Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: Michael Novak's Web Page

The last two Friday evenings have been spent drinking coffee at a cafe, listening to bad music and reading Michael Novak's web page. (Biographical information on Michael Novak can be found at his website, http://www.michaelnovak.net/ , or in the Links section of this blog.) His style is one that I would wish to emulate. He brings a contagious enthusiasm to each subject that cannot fail to be transmitted to the reader. Novak displays a wide range of interests that by reading him one can broaden his/her horizons. In this, he is much like the recently deceased William F. Buckley. The tone of Novak's writings reminds me of the speeches of Ronald Reagan. Novak understands, as Reagan did, that even as one marshalls arguments against liberal ideas and policies, a clear articulation of what conservatives are for must be made. The audience must feel that they have come away from a positive presentation rather than a negative one. A positive presentation will move readers and listeners to support a positive agenda; this support will be more long lasting than support garnered from a negative presentation. As Novak expresses this in his article, 'Neocons: Some Memories', "...The party better placed to win is the party with the most attractive and realistic picture of future goals." The positive presentation is not just the result of the one who has the right style, but it is made possible by those who have trained their minds and hearts to be positive in outlook. Not only that, one must also have the confidence in ordinary people to bring about change for the better. Reagan understood this; from the tone of Novaks' articles, Novak seems to possess this same understanding.

A good illustration of the above points is Novak's article 'The Spirit of Capitalism.' His defense of capitalism is not merely utilitarian. He presents capitalism not just as the most efficient of economic systems, but as a system that liberates the human spirit to advance itself out of of a poverty that has enslaved great majorities of populations continuously up to the present time. How does capitalism accomplish this? Novak points to the trait that allows capitalism to accomplish what other economic systems cannot:
"What is distinctive about capitalism is its central dynamism, the focus of a host of practical, empowering institutions and practices. That central dynamism, that vivifying focus, is the act of a creative practical, intellect, in the virtue of enterprise. Enterprise (the virtue of an acting person, for which in some languages a proper name does not even exist) is the intellectual habit of noticing, discovering, inventing--of seeing new practical possibilities before others do. What makes capitalism so dynamic is its source in this powerful, innovating habit of mind. Thus the system is well-named for caput- in the sense of wit, inventiveness, discovery."
To illustrate this point, Novak points out that when Reagan became President, much of the large industries connected with our ever increasingly computerized society, such as cell phones and the internet, didn't even exist. Yet a capitalistic system allowed many fortunes in this area to be made as a result of personal innovation. I would add that these new fortunes created many new jobs as well. Novak also points to the success of Asia over the past few decades as evidence of capitalism's power to liberate whole populations from poverty. Novak includes statistics comparing Asia to Africa. While Asia has become increasingly capitalist, much of Africa has been governed by socialist economies. In 1970, Asia contained 76% of the world's poor as compared to 11% in Africa. By 1998, the situation had reversed itself. In 1998, Asia has 15% of the world's poor while Africa contains 66% of the world's poor.

Most people, pro and anti-capitalist, think of capitalism as exclusively focused upon the individual. But Novak reminds us that this just is not so. He reminds us that Adam Smith asked not "What is the source of wealth for individuals?", but "What is the source of wealth for nations?" Smith was searching for a system of universal application that would raise whole populations from poverty. "He was the first man in history to conceive of a world from which poverty will be banished," Novak writes. "...a world of 'universal affluence' (his phrase), a world in which every woman, man, and child will be liberated from the prison of poverty; that was his goal. That is capitalism's goal. That is the chief source of capitalism's morality." There is no better example, in my opinion, than the United States. Here, in the States, a family can arrive in the direst of economic circumstances, and in a generation or two, enjoy unprecedented prosperity.

There are some in the Christian world who show a disdain for democracy. Some of my fellow seminarians blame democracy for the individualistic spirit now rampant within all denominations. Many blame democracy for the world's moral decay. Novak would be in disagreement with these views. Like Francis Schaeffer, Novak correctly points out that democracy is the natural outgrowth of a Christian world view. If one believes in punishments and rewards after death, then one must accept that man has freedom of action while living in this world. If one is not free to disobey God, but disobeys because God pre-programed him to do so, then how can eternal punishment for the man be just? This belief in man's ability to make choices inevitably leads to the belief that man should be free to govern himself. Democracy is the natural result of such thinking. This line of thinking causes Novak to be optimistic about the future of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims believe in rewards and punishments in the afterlife. This belief will eventually undermine the deterministic aspects of Islam and its militancy toward the rest of the world as ordinary Muslims fight to gain autonomy to run their own lives. The enthusiasm Iraqis and those who live in Afghanistan to vote, in the face of death threats, is proof that this change is underway, according to Novak. Does this necessarily mean that Muslims will become decadent as they embrace democracy? From what I read of Novak's columns, he would probably say that such a scenario would not be necessary. Novak does not blame democracy for decadence. The blame for decadence lies in the falling away from faith in God. Faith in God is a bulwark of democracy. Without it, society is liable to degenerate. As Novak puts it:
"...How can a people who cannot govern its passions in their private lives govern their passions in their public life together? There is an intimate relation between self-government in private life--strong moral habits among individuals--and self-government in political life."
Novak contends that the welfare state and the media's promotion of immorality break the link between self-government and democracy:
"It is not democracy that undermines the search for truth, but the moral corruption of democracy from within. The fact that democracy depends on moral agency makes democracy fragile and weak. It is in need of endless vigilance and moral reawakening." (Quotes from and paragraph based on "Michael Novak on the Hunger for Liberty" from Michael Novak's site.)

Here is another quote from Michael Novaks website:
Culture is even more fundamental than politics or economics, for without certain architectonic ideas, certain habits of the heart, a love of argument and evidence and open conversation , and a few other moral and spiritual dispositions, neither a republic respecting rights nor a dynamic capitalist economy can thrive, or even survive." (From "Neocons: Some Memories)
If this is the case, then we must work to change current attitudes towards the arts and history in the academic world. They are increasingly seen as irrelevant to the modern world and are losing funding. Without them, we will not be able to sustain this increasingly technological world as a democracy or a land where individuals govern themselves and determine their own destiny. The arts and history are one of the major vehicles that passes on the Christian ethical system to new generations.

If I were President of the United States, I would hire Michael Novak as my chief speech writer. He is able to articulate and inspire. When I ponder the present Cheif Executive's powers of persuasion, I can only mourn the loss of people like Novak in the speech writers' office at the White House. Imagine the President ending a speech on Iraq with this prose from Novak:
"Next time, doubters, remember this: in the face of virulent adversity, never bet against steadfast bravery. Bravery in the cause of liberty eventually receives admiration, even from doubters." (Quote taken from Novaks article 'More "Bad News" Out of Iraq...?)

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