Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1991

September 1991

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy

By Albert O. Hirschman

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 197

Price: $10.95

Review Author: Bill Fitzgerald

Albert O. Hirschman, Emeritus Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, scrutinizes three reactionary theses. The “perversity thesis” argues that a proposed reform will yield “the reverse of the desired results.” The “futility thesis” holds that a proposed reform will be cosmetic, illusory — “as the ‘deep’ structures of society remain wholly untouched.” The “jeopardy thesis” contends that a proposed reform ignores “older hard-won conquests or accomplishments [which] cannot be taken for granted and would be placed in jeopardy by the new program.”

Taken separately or together, this imposing array of theses often effectively blocks change. After five chapters of such analysis, Hirschman makes a dramatic and self-acknowledged shift in Chapter Six, “From Reactionary to Progressive Rhetoric.” Apparently the use of rhetorical devices to win a debate rather than advance an argument to a more sophisticated level is not a monopoly of the forces of reaction!

Yet, Chapter Six in no way invalidates the basic contribution of what has preceded. And it is an appropriate lead into the critical message of his seventh and final chapter, “Beyond Intransigence,” which is a call to civilized discourse. In the tradition of sources as disparate as Mill’s “free marketplace of ideas” and Aquinas’ careful attention to “objections,” Hirschman calls us in his final page to reject “arguments that are in effect contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and disputation impossible.”

Hirschman’s book helps us think once more about the impact of ways of knowing in the physical sciences on ways of knowing in the social sciences. What is the meaning of a “law” in social science? Is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” equivalent to the Law of Gravity? Hirschman refers to “physics envy” as a trap for students of social science.

Hirschman leads us to refinements of thought and expression that put to shame the facile division of the political world into the “good guys” and the “bad guys” — conservative and liberal, progressive and reactionary. It is intriguing to learn that dismissal of opponents as “do-gooders” was a phenomenon of the late 19th-century German commentators, who coined the term Weltverbesserer. The much discussed and highly significant issue of “unintended consequences” is illuminated by a description of how “unintended” becomes “undesired” and then “undesirable.” Hirschman asks us at least to entertain the possibility that unintended effects may prove salutary.

Hirschman shows — or reminds — us that the retreat into ideological labels is not helpful. His book deserves to be read along with Christopher Lasch’s “The Obsolescence of Left & Right” (NOR, April 1989) and the subsequent chapters of what became Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven [reviewed in the May 1991 NOR]. Such works alert us to the dangers of rhetoric as obfuscation and help us remain dedicated to the advancement of reasoned discourse.

Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions

By Peter Kreeft

Publisher: Servant Books

Pages: 219

Price: $8.95

Review Author: Gary Mar

A survey of high school principals in 1958 asked, “What are the main problems among your students?” The answer was: (1) not doing homework; (2) not respecting property — e.g., throwing books; (3) leaving lights on and doors and windows open; (4) throwing spitballs in class; (5) running through the halls. The same survey question asked in 1988 (just one generation later) produced these answers: (1) abortion; (2) AIDS; (3) rape; (4) drugs; (5) fear of guns, knives, and murder in school. This is how Peter Kreeft drives home a point that everyone knows: We live in bad times.

The point of Kreeft’s book, however, is to remind us of a truth of St. Thomas More’s which we too easily forget: “the times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them.” Kreeft has written a survival manual “for ordinary people who want to develop a Christian mind to provide a foundation for their moral choices and a guide to their living.

Kreeft’s book is uncannily wise and practical and spiritual. Like the saints, it is difficult to categorize. This is not just another book on ethical theory, although Kreeft tackles important theoretical issues. He diagnoses why we have lost our belief in moral absolutes and then critiques intellectual barriers to recovering it. He also convincingly demonstrates that to separate God and ethics is to deprive ethics of the source of its life and directing power. But since God made moral rules and inscribed them in human nature, they can be known without knowing an absolute moral law-giver. This theoretical distinction leads to some very practical advice: “…Christians need not and often should not appeal to religious faith as the reason for criticizing public sins like abortion, pornography, or indifference to the poor. These are sins against God, it is true, but they are also sins against man, against human nature and natural law, and that is why we can call on all people of good will, or any religious faith or of none, to cooperate in enforcing justice, in protecting the innocent victims of crimes that kill human bodies or harm human souls. Until Christians are clear about that, they will never win in the public arena, for non-Christians will continue to think and fear, as they do now, that Christians are trying to ‘impose their own values’ on others.”

Perhaps what is most engaging about Kreeft’s book is that it explores the spiritual disciplines that make moral living possible. Lack of intimacy with God has led many Christians into the cults, the New Age movement, and Eastern religions. The antidote, says Kreeft, is not merely orthodox Christianity but living Christianity. “Orthodoxy alone is not enough, as a map is not enough. We need the ability to follow the map.”

Kreeft’s book is unabashedly religious, yet it is not only for committed Christians. It is also suited for reclaiming the minds and hearts of prodigals. Kreeft has the philosophical ability to address the questions that people really have, dispel false beliefs, and speak the truth with sparkling clarity. Combining faith, reason, and imagination, he also has the ability to reveal the reality behind religious talk.

But there’s something more inviting here than moral apologetics. As Aquinas has observed: “No man can live without joy. Therefore if he lacks spiritual [true] joy, he will necessarily turn to carnal [false] joys.” Kreeft opens one’s eyes to a vision of what it means to live and move and have our being in God, and thereby offers the reader a beautiful invitation to joy.

Beyers Naude: Pilgrimage of Faith

By Colleen Ryan

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 209

Price: $19.95

Review Author: James T. Matheiu

The Rev. Frank Chikane, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, sets the tone for Colleen Ryan’s book when he says in the Foreword: “His [Beyers Naude’s] conversion, followed by nearly three decades of courageous opposition to apartheid and an unrelenting struggle for justice, has provided a powerful legacy of hope: a legacy which demonstrates for black South Africans the capacity of Afrikaners, and of whites, to change, and the potential for a non-racial future in our beloved country.”

Those who have watched the pilgrimage of Beyers Naude over the years have seen clearly the faith and love it will take to change the Republic of South Africa.

Those being introduced to Naude for the first time will see a man who has been in the center of a wrenching struggle for human dignity that has gone on at the southern tip of the African continent for the last half of this century.

Early in the book a short but helpful historical introduction to the religious, ideological, and institutional roots of South African apartheid is provided. The institutional pillar for this society is the National Party that came to power in 1948 and still rules. The ideological pillar emerged from the Afrikaner Broederbond (Brotherhood of Afrikaners), which was founded in 1918 by the National Party. The religious pillar had its genesis in the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the Dutch Reformed Church.

Each of these, as the author indicates, has played a significant part in Naude’s life and experience as a young child, student, clergyman, social critic, and reformer. Growing up in the NGK, being a student at Stellenbosch University (a microcosm of Afrikaner society in the 1930s when the racist ideology was being formulated), ministering in the NGK, launching the Christian Institute of Southern Africa in 1963, being banned by the government in 1977 and unbanned in 1984, and being succeeded as the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches by Frank Chikane, a black — these were major events in the shaping of Naude.

Colleen Ryan captures the spirit and activities of one who has been an important player on the religious and political landscape of South Africa. The carefully researched elements of the life of Naude offer the reader keen insight, not only into the man’s endeavors, but into the motivation beneath the activity.

If the book succeeds as a biography, it succeeds less well as a “biographical history.” The author, having focused so diligently on Naude, missed “the times” of Beyers Naude. The Afrikaners’ feeling of chosenness and superiority, their pressure to maintain control, and their fear of total loss as a people do not come through. The blacks’ hunger for dignity, their painful humiliation, and their longing for equality never surface.

Yet, whatever its shortcomings, this book introduces the reader to the dynamics of reform and change that the life of a person such as Beyers Naude illuminates.

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