Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
They Said It:
The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I have described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulcra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. . . . For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder, but the language of morality is in order, just as it is. That he may be betrayed by the very language he uses is not a thought available to him.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981.
EVERYTHING SEEMINGLY IS SPINNING OUT OF CONTROL.
Over the weekend, Michael Goodwin, a politics columnist for the New York Post, penned a column that one would, in normal times, expect to see mocked by James Taranto, who is also a politics columnist, but for the Wall Street Journal. Of course, as we feel compelled to note almost on a weekly basis, we don’t exactly live in normal times, which is to say that we really doubt that Taranto will mock Goodwin.
Goodwin’s analysis may be a touch overwrought, which would normally attract Taranto’s attention, but it also contains more than a kernel of truth. More to the point, Goodwin also hints at a broader political reality that both justifies his pessimism and explains why the problems over which he frets might not be as solvable as other political problems.
Let us explain.
As you may or may not know James Taranto writes the “Best of the Web Today” column for the Wall Street Journal’s online opinion site. Taranto’s daily offerings almost always follow the same pattern: in the first half of the column he provides his generally trenchant analysis of the news of the day, while in the second half, he finds and presents stories and headlines that just happen to fit into a handful of running gags he has developed over the years.
Almost exactly six years ago, at the start of the “Great Recession” and in the midst of the Obama-McCain presidential campaign, Taranto developed one of these running bits in which he pokes fun at both the Associated Press and other journalists who sound or appear hyperbolic in their concern about the state of the world. The gag, titled “Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control,” takes its name from an AP article published in June 2008, which carried the same ridiculous title and which read, in part, as follows:
Is everything spinning out of control? Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism.
Horatio Alger, twist in your grave.
The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the American psyche is under assault. . . .
Americans need do no more than check the weather, look in their wallets or turn on the news for their daily reality check on a world gone haywire.
Floods engulf Midwestern river towns. Is it global warming, the gradual degradation of a planet’s weather that man seems powerless to stop or just a freakish late-spring deluge? . . .
Residents of the nation’s capital and its suburbs repeatedly lose power for extended periods as mere thunderstorms rumble through. In California, leaders warn people to use less water in the unrelenting drought.
As Taranto noted at the time, the “article” and its authors seemed both hysterical and historically ignorant, given their apoplexy. Yes, times were tough. And they would get tougher still. But then, they’ve been tough before. And they will be again. That’s the nature of man’s lot, after all.
Taranto turned the headline of the AP’s hysterical piece into his running gag and, in turn, has spent the past six years having a little harmless fun with others, mostly journalists, who have also worked themselves into a lather about commonplace difficulties. As Horace might have noted, anticipating Taranto’s shtick, “nihil est omnino beatum.” Or, as Butthead would have put it in more contemporary parlance, “Settle down, Beavis.”
Enter Michael Goodwin. On Saturday, Goodwin rattled off his own list of reasons why “everything seemingly is spinning out of control.” To wit:
If you think of the United States of America as a store, its recent decisions and scandals resemble a sale, perhaps a fire sale. Or maybe even a “Going Out of Business” sale.
The list of dramatic markdowns is breathtaking. They include trading away five murderous terrorists for a likely Army deserter, an open invitation to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to cross the Mexican border, and a decision to recognize the terrorist group Hamas as part of the Palestinian government.
On the home front, environmental regulations will cost thousands of coal miners their jobs and drive up the cost of electricity for millions. The ObamaCare mess is hardly resolved, and the Veterans Affairs scandal keeps getting worse. The acting agency head reported the deaths of 18 more vets who were kept off the official waiting list in Phoenix.
Ticking quietly in the background is the mother of all threats — an Iranian nuclear bomb. That ticking grew louder last week as the ayatollah mocked our nation by standing in front of a banner that proclaimed, “America cannot do a damn thing.”
Goodwin, obviously, is a pretty unhappy camper. His litany of ailments plaguing the country is easily as long the AP’s, and probably just as damning. So why, then, do we think that Taranto will spare him his mockery? Or, to put it in more broadly relevant terms, why do we think that Goodwin’s complaints are more pertinent politically and thus less hysterical than were the AP’s? Why do we believe that this list of everything that is spinning out of control has more serious long-term implications than other similar lists compiled over the years?
Take a look, if you will, at the issues mentioned in the two respective pieces, starting first with the AP article. In this six-year-old piece, the issues discussed and which the authors suggest indicate that “everything” is spinning out of control are, in truth, just the standard complaints of difficult times. They seem worse to the authors, largely because they are all happening at once, but there’s nothing particularly unique about them.
Midwestern levees are breaking. Inflation is eating away at the buying power of the middle class. Gas prices are too high. Natural disasters are following one after another. And so on. All of these are problems, true. All cause misery. And all make life harder. There is no disputing any of this. Some fanatics may think that some of these problems are “necessary evils” in the pursuit of greater causes, the fight against global warming or some such, but even in those instances, they are designated as “evils,” necessary though they may be. All of which is to say that there is no normative debate over these matters. All of them are bad. And everyone wants them to go away.
Now look at Goodwin’s list. His complaints include the trading of five terrorists for a deserter, the Bowe Bergdahl fiasco; a massive uptick in illegal immigration; the ongoing Obamacare disaster; the VA scandal with its fake wait lists and dead veterans; and last but not least, the Iranian Mullahs’ nuclear ambitions. We would like to be able to say that all of these too are indisputable evils, that no one with any sense of decency would willingly accept any of these conditions. But we know better than that. And so do you.
The fact of the matter is that these perilous circumstances are only considered perilous by maybe one half of the nation’s population. And only maybe a third considers them “evil.” What this means, then, is that in this case, there is, in fact, a normative debate. There is a question of ethics. There is no consensus on the matters of right and wrong, blessed and wicked, good and evil. There is, in short, a clash of moral codes.
Last week, in a post about the Bergdahl affair, which appeared on the web site for Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner noted the moral chaos at which President Obama’s actions hinted. He put it this way:
The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road. And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter – one whose actions were reported on in the past . . . and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him – into a hero.
This strikes me as morally grotesque. Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.
Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds. Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.
At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another. I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.
If the name Peter Wehner sounds familiar, that’s understandable. After all, he was, at one point in his life, the head speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Before that, he was the executive director of Empower America, the conservative think tank co-founded by Bill Bennett. Today, Wehner is a fellow at the Ethics in Public Policy Center, another conservative organization which is “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” All of which is to say that morality in government and public policy is a subject in which Peter Wehner is well schooled. He’s been dealing with this subject nearly all of his adult life.
And yet he professes only now to be discovering that he, a proud conservative and Christian, occupies a different “moral world” from Barack Obama. Can he possibly be serious?
Regular readers will know that we have been discussing these different “moral worlds” – or clashing moral codes – for better than 16 years now. We find it hard to believe that anyone could honestly be discovering this phenomenon now, at this late date, particularly someone with Wehner’s background and obvious intellect.
We suspect that Wehner is, in fact, well aware of the longstanding clash of moral cultures, and is only being kind here, trying to appear as if he is giving the President the benefit of the doubt. He needn’t do that. Barack Obama is hardly embarrassed of his moral views. He is, indeed, rather proud of them, as are his compatriots on the Left more generally. They believe they have the better of the moral argument and that people like Peter Wehner are the ones who should be embarrassed.
By now, it should be pretty obvious that the cultural issues that divide the nation, those issues that constitute the “culture wars” and which have dominated the political arena over the past several decades, are issues on which the country is divided along the moral codes. Abortion, for example, pits “life” against “choice.” These are not mere labels, but rather representations of the values embraced by the adherents of respective moral codes with respect to the issue. One side values life – the life of the child, the spiritual life of the mother, etc. The other values choice, namely a woman’s choice whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. Each side believes it has the better argument and, more to the point, that it has the more moral argument. One side believes that it is battling the culture of death, while the other sees itself as a warrior against the patriarchy, male oppression. And each sees itself as the defender of righteousness.
And so it is with all (or most) of the cultural issues: Marriage, sex, family, religious freedom, etc. It is common, we think, for some on the right – or on the side of traditional morality – to believe that their political opponents on these cultural issues represent hedonism, immorality, or simply amorality. But nothing could be further from the truth. Both sides represent an interpretation of morality. It just happens to be the case that only one of these interpretations has any history, while the other is more contemporary, post-modern, if you will.
But if it is obvious that morality and the clash of moral codes dominate the cultural debates in this country, it is far less obvious but no less true that they dominate many of the other, less overtly cultural issues as well.
Consider again the example of the Bergdahl release/prisoner swap. Above, Peter Wehner notes that the Obama administration has “elevated an apparent deserter . . . into a hero.” The administration, of course, has been trying to walk back the obviousness of what it did, largely because of the pushback it has received from the one-third of the country that still adamantly clings to traditional moral code. But this is mere window-dressing, a feeble, post-hoc attempt to stifle criticism.
By contrast, on the far Left, where the true believers in the post-modern moral code reside and feel they can share their beliefs without fear of political retribution, the defense of Bergdahl and his actions remains both alive and vociferous. Last week, The Nation, home to some of the most dedicated and talented journalists on the Left, ran a piece titled “Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters.” That piece quotes heavily from Robert K. Musil, “a former Army captain discharged as a conscientious objector,” who wrote a similar defense of desertion for the Nation in 1973. It reads, in part, as follows:
“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Musil says. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”
In that sense, Musil told me, Bergdahl represents many thousands of other members of the US military who resort to desertion as the only possible escape: “When you look at them as individuals, as I did in 1973, you discover that they are Americans who have been caught in a system in which they have very little recourse if they have serious problems. Despite rhetoric of ‘support our boys,’ the support networks are extremely thin. It’s the only job in the world where if it gets intolerable you can’t just up and quit.” Musil notes that during both the Vietnam and the Afghan wars, the very rhetoric used to describe soldiers like Bergdahl has been fraught with jingoism.
“The response from the right wing has been to immediately attack Bergdahl and resort to old stereotypes that he is a deserter, the worst thing you could possibly be,” Musil says. “The term ‘deserter’ is a classic stereotype and it is wildly derogatory.
Pity the deserter, in short.
Consider as well the example of the new carbon/energy regulations released last week by the Obama administration. The Left tries very hard to defend its decisions with respect to energy, global warming, and the environment in terms of “science” and the need to employ scientific principles in the creation of public policy. But again, the moral aspects of the various crusades are far more important and far more driving forces than the largely inconclusive science. As Algore himself has put it, “Make no mistake, [global warming] is not just a political issue, not just a market issue, not just a national security issue, not just a jobs issue. It is a moral issue.”
Last week, after the Obama team had released its proposed new regulations, Lucia Graves, a staff correspondent for National Journal, penned a piece titled “Obama’s Thankfully ‘Dictatorial’ Approach to Climate Change.” Ms. Graves herself, as well as some of her critics, have noted that the term “dictatorial” is somewhat overblown in this context, but that shouldn’t detract from her larger message, that is that climate change is such an important and morally critical issue that any means necessary to achieve its abatement is acceptable. Bypassing the Constitution, ignoring the law, negating the will of the people, whatever. All are fair game in the most important struggle mankind has ever faced.
What do climate change advocates – or the Left in general – call those who wish not to have the government stifle economic growth and energy production in pursuit of nebulous environmental goals? They call them “deniers,” a term intended specifically to associate skeptics with “Holocaust deniers,” those moral reprobates who couch their hatred and anti-Semitism in false history. It is a term intentionally and unquestionably loaded with moral imagery.
During the debate over health care reform, President Obama liked to couch his mission in moral terms. “I consider [this] to be a core ethical and moral obligation,” he would say. “That is that we look out for one other, that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. And in the wealthiest nation on earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call.”
Think about that for a minute. It’s not that providing health care is a moral obligation. Or that expanding insurance coverage is morally necessary. It’s that HIS plan and his plan alone is morally acceptable. Anything less or anything else fails to meet the basic duty to “live up to” the obligation. Never mind that his plan was and is an enormous boon for insurance and pharmaceutical companies or that the regulations involved in his plan necessitate the violation of moral conscience on several fronts. The failure to accept his pronouncements is tantamount to moral depravity.
And so it goes. Why does Obama negotiate with the Mad Mullahs? Because he believes he has a moral obligation to rid the world of nuclear weapons and that negotiations provide him an opportunity to do so. Why does he violate the written and implied laws of the land with respect to immigration? Because he believes he has a moral obligation to do so. Why does he pursue largely pointless and ineffective gun reform? Moral obligation. Moral obligation, moral obligation, moral obligation. Look at almost any issue relevant today, from the war in Afghanistan to unemployment insurance, from student loan reform to the Keystone pipeline. It is inevitable that the issue will be couched by both sides in terms of conflicting moral principles. And this is because both sides adhere to conflicting moral codes.
Why is it that the AP appears hysterical, while Michael Goodwin does not? The AP thinks that everything is spinning out of control simply because bad things are happening. Bad things happen. And then good things happen. And then other things happen. Things just happen.
Michael Goodwin, by contrast, thinks that everything is spinning out control because of specific decisions made by one man (or one political party) that have broad moral implications. These decisions are highly unlikely to be reversed, precisely because of the moral certitude from which they sprang. And even if they are, somehow, reversed, that will not solve the problem or alleviate the sensation that everything is spinning out of control. It will merely shift that sensation to a different segment of the population, from Michael Goodwin to, say, E.J. Dionne or Ezra Klein or one of the other Leftist journalists.
The sad truth of the matter is that this country is decidedly and largely irreversibly divided along moral lines. There is no remedy for this division. Time simply will not heal this wound. It doesn’t matter if the next President of the United States is Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, or Mark Melcher. Whoever it is, a significant portion of the population will oppose everything that he or she does on moral grounds and will see every decision, every policy, every regulatory ruling as an affront to basic common decency.
The final two points we would like to make in closing here are, we know, controversial. First, we would argue that the country has never been as divided as it is today. We realize, of course, that the nation fought a civil war 150 years ago. We realize as well that as recently as the 1960s and 1970s domestic terrorism – including the occupation of buildings, the murder of police officers, and the bombing of various government institutions – was not only unexceptional at the time but was also considered a “legitimate” form of protest by segments of the population.
Even so, we would argue that the population as a whole, both in 1861 and in 1971, had a shared, common moral code, one which we have, for lack of a better term, called the Judeo-Christian code. Yes, some rich planters in the South willfully used this code to permit the perpetuation of the institution of race-based chattel slavery. And indeed, there has never been a time when everybody in the country shared the same moral beliefs, as the radicalization of the 1960s demonstrated.
But we have come a long way since the 1960s, and not in a positive direction. The post-modern moral militancy that fueled the youth rebellion of the 1960s has become the moral foundation of the contemporary Left. This moral code that was once embraced only by a small minority faction has, over time, become the moral code for the majority of today’s “Progressives.” Indeed, the very nature of the nature of the Progressive movement has morphed from a radical religious movement, determined to reform society in preparation for Christ’s return, to an ostensibly radical secularist movement, determined to reform society by purging any remnants of religiosity from the public square.
The second point revolves around this notion that the country is “irreversibly” divided along moral lines, as we noted above. We are, unfortunately, not entirely convinced of this – which is why we hedged ourselves a bit by writing that the nation is “largely” irreversibly divided. We actually believe that the country may yet again embrace a common moral code. Sadly, we don’t believe that it will be the same common code that prevailed over the course of the country’s first two centuries. We believe, in fact, that it is far more likely that the post-modern ethic will, at some point, win the battle of the two codes.
More likely still, we think it entirely possible that the country will abandon the project of morality altogether and embrace the nihilism of materialist indulgence. But that, we suppose, is a story for another day and another newsletter.
In any case, we don’t see that there is much hope, at least under present conditions, for a revival of the traditional moral code that both gave birth to this nation and propelled it to prosperity. The capture of the institutions – and especially the institutions of education and entertainment – by the Left has made a near-term restoration of moral conservatism highly unlikely. And hence the push among those who oppose post-modernism for an embrace of “libertarian” virtues and libertarian politics. It is far easier, one presumes, to convince the population to embrace nothing than to embrace something. But again, that is a story for another day.
In conclusion, we think that the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, as put forth in the concluding paragraph of After Virtue, provide a glimpse of the future for those who embrace the traditional moral code and wish to see it embraced more widely. Keep the faith, in short, but don’t expect everyone else to do so.
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes pan of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.