Same Difference

Admit it – when you were a teenager, worried about who you were, and more importantly, who other people thought you were, and trying to figure out what you were supposed to do with your life, as college, or something else equally monumental, was looming – and really worried about whether you were cool or a total loser, in that time when your body kept changing and all these clueless adults were telling you to do this or that and you got stuck in seemingly endless vague resentment, and when the folks would never let you drive the car when you simply had to – well, back then the last thing you wanted was to have to deal with that picky English teacher who read your essay on Hamlet or whatever and pestered you about what you really meant. Heck, you just wrote something that was likely enough, hoping it sounded like you thought things through. It was supposed to sound good. That was the key thing. You were old enough by then to realize the key to life was always sounding like you knew exactly what you were talking about. You’d seen politicians and priests and pundits and big-shot businessmen on television. Anyone could see that much of what they said was nonsense. But it was said with assurance and proud simply-assumed authority. And no one questioned them. No one asked them about how they casually mashed together disparate ideas no one ever combined before, probably for good reason, and boldly asserted cause-and-effect when no one else could see any at all. If you’re a teenage kid trying to figure out how the world works, this was a pretty good indication of just that. Make it sound likely. So your essay on Hamlet – perhaps on how Hamlet was driven to stab Polonius because Ophelia wasn’t putting out for him – was like that. You arranged the words so they sounded measured and thoughtful – maybe even using a thesaurus. Why wasn’t that good enough?

And here was your English teacher sitting down with you, asking you what the heck you were thinking – and the D on that paper on the desk in front of you was staring up at you. And what was this you were being asked? Explain your logic? But those of us who have been English teachers know the real question that was being asked here. Did you really think fancy-sounding bullshit would be taken for brilliance?

The answer was yes, you did. And the more you were pressed on what you actually said in the essay, being forced to explain logical inconsistencies and forced to admit this one thing was really not related to that other thing at all, the more you found yourself falling back on every teenager’s favorite idiom – Hey, same difference! And that is why many an English teacher has left the profession. Getting around that – or getting beyond that – is hard and thankless work. And the effort to do so is culturally subversive of course. It’s probably best to teach people how to bullshit magnificently, to bamboozle others. Logic, carefully explained and supported by fact and example, is pretty cool, but it may not be a key life-skill.

And all that is a roundabout way to talk about the current Republican field – the remaining four who really do want to be president – and specifically Rick Santorum. As Ed Kilgore has noted, Santorum “views American history as essentially a struggle between ‘true Christians’ like himself on the one hand, and Beelzebub on the other, in which the latter has already conquered academia and mainline Protestantism, and is by inference exercising his infernal control via the policies of that noted former academic and mainline Protestant, the President of the United States.”

Santorum is getting asked about that a lot – part of his 2008 comments that we’re not in any sort of cultural war but in “spiritual war” – with Satan himself, who has specifically targeted America, because we’re a “good, decent, powerful, influential country” – unlike all the other nations – so Satan is after us, and walks among us, and is the source of everything that’s gone wrong here. And yes, any former English teacher senses pure bullshit here. Please explain this, young man.

But the explanation we got was this:

Rick Santorum on Tuesday stood by comments he made in 2008 about Satan attacking the United States, telling reporters here that he is going to “stay on message” and continue to talk about jobs, security, and “taking on forces around this world who want to do harm to America.”

Wait, wait, wait – did he say he’s staying on message with the Satan stuff, and that means he will continue to talk about national security and jobs and the economy in general – same difference, guys? Aren’t those different things? He says he doesn’t want to start a culture war, and he wishes folks would stop asking about what he sees as the ongoing spiritual war with Satan himself – so the press should back off and stop bugging him about that – but he’s on message because it’s all the same thing. Huh?

Well, a conservative blogger for US News, Scott Galupo, actually agrees with him on this, because Santorum saying the press should back off with all the questions about Satan is really forcing Santorum into making a differentiation that never actually existed, pretending there’s some sort of separation between cultural and economic issues on the right:

Since the firestorm over contraception and religious freedom erupted, there seems to be some kind of consensus that the “culture war” has returned to the fore of American politics. The consensus is wrong. The culture war never stopped…

Out of political convenience or cultural distance, Beltway conservatives refuse to see this: Hardcore conservative opposition to Obama has always been cultural and theological. The pop-theological mainstream of American evangelicals has so thoroughly assimilated the ideal of American capitalism that any deviation, however modest, from it is tantamount to radical godless humanism. And, in an extension of an older intradenominational debate, conservative Catholics like Santorum deeply mistrust the ideal of “social justice” as championed by the Catholic left.

And Ed Kilgore is pleased:

Opposing “big government” and “socialism” has for most conservatives become a stance that combines cultural and economic concerns in a virtually seamless web. That’s most apparent with the Tea Folk, whose endless citations of the Declaration of Independence as the most important document in U.S. history are typically motivated by what they consider a fundamental, “American-exceptionalist” charter for Christian nationalism and fetal personhood and absolute property rights. In terms of the conservative diagnosis of what’s wrong with the country, it’s very difficult to separate the worthless deadbeat dad from the worthless “lucky ducky” welfare parasite and election-stealing ACORN client; just as it’s hard, at the other end of the spectrum of targets, to separate the baby-killing feminist from the job-killing environmentalist or the America-hating socialist.

Yep, same difference:

I wish I could believe that when conservatives talked about the “economy” or “jobs,” they really were motivated strictly by their tutoring in Austrian economics or their experience talking to small entrepreneurs; perhaps some are. But all too often, scratch a “fiscal conservative” and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.

Logic, carefully explained and supported by fact and example, is pretty cool, but it may not be the point here, as Galupo notes, the line between culture and economics is disappearing:

Make no mistake. Such has been the animating spirit of the Tea Party all along. That’s what is fueling the Santorum “insurgency” right now. Culture war is the big picture. Fail to see it and you won’t fully understand the 2012 presidential campaign.

And earlier Galupo had said this:

Faith-based criticism of economic policies is not exactly unprecedented. From William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech to the Christian undercurrents of anticommunism to Jim Wallis’s religious-left movement, there has long been a cross-pollination of spirituality with dollars and cents.

Today’s wrinkle is that there seems to be an element of conservatism that sees cultural and economic questions not simply as interrelated so much as one and the same. Put another way: America is a Christian nation, and part and parcel of Christian orthodoxy is small-government conservatism.

So Galupo is a worried conservative:

I’m all in favor of conservative efforts to limit and, where possible, reduce the size of government—and I believe there’s a moral dimension to these questions. Who could deny the corrosive effects of debt and greed on the soul?

But we’re raising the stakes of the kind of tension that Jesus discerned long ago in his famously brilliant God/Caesar distinction. A liberal democracy is simply not durable enough to handle every clash over public policy as though it’s a matter of life and death, orthodoxy and heresy, and righteousness and wickedness.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” – Matthew 22:21 – the unambiguous biblical argument for clear separation of church and state, spoken by Jesus himself. Don’t these folks read the damned Book?

Well, they ignore the Good Samaritan story too. Bill O’Reilly wrote an opinion piece back on December 9, 2010, titled Keep Christ in Unemployment:

By invoking the baby Jesus, Congressman McDermott puts an important question in play: What does a moral society owe to the have-nots? How much public money should go to those in financial trouble? Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like McDermott don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to “provide,” no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?

And there was Stephen Colbert with this satiric response:

Good point Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it. Now what I like best about Bill’s argument is its complete factual inaccuracy, because it would be inconvenient to guys like us to repeat what Jesus actually said. For instance, if someone wants your coat, given them your cloak as well; rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor… And I love how Bill closes with “The Lord helps those who helps themselves,” kind of implying Jesus said that, when it was actually Ben Franklin…

Or as many who loved what O’Reilly wrote would say – Hey, same difference!

Stephen Colbert is a Catholic who takes his faith seriously of course. And there might be some justifiable anger in his sarcasm. But those of us who were once English teachers just see that student essay that was just likely-sounding bullshit that was supposed to be impressive because it used big words and was nicely typed, and the sullen student across the desk saying that logic, carefully explained and supported by fact and example, was for losers – this SOUNDED good. Ah well, the student was right – Bill O’Reilly makes more money in one day than twenty teachers make in a lifetime. Who has the key life-skill here?

And as for facts, there’s Andrew Sullivan live-blogging this from the final Republican debate:

9.26 pm. The president who destroyed al Qaeda and captured and killed Osama bin Laden is “the most dangerous in the history of America.” Yep: that’s what Newt just said.

Be very afraid. We live in a dangerous world. We should strike our enemies hard, now, and not be all soft like Obama. And in Foreign Affairs, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko offer this:

The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

Ah, same difference…

And so it goes with other matters too. There’s Andrew Sullivan’s discussion of Santorum mocking John McCain on the matter of torture – Santorum telling McCain that McCain knows nothing about torture at all – you break someone completely and they cooperate, telling you exactly what you need to know. It’s that simple. But Sullivan sees a problem here:

He is defending a core, absolute evil. Let us concede for the sake of argument that these are “enhanced interrogation techniques” and not “torture”- as Santorum insists. There is no meaningful difference between the two whatsoever from a Catholic perspective, and Santorum’s public positioning as an avowedly Catholic politician, while defending and promoting an absolute evil, is a true and immense moral scandal – in the Church’s sense of the word. No one should be giving the impression that the Catholic Church defends “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

So Sullivan. like Santorum, also a Catholic, quotes from the Catechism:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity… Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions.


Notice there is a bar even on “moral violence” on or “frightening” prisoners. Santorum’s own moral distinction between “breaking” human beings by Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and “torture” does not exist in international law or Catholic doctrine.

I conscientiously dissent from the Magisterium on marriage equality, contraception, and women and married priests. But I publicly acknowledge that I am dissenting and this is not the hierarchy’s view and that I am not representing the Magisterium. Santorum, it seems to me, needs to be just as explicit in his statement that he dissents from his own church on the question of the inviolable dignity of the human person. He is advocating crimes “deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles”. He is proposing to “break” a human person, without even due process. He is standing as the publicly Catholic foe of human dignity.

And you can carry this further:

And notice that, unlike, say, allowing contraception or gay marriage in a free society, the government that Santorum proposes to lead is directly involved in such activities. A lawmaker who allows free contraception in health insurance can only be accused of indirectly causing sin to occur; but a president who authorizes the abuse and torture of human beings is directly, intimately involved with that decision and bears full moral responsibility for it.

So think of it, perhaps, like grading that bullshit English paper, where there’s no logic at all:

It seems to me that Santorum can and should be free to defend this evil as he sees fit. But his defense of torture is far, far more scandalous to the Catholic Church than any liberal Catholic politician’s views on, say, same-sex marriage or contraception. It is he who has made his faith integral to his public life. Yet he defends the equivalent of crucifixion for prisoners under his potential command.

When, one wonders, will Catholics hear a letter from the pulpit on the vital question of torture – and the support for it from a leading Catholic candidate for the presidency?

Will the Church call him on his bullshit? Probably not – he’s too useful to them at the moment. And Sullivan later added this:

I see the theoconservative delusion and the fundamentalist psyche as part of a generalized crisis of Christianity (and religion) today. They are terrified retreats from a Christianity built on caritas in a world of harsh reality. And the sex abuse crisis revealed – among the Catholic hierarchy – a psychological sickness they do not yet have the strength to expose and remove.

Caritas is Latin and means love for all, the root word for Charity. Caritas and torture don’t go together. Link them in the same student essay and you flunk. Same difference? Nope.

But then everyone found his or her high school English a pain in the ass. That’s not real life. And Rick Santorum knows this, and may win the nomination, and the presidency. And they wonder why English teachers quit and do other things.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Same Difference

  1. Madman says:

    Yes, I get your analogy about the high-school English teacher and the Bullshit essay. I was a straight shooter in high school, but tried the bullshit routine with a community college Humanities instructor. I will never forget her concise, brutal destruction of my Magnum Opus: “Inadequate. You have just begun.” I was so shocked at the OBVIOUS mistake she had made, that I made an appointment to discuss it with her and show her the error of her ways. You already know how THAT went. She had ZERO tolerance for bullshit — mine, or anyone else’s. I learned more in that 15-minute session in her office than in many other, earlier, classes. I was so grateful to her for “taking me on,” that I attended her funeral years later, and spoke publicly there about the difference she had made for me.

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