Terrorism, Comedy, Economics and Worldview
I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
ISIS CLAIMS TERROR ATTACK IN LONDON AS BRITISH INTELLIGENCE REVEALS UK HOME TO 23,000 JIHADISTS
Once again we come out of the weekend and into the new week with terror and terrorism back in the headlines. Once again, the dateline is London. The recent terror attacks that took place over the weekend in London have claimed at least seven lives; we are told that another 12 persons are in critical condition with many others wounded. And as was predicted, the Islamic State almost immediately took responsibility for what’s now believed to be at least two separate attacks undertaken by those that are now described as lone wolf terrorists activated one way or another by the Islamic State and its terror network.
But there was another story over the weekend having to do with a major attack and a fire that took even more lives in the Philippine city of Manila. But there you have a different situation. It’s not different in terms of the morality of the dead. It’s different in terms of the pattern of the crime. So even as suspicion of terrorism arose almost immediately in the Philippines, it turns out that at least at this point, authorities there believe that it was not a terror attack, but rather it was the kind of crime that is due to a very old moral motive, and that is revenge. It turns out that the man who was the lead suspect in the incident in Manila was someone who had lost a great deal of money at the casino. And thus, it looks like simple revenge was the ambition there. It is not clear exactly what he intended to do, but it was clearly an attack in which he intended to kill and to injure people.
In terms of the moral motivation of the crimes in London, these are referred to as terrorism precisely because they are intended to send a message, and a message that takes the form of terror. And behind terrorism is an ideological agenda of one sort or another. In the early 20th century, most of that ideological energy was coming from different groups of anarchists. More recently, and also at different points in centuries past ever since the eighth century, the motivating ideology has been Islam.
Just about all the international media coverage in the aftermath of the most recent London attacks pointed to the moral resilience of the British people and Londoners specifically. But at the same time, The Times of Londonbefore the most recent attack indicated in a new report that military and intelligence officials in Great Britain may now believe that they had previously vastly underestimated the scale of the challenge they face. The Times reports that these military and intelligence officials indicate that there may be as many as 23,000 jihadists who could be mobilized within the United Kingdom. That’s 23,000. That’s a difficult number even to take, but what it means is that there is no current capability in terms of the police and military or intelligence officials there in Great Britain to track 23,000 different persons. But as has been so often the case, recurringly the headlines remind us of the clash of worldviews and of the moral issues that are constantly at stake.
COMEDY AND MORALITY: WHEN TRANSGRESSIVE HUMOR OUTPACES EVEN THE FAR LEFT
Here in the United States, worldview issues of a very different kind tended to dominate the discussion going into the weekend and at the center of this domestic conversation in the United States was the intersection of morality and comedy. Now it had previously been described as the intersection of merely politics and comedy, but the events having to do with two very prominent liberal comedians indicated the real issue is the unavoidable moral dimension of all entertainment, and particularly in this case of comedy.
The two celebrity comedians at the center of the recent controversy are Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher, both of them have been well known as liberal activists. And what we have here is something that is really interesting from a worldview perspective. The Christian worldview reminds us that there is no value-neutral entertainment. Furthermore, the Christian tradition has come to a very clear understanding of the fact that our laugh track, our own response to what we believe to be funny or not funny, is incredibly revealing about us. It’s basically true that our response to entertainment becomes something of a CAT-scan of sorts, morally speaking, not only of individuals but of the larger culture. But here’s where we need to notice what is happening in the current moment. It has always been the case, so far as we know throughout human history, certainly in terms of documented literature, that there have always been those who have transgressed and have used moral transgressions as the source of their comedy, the very focus of their comedic edge. This was true in ancient Greece and it’s also true that many the foibles of human existence tend to come out in terms of comedic value and comedic focus.
But when you’re looking at the current moment, what we’re seeing is the perpetuation of previous patterns, that is that comedians have tended to get in trouble and to transgress that is now exaggerated in terms of the contemporary political moment. But something else is happening here. If indeed you are going to create your persona in terms of being a cutting edge comedian on the left, and if that means you’re going to continually have to transgress moral boundaries that had existed before, well, what we now see is the inevitable result. What we are witnessing is that the comedic supply in this sense of transgression is actually outstripping the comedic demand on the part of the national public.
During the 1960s and 70s into the 80s and 90s and beyond in the United States, there arose a new species of comedian, a comedian who made his or her reputation by pressing these moral boundaries whether in the form of vulgarity and obscenity or in terms of sexually explicit content. But even by the time the late 70s and early 80s rolled around, it was clear that these comedians soon, in effect, ran out of material. They ran out of runway in terms of new boundaries to transgress. The same thing appears to be happening right now on the left when it comes to comedy, and there’s no accident that this is happening on the left. It’s happening on the left for a couple of very important issues. In the first place, that’s where so many of the comedic and entertainment elite are ideologically committed. That’s not new. That’s been something that long predated the current generation of comedians and entertainers. But there’s something else. Transgression actually only works in the more progressive or liberal direction. It’s very difficult to transgress in the opposite direction.
In the case of Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher, in a matter of just a couple of days space they found themselves in a great deal of controversy and difficulty, and the interesting thing to note there is that much of the criticism has come not from conservatives, but from those who are also on the left. And the complaint is that these two have simply gone too far. If recent American history is offering any evidence, that means that they have gone too far for now. All too often in this new cultural moment there’s effectively a new cultural reset in which what was absolutely unacceptable, unthinkable, even perhaps even not permitted in any given moment, becomes the new norm a fairly short time thereafter.
It’s difficult to describe, but somewhere there is a line in which persons shift from the potential to laugh or to smile to an almost automatic grimace and wincing. It tells us something about the current cultural moment that there is still a kind of boundary, some kind of boundary in which it’s still possible to transgress, to pass over the boundary. But it’s also interesting to see just how porous that line is, how transient it is, and how that line can so often disappear to be replaced with an even more distant and even more porous boundary.
Finally, on this particular story it’s important to note that when this kind of boundary gets pushed out, there’s an enormous mass that comes behind it to backfill. Pretty soon just about everyone is doing what was absolutely unthinkable and outlandish only a short time previously. The initial round of criticism followed by an effective circling of the wagons by allies around these two entertainers tells us just how this process works. It becomes increasingly clear that when some people see a line, other persons see a line to cross.
DOES “MINDSET” AFFECT POVERTY? THE COMPLICATED, RECIPROCAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WORLDVIEW & ECONOMICS
A smaller controversy, but still very significant, emerged in recent days around Dr. Ben Carson, the United States Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In an interview he offered just a few days ago, Dr. Carson suggested that poverty is the result of what he called “a wrong mindset.”
The New York Times raised the controversy with his headline question,
“Does ‘Wrong Mind-Set’ Cause Poverty or Does Poverty Come First?”
It’s a very interesting story. The New York Times has covered it in the sense of telling us that there’s a live debate. Now it’s a debate the New York Times seems to weight on one side, but nonetheless it at least acknowledges the debate. The debate is, which comes first, the worldview than the poverty or the poverty and then the worldview? Ben Carson made his own position very clear in an interview with his longtime friend, Armstrong Williams on Sirius XM radio, but Carson made the argument that it’s the worldview that comes first. As Emily Badger at the New York Times tells us,
“Ben Carson has proposed, in effect, a human experiment.
“Consider someone with the right ‘mind-set.’ Take away everything he owns, drop him onto the street, and he will soon lift himself out of poverty.”
But then speaking to Williams, Dr. Carson said,
“And you take somebody with the wrong mind-set, you can give them everything in the world. They’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”
As Badger explains,
“Poverty, Mr. Carson is saying, is in part a state of mind. But while that idea holds truth, researchers who study poverty say [the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development] has greatly confused cause and effect.”
Well, that’s where the New York Times I believe weights the controversy against the secretary, but the interesting thing to note here is that this is a live controversy. And this is where Christians need to think very, very carefully. Ben Carson’s making an argument here, the secretary is saying that it is worldview that is foundational to one’s economic status and furthermore that worldview will have a sociological effect, a demoralizing effect. The way he puts it is that you can give someone virtually everything in the world, but if they hold to the wrong worldview, they will, in his words, “work their way right back down to the bottom.”Dr. Carson was clearly referencing his own life story, now very well documented and in the interview he paid a tribute to his mother saying,
“She willed me to find a way out,” speaking of a way out of poverty.
Ben Carson, of course, became one of the nation’s leading surgeons. In an explanatory memo that he sent to his staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, after the interview Dr. Carson said,
“I had to will myself to see the opportunities that existed on the horizon.”
This is where Christians do need to think very carefully. In the first place, we would see an absolute link between what Secretary Carson called “mindset” or what we would call worldview and the issue of poverty or, for that matter, the issue of wealth. The New York Times makes clear that in the view of the paper, the secretary has the argument one way, whereas their cited researchers understand the argument to be exactly the opposite. Their researchers claim that it’s poverty that has an impact on worldview; Dr. Carson is saying it’s worldview that has an impact on poverty.
Christians trying to think through the issue biblically say there has to be a link between the two, but Christians also have to say honestly that link is probably a bit more complicated than can be reduced to these two isolated positions. This is where Christians would almost have to honestly say there has to be a reciprocity, a back-and-forth in terms of this equation.
This points back to something that’s basically rather encouraging in terms of the contemporary worldview, sociological and political environment. The two positions that are articulated in this article, although not named, are often referred to as the structuralists and the culturalists. The structuralists are those who argue that poverty and other sociological patterns are entirely due to structure, a structure that includes economic inequality and inequality of opportunity, you could go down the list. But included in that at the top of the list would be the structures of poverty. On the other hand, the culturalists are those who argue that the problem is basically, absolutely, fundamentally moral. Long before you get to structural problems, they argue, there is a cultural, there is a moral reality. It has a great deal more to do with attitude and worldview than it has to do with any structural impediment.
Now having described those two positions, how in the world can I say that we’re in a more hopeful situation? Well, the hopefulness is this: even though the structuralists and the culturalists include those who are absolutely opposed to one another and even as those two positions have largely been in competition for the last 30 or 40 years in terms of the national conversation, the good news is there is a growing consensus that combines both the structural and the cultural arguments. An example of the kind of new thinking that is possible on this would come down to the fact that Christians would be amongst those who must admit that there are structural imbalances and inequalities in this society and in this economy that are not entirely due merely to the moral decisions made by individuals. Most importantly, the moral decision is simply not available to a child as to the situation in which he or she will be born. That’s just one example of an undeniably structural reality. That’s a big part of the problem.
But there is also a moral dimension to this as well. After making very clear there is a structural reality, we understand there’s a moral reality. For example, one of the greatest predictors of how one can avoid poverty is not having children out of wedlock and raising children within the context of an intact family. Those children by almost every measure have all kinds of advantages over children who lacked the very same context. Now on the one hand that’s structural, but on the other hand it’s undeniably moral. Christians armed with a fully biblical understanding of human depravity should not deny either the structural or the moral conditions that add up to all kinds of problems deeply human problems, including the problem of poverty. The New York Times wanted to reduce it just to two very simplistic, very opposed arguments. But the human condition rarely comes down to anything quite so simple. And it’s Christians armed with a biblical worldview and the biblical doctrine of sin who understand why it’s never quite so simple.
FOREIGN POLICY REALISM AND THE LEGACY OF PRES. CARTER’S NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI
Next in terms of the clash of worldviews, I want to direct us to an obituary, in this case of a former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States. Zbigniew Brzezinski died just a few days ago in suburban Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. Zbigniew Brzezinski is not a household name today, but he certainly was during the 1970s when he served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He was somewhat out of step with the Carter administration; President Carter had appointed the more dovish Cyrus Vance to be the Secretary of State, but it was Zbigniew Brzezinski he turned to in order to advise him on national security. The National Security Advisor had been, especially since the early 1970s, one the most important positions in a presidential administration, made so by one of Brzezinski’s predecessors in that office, Henry Kissinger, who later also served as Secretary of State.
Something else combined Kissinger and Brzezinski and others in their generation. Even as we’ve just talked in the previous story about two alternative ways of looking at the world in terms of the structuralists and the culturalists, there also two different ways of looking at the world in terms of more recent United States foreign-policy. That great division is between the idealists and the realists. The idealists harken their identity back to someone like President Woodrow Wilson in the early decades of the 20th century, who argue that American foreign-policy should be driven more than anything else by a set of ideals. But realism became the more dominating school of foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century, and realists became the most significant figures in both of the establishments of the two major political parties, both the Democrats and the Republicans.
Humbled by the reality of two world wars and the continuing agonies of the Cold War, the realists saw the main issue as a realistic confrontation that had to be taken seriously and globally between the ideology of the West and the communist ideology of the eastern bloc, headed of course by the Soviet Union. And it was no accident that several of the leading architects of realist foreign-policy in the United States were émigrés especially during the Nazi era and the communist age from Eastern Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski, born in Poland, was one of those émigrés.
When the Carter administration replaced the administration of President Gerald Ford in January of 1977, at least in terms of the identification of Zbigniew Brzezinski as National Security Director, the Democratic transition was a shift to the right to a more conservative and even more anti-Communist position. Actually, as it turned out, there was a clash between the idealists and the realists within the Jimmy Carter administration, and that led to a series not only of controversies, but of catastrophes in foreign policy. But the reason I draw attention now to Zbigniew Brzezinski is because of the moral dimension he brought to foreign policy, especially in the final years of the Soviet era. Zbigniew Brzezinski made very clear that the conflict between the Soviet bloc and the West was deeply ideological and deeply moral and, furthermore, he very clearly identified the Soviet Union as the major agent for mayhem around the world.
But Brzezinski also pointed his finger at the West, saying that it was the West that had allowed the Soviet Union and its satellites to have such an ill effect on the global scene, and as Brzezinski wrote in his book “Out of Control” in 1993, that there was an economic and technological progress in the West but, he said, unfortunately it was not matched on the moral level, as he said, with politics representing the 20th century’s greatest failure. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski who pointed to the 20th century and its moral lessons as the century of mega-death. He explained it this way in that book, “Out of Control”, and I quote,
“It is not necessary to chronicle in detail this century’s bloody record of mass murder on a scale beyond human capacity to fully comprehend and to truly empathize. But a concise statistical accounting of the extraordinary toll of politically motivated killings,” he wrote, “as a necessary point of departure for defining this century’s political meaning and legacy.”
He went on to write,
“The enormity of that toll deserves to be described in terms of mega-deaths. Mega,” he said, “being a factor of 10 to the sixth power.”
By Brzezinski’s very skilled estimation, the 20th century included upwards of 80 million lives lost in war. He said,
“No less than 167 million lives probably in excess of 175 million lives,” he said, “deliberately extinguished through politically motivated carnage.”
Just to make the numbers clear, he summarized that is the approximate equivalent of the total population of France, Italy, and Great Britain, or over two thirds of the current total population of the United States. This is more than the total killed in all previous wars, civil conflicts, and religious persecutions throughout human history.
“These horrendous though dry numbers,” he said, “are also a reminder of what can happen when humanity’s innate capacity for aggression becomes harnessed by dogmatic self-righteousness and is enhanced by increasingly potent technologies of destruction.”
By that dogmatic self-righteousness he was pointing to the claims of the Soviet revolutionaries. As Richard Weaver reminded us so long ago, ideas do have consequences, and deadly ideas, we should not be shocked, have deadly consequences. Zbigniew Brzezinski was a moral witness to the scale of those consequences. His death several days ago brings the end not only to a chapter in American foreign policy history, but to a remembrance of the moral meaning of the 20th century. Brzezinski entitled that book written in 1993 as, “Out of Control.” Sadly, the world doesn’t look any more in control today.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
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