Thursday, September 26, 2013

Falling Into an Ideological Trap: Responding to Dr. Baskerville's Faith & Reason Lecture

Back in the fall of 2005, my alma mater Patrick Henry College launched its Faith & Reason lecture series. Each semester, an entire day would be devoted to a lecture and discussion on some aspect of Faith & Reason.

That initial lecture was significant, since it was an early factor in the course of events leading to the departure of several faculty members. However, I am not intending to relive or reopen those old wounds. Instead, this is about the Faith & Reason lecture that Dr. Steven Baskerville delivered this semester, entitled “Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology.”

Already multiple people have criticized the lecture, such as alumni David Sessions, Willie Deutsch, and Michael Daniels. Another blogger has also conducted a thorough critique.

The reaction was so harsh that Patrick Henry College scheduled an additional question and answer session with Dr. Baskerville a week later, which was broadcast online to alumni. At the beginning of that session, the school made it abundantly clear that while they selected the general topic and speaker, Dr. Baskerville’s lecture was neither approved by the school, nor is the school necessarily in agreement with it. The professor hosting the follow-up session also stated his own disagreement with several parts of the lecture.

Dr. Bakserville’s thesis is that there is a new ideology infiltrating our society which is “far above the others in its grip over both culture and politics.” While he fails to give this ideology a name (it’s some form of sexual radicalism), or an objective (other than power, which he identifies as a goal of all ideologies), he does want to talk about its expressions; particularly how this ideology influences all aspects of family law. He says: “Today's most critical political battleground is the family, and of all the soft ideologies, the most elusive and dangerous is the one encompassing the matrix of issues involving the family, children, and sexuality.” In short, he argues that in all aspects of family law, this ideology seeks to disadvantage men and exclude them from the family. And he argues that the liberal/feminist/homosexual lobby is the architect of this agenda.

The first glaring problem, as has been noted elsewise, is that the lecture which contends an ideological takeover of family law fails to define “ideology” (except as something seeking power and motivated by grievances). Dr. Baskerville also appears, from the title and uses throughout, to be equating “ideological” with “political,” an error any student of politics should seek to avoid.

In his wonderful little book Politics: A Very Short Introduction (which was assigned reading at PHC while I was there), the late Kenneth Minogue explains the difference—indeed the opposing nature—of politics and ideology. These concepts are key for understanding Dr. Baskerville’s lecture.

Minogue defines politics as “the activity by which the framework of human life is sustained” or the act of rationally considering and discussing “what local problems require of the legal system.”  “Ideologies,” he writes, “by contrast with political doctrines, claim exclusive truth. They explain not only the world, by the false beliefs of opponents as well. Ideologists possess the long-sought knowledge of how to abolish politics and create the perfect society.”

Minogue then further describes ideologies and how to identify them, using Marxism as his example for ideology:
Ideology meant (for the ideologues themselves) a philosophical hygiene revealing truth, and (for Marx) the very falsity which needed to be cleansed. The problem of apparent contradiction disappears, however, when one realizes that the falsity of those false ideas is guaranteed by the truth of one’s own ideas. Ideology refers, as it were, to the negative and positive poles of a dogmatic conviction. Marxists had a true understanding of the world, and therefore whatever contradicted them must be false—that is, ideological, which meant both false and false because reflecting the wrong social location. The same ambivalent usage marks anarchist versions of the truth, or those of radical feminists. So long as one grasps this symbiosis, the term ideology can be used without serious confusion as referring both to the truth, and also to all other beliefs which are judged to be false in terms of that belief. Ideology thus exhausts the entire field of truth and error, so long as one judges that one knows, as Marx and his followers thought they did, what the truth is. 
* * * 
Ideology is commonly signaled by the presence of a tripartite structure of theory. The first stage reveals to us the past is the history of the oppression of some abstract class of person. It is concerned with workers as a class, not (as a politician might be) with workers at a particular time and place; or with women in general, or with this or that race. Specific discontents are all swept up into the symptomatology of the structurally designed oppression. The duty of the present is thus to mobilize the oppressed class in the struggle against the oppressive system. This struggle is not confined to the conventional areas of politics. It flares up everywhere, even in the remoter recess of the mind. And the aim of this struggle is to attain a fully just society, a process called liberation. Ideology is thus a variation played on the triple theme of oppression, struggle, and liberation.
Dr. Baskerville adopts this very type of reasoning, condemning those ideas behind today’s family law structure as being the bad ideology and appearing by implication to endorse old Puritan (which he equates with Christian) structure as the “good” ideology. Neither needs to look to the facts of the matter or particular mores of the people, both are assumed to be all-encompassing ideals in competition with each other. Although complaining about the prevalence of ideology and asserting the need to “put the ideological genie back into the bottle,” the entire nature of the lecture is ideological in its scope.

Additionally, the lecture follows the ideological pattern exactly. He identifies the oppressed class (men), calls for mobilization against the oppressors (feminists and their ideological allies), and holds out the promise of liberation ending with the quasi-messianic comparison to the army of Gideon. He’s following the very playbook he condemns.

Insofar as he accurately (more on that later) identifies ideology at work, Dr. Baskerville is making an important observation. However, his failure to fully see it, especially his own, leads to significant blind spots in his own work. And his critique of what he is seeing is greatly muted by his own incorrect orientation. He condemns the ideological tendency to condemn groups, while condemning groups (both within the lecture and after). He criticizes the trend to make everything political, but cannot see the possibility of non-political motivations behind those he criticizes. He claims that Christians should never become “scolds” or “nag and bemoan and wag our fingers at others,” but does exactly that throughout. The result is a lecture that serves to perpetuate the very travesty it purportedly identifies. The argument collapses into self-referential inconsistency.

Furthermore, as part of his need to paint men as an oppressed class in need of liberation from the feminists, Dr. Baskerville mangles the legal system beyond recognition. Others have addressed this in more detail (see links above), but claims such as “[t]he confiscation of children from legally innocent parents by government officials is now out-of-control throughout the West” (p. 13) is absurd, as is his conspiratorial argument about large numbers of “secret incarcerations” that can’t be documented because they don’t appear in any records (p. 20). Furthermore, his railing against “involuntary divorce” (p. 13, 22) doesn’t even make sense, since in every divorce proceeding, at least one spouse is a voluntary participant.

Nor are domestic violence crimes in opposition to regular criminal law, as Dr. Baskerville would have you believe. Instead, domestic violence (which is in fact defined in state criminal law statutes) is usually classified as a type of assault or battery, which includes all the traditional elements plus additional ones.

And despite what he said at the follow-up question and answer session, there aren’t mass incarcerations where people were denied their right to a jury trial. That right is still considered pretty important by the courts, and they will and do reverse convictions based on its violation. I spent one summer in law school working in a court, and another working in the appellate division of a state attorney general’s office—these arguments were taken seriously.

And that is only a sample of Dr. Baskerville’s errors. I haven’t the patience to address the rest. Instead, I’m more interested what the sum total of these fallacious arguments amount to.

See, because of its ideological nature, this lecture couldn’t just present some shortcomings of the legal system and explore solutions (in fact, no solutions were presented). Instead, it needed to dig deeper, expose/invent the conspiracy, and assign then blame. That’s how the class becomes truly victimized and the struggle for liberation can be instigated. A series of inadvertent unintended consequences isn’t compelling enough to warrant an ideological response. A full-fledged inquisition is needed to get proper victimhood, and where it doesn’t exist it must be invented.

Now, some of these may actually be real problems. For example, the American Bar Association has discussed some of the problems with child abuse reporting system and due process. In seeking to protect the exploited, our legal system may not be giving sufficient procedural rights to the accused. (At the same time, rape and domestic violence cases remain very difficult to prosecute.) But when that is the case, it is an unintended consequence of balancing a prior system that gave women and children virtually no rights whatsoever, not a deliberate conspiracy by [insert disliked group here].

Potiphar’s wife’s crime was one of a false report. It, as I would imagine is also the case with those instances of false reports of rape or domestic violence today, did not have political undertones. It was neither a political nor ideological act, but instead simply a human sin.

However, this lecture does invent false accusations against another for an ideological goal.

Which leads me to ask: who has really transformed Potiphar’s wife into a political model?


* * *


As harsh as I've been in my critique, I believe there is still another point that needs to be made which is likely even more important. And this has been the hardest part to write due to its delicate nature.

Jesus warned us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matt. 12:34, Luke 6:45) In all the criticism, in all the response and disagreement, we may have forgotten that behind the lecture stands a person--a hurting person, as is evident from the lecture. And in forgetting that, we are liable to fall prey to the same impersonal temptation of "being right" that we accuse Dr. Baskerville of.

So how does an obviously intelligent person such as Dr. Baskerville come to some of the conclusions he did? Initially, I was inclined to say that this lecture is the result of his spending too much time as an unchallenged expert in the conservative bubble. And indeed, that may be partly the case, given his difficulty (demonstrated at the Q&A session) to even understand the critiques and his tendency toward Orwellian redefinitions.

But to dig deeper, I think this lecture is the culmination of a very broken person. His own account of his own divorce, which appears to have sparked his interest in family law matters, testifies to a feeling of powerlessness and loss of identity. That his wife left him, and a court determined that he was not fit to retain custody of his child, appears to have imposed a wound that is slow to heal. Regardless of the merits of those decisions, the hurt remains.

So while we can and should disagree with the lecture, that sentiment must always be balanced with something more important--care for person behind the argument. He may need our challenges, but he needs our care and prayers even more.

We Christians are called to care for the hurting. That includes the rape and domestic violence victims, the children harmed by divorce, those falsely accused of horrible acts, and yes, even Dr. Baskerville.
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