January 12, 2010
What's Wrong With Us?
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

"When does a civilization become incompetent?" mused recently Bret Stephens, the "Global View" columnist for the Wall Street Journal:

I've been mulling the question in a number of contexts over the last year... But the question came to me again in Brussels on Sunday as I watched my children -- ages six, four, and four months -- get patted down before boarding our U.S.-bound flight. The larger-than-allowed bottle of cough syrup in my carry-on, however, somehow escaped our screener's humorless attentions.

As further signs of incompetence, Stephens cogently pointed out among others, our inability to put a stop to Somali piracy, to think rationally about climate change, or rebuild Ground Zero in an acceptable time frame.

We have "reached the outer bounds of a politically correct approach to airport security," he noted further, while our nation is poised to begin profiling Arab passengers and engaging in linguistic games and conceptual sleights of hand to cover up this inconvenient truth.

To Stephens' list I might add:

  • Our President now admits that we are "at war with al Queda" but insists on trying al Queda linked attackers in our criminal court system instead of treating them as enemy combatants;

  • Setting aside that question or why Abdulmutallab was not on a no fly list, there is the glaring mistake of having given the underwear bomber a visa in the first place;

  • There is the fact that our State Department continues to operate -- in a post 9/11 world -- the Congressionally mandated "Diversity Visa Lottery" program that randomly allots permanent residency visas (green cards) to some 50,000 foreigners a year from "underrepresented" regions.

Or consider this: our nation's intelligence gathering agencies lack an interagency database search tool that would conduct Google-like searches of information across their interagency databases.


According to a Wall Street Journal report last Friday ("Years of Spotty Data Collecting on Suspects") and as I confirmed through sources close to the State Department:

[A]n effort to create a Google-like search capability across all spy agencies [was] re-launched in 2008 after an earlier effort collapsed. Its initial momentum lost steam amid the bureaucratic turnover with the change in administration, according to current and former officials tracking the program. At its current pace, the program won't be fully in place for two years, a congressional official said.

Beyond belief.

But Stephens' reflections prompt me to reflect even further. For a few years now in this column I have been pondering even deeper philosophical causes of what ails us as a nation.

  • They begin with the profound Cartesian delusion which imbues both our understanding of ourselves and of the nature of democratic life. It depicts the human being as essentially a conscious 'self' which uses its own and the bodies of others as means to ends; and it conceives of democracy as a compact between those isolated individuals who agree to limit each other's pursuit of personal satisfaction as little as possible while affording the maximum gratification to as many as possible.  From this there follows, among other maladies:

  • Our institutionalized schizophrenia of attempting to separate 'morality and religious belief' into a supposed 'private realm' apart from debates over public policy;

  • Our quaint belief that empirical science can operate free of ideology or personal beliefs;

  • Our contention that we can redefine natural institutions, such as marriage, at will;

  • Our treatment of human fetuses in the womb as unwanted 'tissue', and of human embryos as raw 'material' for biomedical research.

Can our recent failures in national security also be linked to the philosophical errors of Rene Descartes?  By some lengthy causal nexus, I actually think they can.  But perhaps the philosophical explanation of these matters is simpler than all that.

As Stephens observed, "one of life's paradoxes is that we are as often undone by our virtues as by our vices." That, of course, was the prescient observation Aristotle made over two and a half millennia ago.  As a step in the right direction, we would all do well at the beginning of this New Year to get our hands on a copy of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics -- and read very carefully.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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