In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Mark Tooley’s response to Sohrab Ahmari’s controversial tweet about a China-led twenty-first century and American decadence. They also recap Mark Melton’s conversation with Steven Howard about the 2021 report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), along with an article about Pakistan’s justice system.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow Mark(c)s and fellow editors, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. We’re reviewing three pieces from Providence this week. Firstly, my own response to New York Post columnist Sohrab Ahmari’s controversial tweet essentially preferring China as a superpower over the decadent United States. Secondly, a piece on the seeming acquittal of the murderer of a Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. And thirdly, Mark Melton’s interview on USCIRF’s 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. Starting with Sohrab Ahmari, a friend to many of us but often zealous in his expressions, and who tweeted out his preference for a disciplined and strong China as a global superpower over a decadent and corrupt United States. A tweet that he later removed, but not expressing any regret over it. My response to it was yes, the United States has plenty of decadence, as do all nations. Although in democracies, the decadence is there in the spotlight for all to see, whereas in dictatorships, of course, it’s hidden away, and those who call attention to it are suppressed often violently. And I remember the great, by some standards, American diplomat George Kennan, the architect of containment of the Soviet Union, who during the Cold War’s final years often expressed thoughts like Sohrab Ahmari’s, that America was so decadent really was there any point in wishing for its victory or survival against the Soviet Union? He at one point wrote that why would we want to defend the porn shops and dirty movie theaters of downtown Washington, DC over and against the Soviet Union? So, there again the same thought. Corrupt America, is it really worth defending? I say yes. What say you, Marc LiVecche?

LiVecche: I say yes. Is Sohrab Ahmari worth defending on this? That’s a little more complicated, right. His tweet was at least inelegant. Not him at his finest moment. Part of what’s regretful is that it opens him to the continued charge that the opponents of liberalism, or those who think that some of the inadequacies of liberalism are features not bugs of liberalism, it opens them to the continued charge that the opponents of liberalism are themselves simply illiberal. And that’s regretful. I don’t think some of Ahmari’s earlier criticisms of liberalism necessitate that, but the tweet doesn’t help. I’ve defended him in the past, on that I can’t defend the tweet. I have tried to understand what his sort of point was. And he focuses on of course Confucianism and Confucianism being sort of the grounds of Chinese wisdom. And okay, on that point sure. I think there’s a lot of good to say. So, Confucianism and Confucius promoted a virtue theoretical account of ethics, similar in some ways to Aristotle. And that that’s a good thing. Like Aristotle, Confucius suggested that cultivating patterns of good behavior as a means of intentionally developing noble character is a sure means towards a life of human flourishing, of happiness. That’s something that any westerner should applaud and should support. Unlike Aristotle, some say, I think the critique is maybe less robust than some make it, but unlike Aristotle, some say Confucius was much more interested in the acquisition of virtue at a level that’s more embedded in collective practice. So, participation in social structures. Just far less individualistic than an Aristotelian account of virtue ethics. Again, I think that might be unfair, at least as Aristotle flows through Thomas Aquinas, you begin to see concern for the common good as being essential to all of this. But one can see why Ahmari might prefer, in that sense, maybe not prefer but promote, a Confucian understanding of virtue. I think Protestantism, and again rightly and wrongly, Protestantism has always opened itself up to charges of being sort of hyper-individualistic. An emphasis on personal salvation, personal relationships with Christ, all of this is open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but I think there’s a critique that’s possible there. And in this case with Protestantism, I would think that’s a bug not a feature of Protestantism. But you could see how an adamant critic of Protestantism would create that emphasis on individualism. It’s the same critique I think that’s at play in Ahmari’s critique of liberalism. It’s too individualistic; we should instead be concerned with playing our part in the greater good. And so, in that sense, I think Ahmari’s got, if that’s his promotion of Confucianism then there’s something there to talk about. But as you’ve pointed out the West has its virtuous grounding as well. All countries do. It is a good habit for us as we critique other nations and other cultures and other ideologies to see the good that is there, but it’s a similar virtue to see the negatives that are there. And so, it’s one thing to say that if China, and the qualifier is a big one, if China returned to its Confucian roots, it would be, and he doesn’t even say if-then, he says, if it did return to its Confucian roots, it would be a more capable leader in the 21st century. As if they don’t return to their Confucian roots, they’ll still be a pretty capable leader in the 21st century, and apparently better than decadent America. That’s going too far. So, that’s too much.

Tooley: Reinhold Niebuhr remarked after the communist revolution in the 1940s that the Confucian ethic in China essentially sealed its doom in that there was no capacity for individual resistance to tyranny, so it paved the way for the Maoist takeover.

LiVecche: I think there’s something there, right. You heard similar critiques in Eastern Europe, taking on a philological dimension, where within the language requirements of, in particular Slovak say, it was built in that as one learned Slovak, it would reshape one’s mind such that it left them more open to totalitarianism. There are these kinds of deeply embedded cultural frames that often leave somebody more open to rebellion or more open to simply acquiescence. And say what you will about America, there is something in the American genes that makes us truculent and resistant, not always in the right way, as we can assert, but yeah. I didn’t know that critique by Niebuhr, but that’s intriguing. There’s something to be said there.

Tooley: Mark Melton, tell us about your interview with Steven Howard of In Defense of Christians about the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s latest report on global religious liberty.

Melton: So, every year USCIRF will do these reports where they highlight different countries and they recommend some for the “CPC,” or the countries of particular concern. And then they also have a special watchlist. And so, these recommendations go to the Secretary of State, who then decides whether to follow the recommendations and issue sanctions on these different countries for their violations of international religious liberty. And then they often will give sanction waivers to Saudi Arabia, for instance, but this report is sometimes a first step toward those particular sanctions. So, USCIRF, of course, as a body is independent and bipartisan, set up by Congress. And Howard kind of highlights how this is a good thing that there’s basically a watchdog on the government and watchdog on these other countries to kind of monitor what these other countries are doing. And that it’s kind of independent because often the executive branch will want to ignore particular crimes that are going on in other countries, because if you’re the president, you want leeway to kind of negotiate with people. Whereas when you have a congress coming in kind of forcing the issue, whether it’s on this or the Magnitsky Act or Global Magnitsky, it kind of forces the executive branch to focus on these issues. And so, what IDC does, he kind of described it as a watchdog on the watchdog, and so they have particular observations that they wish USCIRF had taken. For instance, they wish that Turkey had been placed on to the countries of particular concern, which is the higher tier, but USCIRF did not do that. They think it’s still under the special watch list. And one of the things he highlights is that some of the bad things that Turkey is doing is mentioned under the other countries. For instance, talking about Syria, they talk about what Turkey is doing in Syria, but it doesn’t talk about it in the Turkey section. So, we kind of talked about some of the downsides of the report, and then just mostly I would say it’s more of a positive review of the what USCIRF is doing and what their goal is and just their role in US foreign policy in this particular area. So, I recommend listening to the podcast. We also are going to run an op-ed by Howard sometime soon, as soon as we can get edits back and forth, and that will go into detail about some of the different countries. And then there’s links in all of this to the report itself, as well as to a video that In Defense of Christians did where they had several of their specialists talk about particular countries in more detail.

Tooley: Excellent, Mark Melton. And, finally, on a somewhat related topic, the partial acquittal of the murderer of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Alfonse Javed suggests that the target of our irritation, if not anger, should not be so much at the Pakistani judicial system, which is striving to be more independent of other actors in the country, but rather our anger and concern should be directed at Pakistan’s education system, which continues to encourage a hatred of religious minorities, including, of course, Jews and Christians. Which would have been motivating for the murderers of Daniel Pearl. Marc LiVecche, what do you think?

LiVecche: I think it’s an interesting insight. Again, this is quite a burp and hiccup, but these are going to be the burps and hiccups of a system that is trying to liberalize in some ways. You need to leave various institutions independent. They’re going to make mistakes; the big thing to see is that they can self-correct. The idea of holding the education system accountable is spot on. I mean, we see it increasingly here. Education forms citizens; citizens go on to act in public life. I think back to Nazi Germany, or the end of Nazi Germany, and one of the I think twelve or so people that were hanged at Nuremberg was Julius Streicher, who himself didn’t directly kill a single human being, but he was responsible for some of the education of German youths. In particular, he put together a booklet called The Poisonous Mushroom, which was a hideous anti-Semitic screed promoting all sorts of nonsense and lies about the Jewish people and their diabolical ways. And in his condemnation, they specifically cited that he was responsible for poisoning the minds of a generation of German children and that he deserved nothing less than death. And, in some ways, I think people held him as more reprehensible than even the monsters who directly slaughtered innocent people. So, I endorse the recommendation. I think that’s right.

Tooley: And then, finally, Mark Melton, can you fill us in on what to expect from Providence next week?

Melton: Well, we have another article from Olivia Enos about I think it’s Christian persecution in China that is scheduled for next week. I know that LiVecche has a True North episode that is coming up.

LiVecche: An interview with Elbridge Colby and Dan Strand about Bridge’s article in National Interest on alliances and partners and values versus interest-based foreign policy. It is a great articulation of realism, call it Christian or moral realism.

Melton: So, that’s in the pipeline, and the other bits are escaping me. We have other stuff that we’re editing that will be forthcoming.

Tooley: We look forward to it. My response to Sohrab Ahmari, I was trying to find a quote from one of the Founding Fathers that I thought was appropriate. It may have been Benjamin Franklin. He reflected that monarchies often fly under full sail and can move very quickly across the ocean metaphorically, but also are more prone to catastrophic shipwrecks. Whereas democracies and republics often travel taking on more water into the ship and their route is often more haphazard, but ultimately more stable and more likely to make it into harbor. So, this is a long-time theme for many even in America who imagine that dictatorships and autarchies may offer more dynamic discipline, may move forward more quickly, may corral their people more effectively. And such critics are impatient with the complications and sometimes even the decadence of republics and democracies, but yet as Americans, I hope that we will be patient and have faith and confidence that republics are much more likely to pull into safe harbor than are our competing dictatorships around the world, most especially China. My final thought. Thank you, fellow editors of Providence, Mark Melton and Marc LiVecche, for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.