worth going into detail” for Mr. Greir. The flaming missle fired back is, “Homosexuality is increasingly seen as a morally neutral preference”. OK. Mid-nineteenth century plantation owners saw the slave trade as morally neutral. And for the Gestapo, the gassing of Jews wasn’t just morally neutral, it was actually virtuous. So, were they wrong? Is so, why were they wrong? By the way, Judeo-Christian ethics don’t come in brands. There’s that pesky little book called the Bible that defines the field.

  8. John,

    I re-read your post and your original letter several times and I’m still searching in vain for something resembling a rational argument. You offered examples of non-Christian moral systems that were evil, but so what? I can think of all sorts of religious and secular moral codes that condemn slavery and the gassing of Jews. What makes yours special? You don’t say.

    If you had written something that contained an actual argument, giving some reason to think homosexuality is wrong, I might have taken the time to respond with a rational argument of my own.

    Your only “argument” appears to be “I’m right because God (or the Bible) says so.” Oh, and “Nazis disagreed with my moral system, so it must be right.” Which are obvious cop-outs and poor substitutes for actual arguments. That’s why I called you a jackass.

  9. I appreciate your response; especially your stated desire for a rational discussion. Usually this subject elicits nothing but name-calling with little or no discourse. So, let’s give it a try.

    First, it has never been my position that I am right and everyone who disagrees with me is by definition wrong. My position is that I agree with God and his revelation to Man, a revelation which delineates a moral code of things that are right and things that are wrong, one frequently sited example being the Ten Commandments. We can discuss precisely what God reveals on the matter of homosexuality if you would like, but no rational or theological argument exists that I am aware of which denies the clear position of Scripture. Simply stated, that position is that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s created design which is for a man and women to enjoy sex as an expression of their “one flesh” relationship, i.e. marriage. That finds its way into number seven of the Big Ten (Commandments), for example, in the prohibition against adultery.

    It is simply not a matter of indifference to God for men to engage in anal sex or for two lesbians to do whatever they do (Romans 1:26-27). The word commonly used for homosexual sex until the recent past, sodomy, is of course taken from the proverbial name of the cities, Sodom & Gomorrah. Those cities came under God’s specific judgment and were destroyed because “the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.”

    Back to my apologetic. My position is that God has made it patently clear that homosexuality is wrong and a perversion of his good creation. Therefore, to take a contrary position is to differ with One who is above both you and me. I consider that extremely shaky moral ground (not to mention philosophically inconsistent) and it is the kind of ground that has been used many times even in recent history to justify all kinds of heinous evil.

    Calling me a “jackass” is no biggie. Calling God into question is.

  10. “My position is that I agree with God and his revelation to Man, a revelation which delineates a moral code of things that are right and things that are wrong, one frequently sited example being the Ten Commandments.”

    I think that’s the root of our disagreement. I don’t really consider the Bible to be the final word on this subject or any other. I know there are Christians who disagree with you that the Bible proscribes homosexuality, but not being a Christian, I don’t particularly care one way or the other.

    The Hindus think eating beef is morally wrong. Their argument is based on their faith in the concept of reincarnation, just as yourrs is based on faith in the concept of God. I don’t see any rational way way to decide which of you (if either) is right. All I can do is choose between them based on “faith.” That seems like a pretty shaky argument.

  11. I’m interested by the comment that slavery was also once seen as morally neutral, and therefore acceptable. In fact, it was more than that – there are passages of the Bible that explicitly sanction slavery (St. Paul, St. Luke), though perhaps not race-based slavery. It may not be a commandment, but, frankly, the 7th Commandment seems a fairly ambiguous denunciation of homosexuality, depending on how the word ‘adultery’ is translated from the original.

    Does this not suggest that there are ‘moral’ teachings in the Bible which are revised over time? And if so, what makes the passages on homosexuality immune from this revision?

  12. This blog contains too many juicy arguments. I just can’t help from commenting. As far as the situation in Iraq, I too feel like it is in a certain light a question of of whether we are “justified.” Is it the right of one nation to topple the government of another? This may bring up the question of human rights and totalitarian states, and I do believe in global sensibilities and loyalty to the race of man over national loyalties, but the other issue that keeps surfacing in my mind is the artificiality of the endeavor. How do you “make” a nation into a democratic state? As evidenced by the current circumstance of post-communist countries, this is not effected only by the collapse of despotic governments. In my experiences in Outer Mongolia, I realized the importance of the democratic mindset. Out there you have people with “communist” mindsets trying to rebuild a nation on supposed democratic principles, which is a losing battle from the beginning. In order to change a country, you must change the mindsets of a people. In Iraq, how are we going to teach the Iraqui people to think like free people? I think this is the issue, and the problem with “removing” a regime. There is something in the idea of revolution and people fighting for their own freedom, because in doing so, they begin to think like free people. This is why I think perhaps patience and more subversive tactics like the exportation of ideas would have been more successful in this situation. Not that Saddam wasn’t a jerk and the Iraqui people weren’t suffering and not that this didn’t make me angry, but that if the government had been toppled from intrasurgence I think the after-affects would have been more conducive to the establishment of a free-government–in addition to the fact that our nation would not have to deal with all the anti-American sentiment generated over the conflict. In some ways we create a new generation of terrorists by blowing up the fathers of young boys who blow themselves up and others in turn.
    That we are irrevocably involved at this point is something that we have to reconcile ourselves to, and all we can do is hope for the best and try to build relationships of understanding with the Islamic people we are in contact with, but as for future foreign policy, North Korea should be dealt with more diplomatically.
    As far as the issue of homosexuality, I’m in a bit of a political quandry with this one. I am a Christian and I do believe in the Bible, but on the otherhand, what is legal or should be, hasn’t ever necessarily corresponded with what I believe to be moral. Other forms of sexuality are not restricted by law and I agree that the anti-sodomy law in Texas should be repealed.
    As far as the Mr. Grier and Tim vs. John issue, I think it is all an issue of meta-narrative. I do disagree with Mr. G’s assertion that opposition to homosexuality is “bigotry masquerading as traditional values.” I have several friends who are homosexuals who I care about deeply. I do not, however, endorse their choice of lifestyle as morally acceptable. Whether I accept them, degrade them, or ostrasize them from normal society is a completely different issue, and anybody who truly believes that Christ died for the sins of mankind should never engage in gay-bashing or any other like-minded activities.
    What Mr. G and Tim need to realize is that there are people who are opposed to homosexuality because they truly believe in the Bible and believe that such a life-style is unacceptable before God and not because they are inherently hateful, intolerant, or dim-witted people–and in that also realize that for educated people tradition is not enough. Faith is based on knowledge, and as a Christian I can affirm that there are very good reasons to believe in God and in the Bible.
    The Bible does assert that homosexuality is wrong in various different places, but the Bible also asserts that woman shouldn’t teach, and should be altogether submissive and silent–an instruction found within an epistle I was assigned to teach in church last week. So to point out that maybe some doctrines proponed in the Bible are dated is a legitmate argument. My explanation for this, is that it is important to discern between social tradition and doctrine and the Bible contains both.
    But of course none of this has any relevance if you do not believe in the Bible or God, and I readily admit that. From a strictly atheistic point of view, the only thing that casts a shade of disonance on the subject of homosexuality is the issue of biological functionality–that the penis is not meant to be inserted into the rectum is probably not an issue that would ever be debated, but rather, whether it matters is. The fact that society right now is more concerned with the satisfaction of sexuality more than it is with life probably weakens this arguement.
    Religiously, to make a substancial argument there would have to be something inherently transcendant in the relationship between a man and woman, some sort of parralleling spiritual functionality. Evidence for this can be extracted from the fact that typically in homosexual relationships one partner takes on more feminine qualities and another more masculine qualities–suggesting that there is somewhat of a complementing power.
    In any case, Mr. G and Tim, you are right, without belief in Judeo-Christian values, there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, but in the spirit of true open-mindedness you must realize that not all opposition comes from bigotry but from the adherence to a different paradigm. And on the same note, if indeed, homosexuality was against some inherent morality, of course it would have a degenerative affect on society, as even Nitzsche, who doesn’t believe in ultimate moral truth, admits that a concept of morality is necessary to the existence of society–in essence upheld by the virtue of the people. The question to me is what a government has a right to limit.
    Jake, sorry for blabbing on your blog!

  13. For the first time ever, I’m using a real email address. The presence of the great Taco Boy was needed here if not only to be the Republican presence in the room. I first thought of rambling on and on, but that usually ends up with people mad at me for one reason or another, usually because I prooved their ideas to be wrong, and worthless. Since I do need sleep tonight, I’ll just leave a stack of Anne Coulter’s Treason on the table for you all to read. I sure as hell hope HTML code works on your blog Jacob. Anyway, it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. The almost rabid liberal response to it just goes to show how close to home Coulter’s points hit. Anyway Jacob, put THAT on your list, it will surely turn you to the dark… er, I mean right side…wait, that doesn’t work either… my side.

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