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Tendentious tendencies.

Well, that was quick. Forty-eight hours after the release of "On All of Our Shoulders" -- a critique of Paul Ryan's libertarian tendencies signed by about one hundred fifty Catholic scholars and ministers -- Robert P. George took to the First Things website to denounce it as a partisan "attack" on the congressman from Wisconsin, whose running mate, you may recall, George has endorsed and is advising. So he knows from partisanship. George also knows from courageously defending one's political opponents when they're unfairly criticized. Just ask him:

When my fellow conservatives and Republicans were beating up on President Obama for his you didnt build that remark, representing him as having claimed that business owners didnt build their own businesses, the government did it, I spoke out in defense of the President.... It is both wrong in itself and damaging to the spirit of democracy to misrepresent ones political opponents or interpret their words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light.

Do read his defense of Obama. Keep reading. Did you get to the third paragraph yet? You're looking for the sentence that follows the one with "Obama has a dangerously inflated view of the proper role of government." Find it yet? If you hit "this comment of mine is not intended as a defense of what Obama said, much less of his economic and regulatory policies generally," you've gone too far. Here's what it looks like: "I dont think it is correct to interpret the 'that' in 'you didnt build that' as referring to businesses." Thank goodness George managed to emerge from the avalanche of criticism he doubtless received for that stirring defense, so we could be reminded that the spirit of democracy is besmirched when we misrepresent our political opponent's views or interpret them tendentiously in order to cast them in the worst light. We would all do well to heed that advice. Too bad George doesn't.

Let's count the ways: George all but calls the signatories of "On All of Our Shoulders" liars for claiming that they do not write to oppose Ryans candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.

In fact, the statement is a highly tendentious assault on Ryan, presenting him and his positions in the most unfavorable possible light, and insinuating that he is someone who seeks to legitimate forms of social indifference. It is, in short, the discursive version of the infamous Democratic Party television advertisement showing a Ryan-like figure dumping an elderly lady out of her wheelchair over a cliff.

Speaking of tendentious. George is quite fond of referring to critiques of his positions as "assaults" and "attacks." But the statement in question is actually pretty mellow. Indeed, as George notes, the signatories are clear that they are not arguing that Catholics cannot have legitimate reasons for supporting the Romney-Ryan ticket. He just isn't buying it.

You can tell, because when Fordham theologian Charles Camosy, one of the signatories, responded to George in the comment thread, George called the intervention "an defend [the statement] as truly non-partisan and fair to Ryan, but res ipsa loquitur." That's Latin for "I don't believe you." Why mince words? If George thinks Camosy is lying, he should say so. Surely George didn't exhaust his store of courage defending Obama against those tendentious -- perhaps even partisan -- charges that he denied business-owners had built their own companies. Yet George couldn't be bothered to reply to Camosy in the comment thread on his own First Things piece. No, he hopped over to another outlet, Mirror of Justice, to post his retort -- where he disabled comments. So Camosy can't even respond to George's parting swipe there:

Reading his comment, I could not help but imagine how different the statement would have looked had it exemplified even a modicum of the interpretative charity that Professor Camosy practices in his efforts to depict Peter Singer's thought as sharing vast tracts of common ground with Christian moral teaching. But then, such a statement wouldn't have been of much use to the Obama campaign.

The hermeneutic of charity is something to behold, isn't it? There's a word for the kind of courage it takes for someone who's advising a presidential campaign to accuse another of being a tool of his opponent's. It's not Latin, maybe you'll recognize it: chutzpah. (Read Camosy's reply at the Catholic Moral Theology blog.) George admonishes the authors of "On All of Our Shoulders" for failing to acknowledge that it's highly unlikely that Randian policies will be enacted by a Romney administration. He commends Rick Garnett's "devastating critique," which includes:

The statement, like much of the Ryan is a Randian!! business, overstates significantly the extent to which the policies that are being proposedand certainly the policies that have even a remote chance of being enacted, should Gov. Romney be elected are, in fact, libertarian (let alone Randian).

Where was Garnett and George's concern for the art of the possible when they were darkly warning us about the Freedom of Choice Act? "The Democrats 'programs' and 'approach' with respect to abortion are probably better illustrated by the Freedom of Choice Act, which will certainly become law if Sen. Obama is elected." That was Garnett, writing in August 2008. Four years later, the bill hasn't even gotten out of committee.

George does not grapple with the statement's overriding concern: that individualistic principles are being passed off as compatible with Catholic ones. He devotes one sentence to that issue:

Despite Ryans own very public statements of his points of agreement and significant disagreement with the thought of Ayn Rand, and despite the commendations he has received from the bishops who know him and his work best, Bishop Joseph Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York (formerly of Milwaukee), Ryan is presented as an unreconstructed Randian radical individualist and, as such, a clear opponent of Catholic social teaching.

The signatories do note that for years Paul Ryan has been touting Ayn Rand's social philosophy as a touchstone for his own policy priorities. As recently as 2009, Ryan released this video, where he holds up "the morality of individualism" as "what matters most." After it was pointed out that individualism does not sit well with Catholic teaching on the nature of the human person, he declared that it was really Aquinas who shaped his philosophy. As "On All of Our Shoulders" notes, you'd think such a radical shift in social philosophy would entail a change in policy priorities, but Paul Ryan's remain the same. The signatories don't question Ryan's sincerity, they just want to know what it means for his policies. As Matthew Boudway put it back in May: "The point [of Ryan's budget] is to shrink the government and lower taxes. If this helps the poor, so much the better; if it doesnt, sauve qui peut [every man for himself]." If Ryan is done with the "morality of individualism," how would we know? George doesn't say.

Apparently he'd rather talk about "authentic social teaching," which "begins from an affirmation of":

(a) the inherent and equal dignity and fundamental right to life of every member of the human family, including the child in the womb; (b) the centrality and indispensable social significance of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (c) religious freedom and the rights of conscience.

That abortion, gay marriage, and the contraception mandate are the top three issues on George's candidate's "Issues for Catholics" scorecard (.pdf) must be a coincidence. Because it would be strange for a Romney adviser to call this statement "scandalous" for its failure to repeat the candidate's Catholic selling points, or for a Romney endorser to complain that the statement presents itself as nonpartisan, especially when that adviser turns around and offers a tendentious reading of Obama's record by calling it more Randian than anything Paul Ryan has proposed.Ayn Rand was "proabortion," George writes, just like Obama and Biden, who "undermined the right to life of the child in the womb in every way they possibly can." Well, maybe not every way. The Obama administration missed a chance to promote abortion when it learned that New Mexico and Pennsylvania were poised to use federal Affordable Care Act money to fund elective abortions, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius blocked them. At the time, the chairman of the USCCB prolife committee praised the move.

George continues, given her views on sexual morality, Rand would be pleased as punch with the fact that Obama and Biden "have committed themselves to abolishing in law the conjugal understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife and replacing it with a conception of marriage as an intimate relationship of two persons of the same or opposite sexes." This might surprise gay-marriage advocates who deride Obama's actual position -- that states should decide the issue -- as "marriage-equality federalism." (Incidentally, that's been Dick Cheney's view since 2004.) Neither Obama nor Biden have called for "abolishing in law" the traditional understanding of marriage. Indeed, they have proposed no laws.

And finally, the contraception mandate: George doesn't say how this would thrill Ayn Rand, but he does mention that the Obama administration wants to force Catholic employers "to provide health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives." Nor does he differentiate between actual abortion drugs (RU-486) and emergency contraception, just as he fails to note that the science on the abortifacient properties of one such drug is unsettled at best. Not a peep about the Obama administration's proposed accommodation, which would allow religious employers to contract for health coverage without contraception (that would be offered separately by insurance companies at no cost to employees). No, to acknowledge that might lend credence to the idea that Obama does not "oppose religious freedom for Catholic institutions," as Romney's "Issues for Catholics" scorecard has it.

To be sure, there's nothing strange about a Catholic objecting to the president's views on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception coverage -- Commonweal has published critiques of all those policies. But if you want to position yourself as a fair-minded critic, even a fair-minded partisan, then you've got to work hard not to interpret your opponents' "words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light." Failing to do so might not "damage the spirit of democracy," but it will damage the credibility of your claims.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Hi Grant - what I thought would happen did not happen, and (like you) I am glad. I am not sure what would have happened if the 2010 elections had not weakened the Democrats in Congress but, in any event, FOCA is not the law, which is good.

This is very strange. It seems Robert George is being criticized for being too charitable and NOT calling those he disagrees with liars. Now, it is unfortunate that this blog has resorted to blithely accusing Romney of lying, but I at least give the editors credit for walking that back from big lies to merely half-truths in their recent editorial. (Well leave aside the question of whether a half-truth, being when a candidate says something thats true in a way that puts said candidate in the most favorable light, is that really editorial worthy)But taking issue with Professor George for not calling someone a liar? I think weve entered the silly season of this years election season.P.S. res ipsa loquitur is Latin for, the thing speaks for itself.

Aha! Here I thought it could only be partisanship that would motivate someone like George to take at face value Deal Hudson's not-very-credible claims about Catholics for Obama calling voters in Ohio and reading from a "script" that insulted Mormons and misrepresented facts relating to abortion. Indeed, George didn't just accept Hudson's very shaky story, once referred to by a U.S. News columnist, as settled fact; he called for action by the Obama campaign and summoned "all Catholics" to join the Catholic League in denouncing the alleged campaign strategy. What in Deal Hudson's wild and uncorroborated claims could inspire such a confident call to arms on the First Things blog? Now I have a name for it: "interpretive charity."

Oh, and while we're being careful not to misrepresent our opponents: that "infamous Democratic Party television advertisement" mentioned by Prof. George? It wasn't made by the Democratic Party. It was made by a "liberal interest group" called the Agenda Project. It says so right at the end of the ad.

It seems Robert George is being criticized for being too charitable and NOT calling those he disagrees with liars. Mark Proska,It is impossible, in my opinion, to read Robert George's pieces mentioned about without concluding he is accusing Charles Camosy of deliberately telling untruths. There is nothing charitable about it. The fact that he doesn't say, "Charles Camosy is a liar" is not charity on his part.

Deal Hudson and his group, Pennsylvania Catholic Network, a grassroots lay organization working to advance the Culture of Life by encouraging faithful participation in the political process do not represent this Catholic woman, born, brought up, and now living back in the state. For the record, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Catholics Network, Ted Meehan, is a former State Chairman for the Republican Party. I am surprised and in fact pleased that there is hardly any anti-Mormon sentiment during this election. I wonder if that would be the case if Obama were not the opposing candidate.However, racism is a factor. My husband gets e-mails that are indeed racist from a former colleague. A friend of mine has told me about people she knows, who despite their high education and accomplishments, make racist comments against Obama. The local NPR station had a call-in session about the affect of political divisions within families. Several callers told about how uncomfortable they were with racist remarks about Obama by members of their family. I have not had any personal experience. During the 2008 electionm I had a student who told another student that he was voting for Obama and she called him a "nigger lover." This occurred in a Catholic school. I realize that several anecdotes do not warrant a generalization, but racism is out there.

David Nickol--You are, of course, entitled to your opinion that Professor George believes another professor has lied. You are also entitled to state that opinion without offering any support for it. You are also entitled to the opinion that Professor George thinks another professor has lied but, for reasons other than charity, has refrained from accusing said professor of lying. But that seems an uncharitable conclusion.

Mark Proska,Anyone who can read and understand English can apprehend that Robert George, in That tendentious ("he's a Randian extremist!!!") anti-Paul Ryan statement, is attacking Charles Camosy's truthfulness and integrity. Have you actually read it?

David Nickol--And now you imply that anyone who disagrees with you cannot read and understand English? Do you think that is charitable?I read the "res ipsa loquitur" remark by Professor George as his way of saying Professor Camosy has not made his case (I happen, somewhat reluctantly, to agree with Professor George).

And now you imply that anyone who disagrees with you cannot read and understand English?Mark Proska,In this case, yes. George says, "One of the architects of the statement, Charlie Camosy, makes an effort in the comments section to defend it as truly non-partisan and fair to Ryan, but res ipsa loquitur."George is saying Camosy makes an effort to defend the statement as non-partisan and fair, but it plainly isn't. Now, he could have responded to Camosy right on First Things. Elizabeth Scalia and other contributors to the On the Square section of First Things respond to commenters. But instead George wrote a piece, not open to comments, on Mirror of Justice. But the real slam is the last line. George says the document could have been different if it had been written with the same "interpretive charity" as Camosy's book about Peter Singer, and ends, "But then, such a statement wouldn't have been of much use to the Obama campaign."Clearly George is accusing Camosy (and the others) of not really trying to explain Catholic Social Teaching, but of writing a partisan document to try to help the Obama campaign. It is one thing to accuse the authors of On All of Our Shoulders of being deeply wrong or badly mistaken. But that is not what George does. He accuses them of being frauds.

"He accuses them of being frauds."David Nickol--Actually, he doesn't, but I'm beginning to wonder if he hasn't convinced you that's the case. I do not believe Professor Camosy is a fraud--far from it, from the relatively little I've read of him. I do wonder, however, if sometimes his mouth bites off more than his intellect can chew. As just one example, he probably thought his attempt, referred to by Professor George, to harmonize strains of Peter Singer's thought with Catholic moral teaching, was novel and thought-provoking. I think, while earnest, it was half-baked and misguided.

As just one example, he probably thought his attempt, referred to by Professor George, to harmonize strains of Peter Singers thought with Catholic moral teaching, was novel and thought-provoking. I think, while earnest, it was half-baked and misguided.Mark Proska,Have you read the book?

" As just one example, he probably thought his attempt, referred to by Professor George, to harmonize strains of Peter Singers thought with Catholic moral teaching, was novel and thought-provoking. I think, while earnest, it was half-baked and misguided."Mark P. --Charlie Camosy has defended that position on this very blog. Not only did I agree with him, but even before he voiced his position, I had said the same thing: some of the important premises of Singer's arguments about a human being's right to life are in fact the same as some of those of Thomas Aquinas.Have you read Singer and Aquinas on the subject? You would undoubtedly be surprised. Don't ask me for references. I read this stuff years ago. Go check out Charilie's book, which, I noticed just the other day got a very positive review at the blog of the Cambridge University Press. The editors over there are not minor league, and they were pleasantly surprised. review ends with: "... this book is valuable to those who are interested in fresh thinking about the relationship between religious and secular ethics."

David Nickol--No, I'm afraid based on the reviews and discussion I read it did not make the cut.

Game, set, match to David N. Well done.

Ann--Thanks for the link. I followed it and found that the book was given a favorable review by, surprise, Peter Singer!

David G--You do realize, of course, that by your logic one cannot have a negative view of the ideas espoused in Mein Kampf without having read it. I believe the ball's in your court now.

Mark P. --I looked for Singer's review but couldn't find it. Would you perhaps still have it handy?I admire Singer greatly for his honesty and willingness to follow his premises to their conclusions. Sometimes that takes courage. And most of all he seems to be willing to accept truth no matter where he finds it. He's very Thomistic in that regard too. Admirable man, even if his ethics isnt all that hot.

I looked for Singers review but couldnt find it. Would you perhaps still have it handy?Ann,The "review" Mark Proska refers to is a blurb on the back of the book, which is also on the Cambridge University Press web site, and reads in its entirety

"Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular." --PETER SINGER, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, and Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne

George admonishes the authors of On All of Our Shoulders for failing to acknowledge that its highly unlikely that Randian policies will be enacted by a Romney administration.You didn't actually respond to this argument at all, except to make a tu quoque against George and Garnett. If the only argument you can come up with here is a tu quoque, aren't you conceding that the "Shoulders" crowd is being overly alarmist as well?

Does anyone really believe that Ayn Rand would vote Obama/Biden and not Romney/Ryan if she had to vote for one of these two tickets? Unlike Professor George, she would no doubt agree with Obama, Romney, Biden, and Ryan that the main issue in this election is economic policy. The presidential election is not a referendum on abortion or same-sex marriage, nor is it even a referendum on the Obama administration. It is, or ought to be, about which candidate's policies would have the best effect in those areas over which a president has the most influence. I would agree with Professor George that the best reason to vote for Romney is that he might succeed in replacing a pro-Roe Supreme Court Justice with an anti-Roe Justice, but I would disagree with him about the likelihood of that happening: a dependably anti-Roe nominee would almost certainly not be confirmed by the next Senate. So George's best reason is better described as a distant hope. I would also disagree with George about how dependably prolife Romney is. His position on this issue, as on many others, has changed according to political circumstance. I'm sure he will make the right noises if he's elected, as every Republican president since Reagan has. But if abortion were really of fundamental importance to Romney, as it is to George, you might expect him to say more about itand to speak with something like George's strength of conviction on the rare occasions when the topic can't be dodged rather than say things like this. The policies both Romney and Ryan like to talk aboutand the only policies about which they have never changed their mindshave to do with protecting the wealth of the rich from what Rand and Ryan and now, strangely, George himself would describe as collectivism. It is really as simple as that.

Ann--David Nickol is correct. That is where I saw the review. Though far from detailed, it is similar in scope to what you characterized as a favourable review from the Cambridge University Press, so I thought sneer quotes would be disrespectful.I don't think it's fair to say, "The policies both Romney and Ryan like to talk abouthave to do with protecting the wealth of the rich" More importantly, the policies have to do with increasing the wealth of the non-rich. We certainly can't say our government's present policies have done that--just look at the unemployment rate, the poverty stats, the number of people on food stamps

Mark: The unemployment rate,the poverty stats and the number of people on food stamps might have something to do with the deepest recession since the great depression. And it was brought about in large part due to the collapse of the housing market and the financial sector. What government policies would you suggest could have changed that in the past four years?

Jbruns--It's a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The recession was not Obama's doing, we agree. I also think it wasn't Bush's doing (much) either, but that's beside the point. In fact, I believe Bush, like Obama, inherited a recession. Bush was just too much of a leader and had too much confidence in himself to constantly blame his predecessor when things didn't go his way.I do believe, however, that the policies the President put in place have turned it into such a deep recession, with such an anemic recovery. To answer your question, I would recommend policies that are consistent with those put forth by Romney/Ryan/Kennedy (JF). Lower tax rates for everyone, fostering growth that benefits everyone, and which don't corrode the nation's soul by pitting poor man against rich man, young man against old man, minority man against non-minority man

Mark, effective taxes have been at historic lows during the recession. Romney is calling for reducing tax rates, not taxes. He claims his plan is revenue neutral. Most economists argue the stimulus was too little and not enough was done to reverse the housing crash. These were impossible to get through the divided Congress.

Upon further review, I would like to take back my comment that, in his discussion of Singer's views, Professor Camosy's argument was half-baked. That did not accurately convey what I thought (or think) and it was a poor characterization on my part.mea culpa, mea culpaThe "misguided" stands, howeverat least for now. ;-)

Hey, Mark, good of you to qualify your statements.

" theres nothing strange about a Catholic objecting to the presidents views on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception coverage Commonweal has published critiques of all those policies."interesting that Obama's view on gay marriage is fully matched by ex-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, whose marvelous book "Quo Vadis?" reveals her as a leading Catholic theologian.

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