Come, Let Us Reason Together - So Long as You Agree With Me

By Stephen Steinlight on June 22, 2009

Artfully practiced, casuistry is discernible only by the naturally skeptical or perspicacious while remaining invisible to the gullible or incautious majority. When performed ineptly, however, the duplicity is plain to all. Bungled deception insults ordinary "inquiring minds," repels the more acute, and reveals the intellectual slovenliness that accompanies the bad ethics, making each that much more deplorable.

A good illustration is the official announcement by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) of the goals of a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.

The half-million-dollar gift supports two goals and a project to advance one of them. These goals, described with high-minded clichéd blather, are not merely incongruent, they are total non-sequiturs. In fact, one is openly at war with the other. The first sentence of the press release, the most emphatic, tells us the purpose of the grant is to "create momentum for comprehensive-immigration reform." No ambiguity there; AJC is getting a bundle to pursue a political agenda that is anathema to the great majority of Americans. But the statement adds that "AJC will convene a series of roundtable discussions with a broad spectrum of community stakeholders in the immigration debate to seek common ground." Ann Schaffer, director of the AJC's Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Center on American Pluralism, is then quoted as saying that the goal of the grant is "to encourage a civil and informed national discourse about immigration" whose purpose is to lead to policies "reflecting America's fundamental commitment to democratic values and human rights, and also respond effectively to our nation's economic and security needs."

What kind of bogus intellectual process is this? Lack of integrity is written all over it. How is it possible for the grant to support a polar position in the immigration debate while simultaneously claiming to pursue an open and honest "roundtable discussions with a broad spectrum of community stakeholders in the immigration debate to seek common ground." If common ground is the goal, the participants, presumably, do not begin in agreement. What the grant actually supports is a travesty, a mockery of honest discourse. This contradiction not only expresses contempt for the free, critical intelligence – which might conceivably lead participants to conclude to oppose "comprehensive immigration reform" – it presupposes "civil and informed discourse" must necessarily arrive at the pre-determined conclusion. Proudly announcing so self-deluding and transparently inauthentic a process can only be understood in light of the groupthink that has replaced critical thinking in the American-Jewish Establishment on immigration.

Is there a better model for undertaking such a "civil and informed discourse" on a highly controversial issue that might have real intellectual integrity? Yes, and AJC's staff didn’t have to look far. It could be found in the files of AJC's own National Affairs Department. During my tenure as Director of National Affairs, my colleague Murray Friedman and I served as chief-co-investigators for a project designed to bring together historical antagonists on First Amendment Church/State issues to see whether it might be possible to find greater common ground with regard to "charitable choice," the term of art for government subsidizing faith-based social services. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, the 18-month dialogic process, with monthly meetings held at the Law School of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., brought together groups that regularly litigate against each other on these issues in the U.S. Supreme Court, among them the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Commission, the Sojourners, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee, etc.

Unsurprisingly, AJC has historically advocated and litigated in favor of the highest possible Jeffersonian wall of Church/State separation and has strongly opposed even modest accommodation, but the forum was in no way defined or determined by AJC's policy predilections. The discourse was free, full, open, wide-ranging, and occasionally heated but always civil. We all learned from each other. Though differences over core issues remained unbridgeable, some agreement was found on the periphery. Participants also collaborated on a joint paper (In Good Faith: A Dialogue on Government Funding of Faith-Based Social Services) that was of great use to state officials overseeing education, health, and social services in spelling out the current state of the law with regard to what is clearly allowable and what more legally contestable with regard to "charitable choice." A wonderful byproduct of such an exercise when conducted with honesty and integrity is that people who previously have seen each other principally or only in the capacity of antagonists develop an ability to see former "enemies" as "opponents" and build friendships and trust across philosophical divides, connections that maintain the social fabric and help make debates about future issues less acrimonious.

It didn't take "rocket science" to help us construct this superior model for dialogue. What was required was genuine respect for diversity of opinion and the willingness to permit the free play of the intellect to take our deliberations in whatever direction it might. It is a foregone conclusion nothing of value will emerge from AJC's roundtable on immigration policy because nothing can from discourse conducted within an ideological/political straitjacket. Why a grant of $500,000 will support such an intellectually dishonest endeavor is the $64 question.