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When everything is a war, thoughtfulness becomes a casualty

David C. Innes | We need constructive discussion in matters of national domestic controversy


Ukrainian flags displayed outside Wrigley Field in Chicago for the home opener of the Chicago Cubs in April Associated Press/Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski

When everything is a war, thoughtfulness becomes a casualty
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“If you are voting against aid for Ukraine … it might be a small tip off to what you really think of freedom and democracy.” So tweeted a former network news anchor, capturing the state of public discussion on our involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war.

It is never “safe” to speak publicly on political matters. Topics become controversial precisely insofar as they are matters of clashing interests, contentious moral passions, and heated debate. But when a country goes to war, lines of loyalty are drawn, and you are either with us or against us. Nuance—seeing and assessing both sides of any related question—aligns you with the enemy. The time for academic discussion is over. Even pre-war discussion of the wrong sort can land an inquiring mind in trouble if it is found and brought to light.

And understandably so. Politics, like war, is about friends and enemies in a dangerous world of competitive goods like land, economic power, and a shared way of life. At the very least, a political community is a stance of communal defense. The protection of borders in a world of grasping and plunder is an important part of the “good” for which God blesses us with a sword-bearing government (Romans 13:4). So, when foreign agents fly planes into our buildings, killing thousands and filling our great city with rubble and soot, no one should expect a calm discourse on the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which may or may not be relevant to understanding the assailants. A nation under attack wants action.

But what is striking in our current situation is that we are not actually at war. Russia invaded Ukraine, not the United States or any of our NATO allies. Yet people are hanging out Ukrainian flags the way we displayed the Stars and Stripes after 9/11. Americans sympathize with Ukraine, and we are suspicious that Russia may have wider goals, so we are supplying Ukraine with arms and intelligence. Tens of billions worth. For free. Perhaps we should go further. Or perhaps not. That’s a fair debate.

People treat certain social controversies as though we were at war, which makes thoughtful, good-faith discussion of them impossible outside of quiet corners with a few trusted friends.

But it is difficult to have that debate in wartime because accusations get flung back and forth, like “appeaser,” “Putinist,” “warmonger,” and “profiteer.” Someone may be one or another of these things or none at all. Thus, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is accused of being a shill for Vladimir Putin and supplying material for Russian propaganda because he questions what strategic American interest is at stake in Ukraine. People who warm to enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine are condemned as being cavalier with uniformed lives. And again, we are not actually at war.

This illuminates some of our own domestic cultural conflicts. People treat certain social controversies as though we were at war, which makes thoughtful, good-faith discussion of them impossible outside of quiet corners with a few trusted friends. Race-related matters have been this way for some time now but recently have become much more intense. Just as in wartime, the enemy is simplified in the popular mind as the unqualified embodiment of evil.

The same could be said these days of what are called LGBTQIA+ matters. Any attempt at an honest and candid examination in this field—whether in the media or academia—will be punished. Questioning whether William “Lia” Thomas or Richard “Rachel” Levine is a woman will bring social ostracism. This is what cancel culture is all about. It designates a moral war zone and punishes with social, professional, and economic death anyone found supporting the wrong side.

When we treat a situation that is not war as though it were a war, constructive discussion—what we need most in the situation—disappears. But some matters of national domestic controversy are like war. They are wars with God and the way He has made the world, the way He has made us, the natural order, the creational order. They are what Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has called “revenge against God for the crime of being.”

Clear and honest thinking is one of the first victims of battle. Our task is to recover the truth and to do so even as the battle rages.


David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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