Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
They Said It:
In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue – becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule one.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981.
DON’T CARE? TOO BAD!
Psst. Over here. Lean in a bit. We want to let you in on a little secret.
But before we do, we want your assurances that you won’t tell anyone. If you do, we could find ourselves in deep doo-doo. How so? Well . . . we have no idea, really. But that’s beside the point. It can happen. We’ve seen it happen before.
Here’s the thing: we don’t care about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. Truth be told, we don’t really care about NFL players at all. We don’t watch the NFL. We haven’t in a long time. How long has it been since the Jayhawk-turned-Redskin John Riggins retired?
Anyway, we don’t care about them. We don’t care what statement 49ers’ back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick thought he was making last season, and we don’t care what those who joined him thought they were doing this season. We don’t care what President Trump said about it. We don’t care how outrageous or hurtful or whatever his statements were. We don’t care about the players and the entire teams that responded to Trump by kneeling on Sunday. We don’t care that the NBA champion Golden State Warriors got in on the act as well, cancelling their traditional trip to the White House. We don’t care about any of it.
We don’t care. We don’t care. We don’t care.
And that, you see, is the problem. Today, you’re not allowed not to care. You must care. And, perhaps more to the point, you must care in precisely the way the government and its ruling-class enablers want you to care, lest you be cast into the lake of fire (proverbially, that is, at least for now). To borrow the title of Erick Erickson’s 2016 book, “You will be made to care.” That is today’s governing ethos in a nutshell.
Now, to be clear up front, we’re not certain that our point here squares perfectly with Erickson’s. We have not read his book, and his examples of “being made to care” do not always precisely overlap with what we have in mind. Nevertheless, there is at least some overlap. More to the point, it’s a great line and an apt description of the contemporary political ethos, and we didn’t want to borrow it without giving credit where it’s due.
For our part, we’d like to start today with a bit of Alasdaire MacIntyre, the great Thomist philosopher who so aptly described the current state of moral chaos that characterizes our modern, post-Enlightenment, liberal society. We have, of course, cited MacIntyre countless times of the years, probably not as often we have cited Mark Steyn, but often enough.
Most of the time, we mention MacIntyre in order to note, briefly, his observation that the Enlightenment project destroyed the existing moral structures of the West (which, in his estimation, were Judeo-Christian and Aristotelian, as you would expect from a Thomist), leaving pure moral chaos in its wake. This notion of moral chaos created by the destruction of the ancient virtues is the foundation of MacIntyre’s work, his moral philosophy, and of his critique of contemporary society.
To illustrate the point, MacIntyre starts his classic tome, After Virtue, by asking his readers to imagine a hypothetical world of scientific chaos. He writes:
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
In such a culture men would use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ‘mass’, ‘specific gravity’, ‘atomic weight’ in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.
The purpose of this thought experiment, MacIntyre writes, is to explain to the reader just what he means by moral chaos, to illustrate the effects that he believes the Enlightenment has had on the notion of morality. He continues:
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 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 simulacra 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.
The point of all of this, MacIntyre argues is that the Enlightenment project and all the “moral philosophy” that has followed have rendered our discussions of morality – and our applications of morality – entirely subjective and arbitrary, just as in his scientific hypothetical. What this means, in basic terms, is that morality means whatever we say it means, whatever we decide is most compatible with our experiences and with our feelings about what should be considered right and wrong. And since every person has his own experiences and own feelings, there can never, at any point, be any sort of agreement about what truly is moral, what truly is the proper and virtuous course of action. As a result, therefore, morality – in theory and especially in practice – becomes an exercise not in persuasion, but in coercion. Representatives of one viewpoint disagree with representatives of another viewpoint, but since neither side can rationally or effectively convince the other – due to the subjectivism of the moral project – the whole effort breaks down into intimidation and bullying. And even that does not achieve the desired outcome. Or, as MacIntyre put it:
The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character. I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on and on — although they do — but also that they apparently can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.
So this is where we are, according to MacIntyre: a society that knows only bits and pieces of the language of morality that existed before the Enlightenment, and which therefore fights constantly and to no purposeful end about personal preferences, which are misinterpreted and overstated as moral positions or propositions. Moreover, lacking the proper tools for moral persuasion, members our society are reduced to coercion, to the real or implied threat of force (of some sort) to settle or “win” moral disagreements.
Yesterday, the New York Times published, in column form, a speech given this past Saturday evening by the paper’s conservative columnist Bret Stephens. The title of the speech – and of the column – was “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” He put it this way:
To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.
But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.
And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.
Stephens goes on to say that the reason we are failing is not because we no longer disagree, but because we no longer do so effectively, no longer do so in good faith, no longer do so justly or righteously. Such is the modern world, we’re afraid, precisely as MacIntyre concluded. Of course, in his attempt to persuade us of his case, Stephens cites his own personal experiences and his own personal analyses, again, precisely as MacIntyre concluded. What Stephens does suggest, though, is that the problem is a lack of education and, by extension of “practice.” Citing Allan Bloom and his opus The Closing of the American Mind, Stephens argues that once upon a time, societal elites were schooled in the “great works,” but that such schooling no longer happens. And that is a problem because such “liberal” schooling is necessary for a liberal society. “For free societies to function,” Stephens wrote (and said) the idea of open-mindedness can’t simply be a catchphrase or a dogma. It needs to be a personal habit . . . .
Given that Bloom’s ideas owed a great debt both to MacItyre and to C. S. Lewis, this is unsurprising, which is to say that Stephens’s supposition is also precisely as MacIntyre concluded. Indeed, MacIntyre’s simple yet largely untried solution to the current state of moral discourse is the practice and the habituation of classical virtues. Of course, as Stephens points out, you can’t practice them, if you never learn them. And as he notes, the elite institutions haven’t taught them in decades.
All of this, in turn, brings us back to the conflict today that dominates our politics – the fight between the ruling class and the country class. The ruling class, as we have noted repeatedly, is different from the country class, and not just in its accumulation of power, money, and fame. The ruling class has a shared set of experiences that differentiate it drastically from the country class and that place it in opposition to the country class. In his classic 2010 essay on the subject, the originator of the “ruling class vs. country class” paradigm, our old friend Angelo Codevilla, put it this way:
Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and “bureaucrat” was a dirty word for all. So was “social engineering.” Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.
Given all of this, what we are left with is, perhaps, the most dangerous and the most destructive ruling class imaginable – throughout the West, but especially in the United States.
We have a ruling class with shared experiences that separate them from those over whom they rule. We have a ruling class the individual members of which therefore believe many of the same fragmentary and misconceived notions of morality. We have a ruling class that is unstudied and unpracticed in the traditional virtues and that0 therefore has no idea how to “disagree” gracefully. And we have a ruling class that not only intends to coerce agreement with its arbitrary moral proclamations, but controls the apparatuses by which to do so, to mandate, by penalty of law or other equally harsh punishment, conformity. To make matters worse, all of this added together leaves us with a ruling class that has no conception of true reason and which therefore acts exclusively on its emotions and practices its coercion in part through the manipulation of the country class’s emotions. In short, then, as far as our ruling class is concerned, you will be made to care.
In his column of the same name – and presumably his book – the aforementioned Erick Erickson cites a handful of examples of people against whom the state has used its coercive power to make them care. He runs through the list of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers who have been fined by various state and local entities for refusing to provide services for gay marriage. We get the point he is trying to make, but we think he might be trying too hard and, in so doing, misses the proverbial forest for the trees.
As we have written many times before in these pages, we are sympathetic to the same sex marriage cause. At the same time, however, we also understand that the process by which we arrived at the point where same-sex unions are considered marriages indistinguishable from traditional marriage is a case study in being made to care. Once upon a time, gay men and women wanted nothing more from society than to be left alone: not to be bothered, not to be harassed, and not to be punished simply for being who they are and loving whom they love. As the politics of the matter evolved, though, the moral question also evolved, on both sides. And both sides sought not to persuade the other, but to demand the other’s submission. One side insisted that traditional morality frowned upon same-sex attraction and thus the practice should be shunned, while the other side pressed its case for acceptance more firmly and more seriously and in more overt moral terms.
The same-sex marriage debate changed not when gay couples sought fair treatment under the law and equal protection, but when the ruling class decided that the case for gay marriage could be used as a cudgel to bludgeon religious traditionalists. At that point, the issue was no longer about fairness and equality, and became more about forced acceptance. The political activists – which is to say straight and gay militants – demanded not merely that same-sex unions be accepted by the population at large, but that they be sanctified by state approval, that the people, through their representatives, be made to care about them.
It is worth noting here that in his now-famous/infamous brief on the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) ruling – which more or less legalized gay marriage throughout the country – Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the only possible reason that anyone anywhere could oppose state-sanctified gay unions was pure bigotry. To wit:
The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States . . .
DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency . . .
By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition . . .
While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.
As we have noted before, this is very powerful language, used in the service of a profoundly unimpressive argument. Here, Kennedy establishes as official Court precedent the notion that the only possible reason not to support or provide for same-sex marriage is rank bigotry, which is to say the desire “degrade or demean.” In his estimation – and now the Court’s official estimation – denial of same sex unions is an unworthy and untenable position. Your religious beliefs, your moral beliefs, even your apathy notwithstanding, in other words, you will be made to care.
We could go on in this vein for a long time. We could note, for example, that the government is hardly the only institution by which the ruling class effects its coercion of those with whom it disagrees. Brendan Eich, for example, knows full well that there are other means by which one can be made to care – or to suffer the consequences. But we think that to take that tack would be a little tiresome and unnecessary. After all, Erickson has written a whole book on people being forced to care about gay marriage. That’s not really what we’re after in this piece, though. As we said, we’re sympathetic to the cause, so we don’t really feel the outrage others do and, more to the point, we feel that focusing on this one matter distracts from the larger effort by the ruling class to impose its moral will on the country class.
Why, for example, did the Obama administration insist that both the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby be forced to pay for the distribution of contraception to which they morally objected? Because to do otherwise would show “contempt” for women and specifically for poor women who might otherwise be unable to afford birth control. If you think that’s a specious argument, you’re right. But that’s not the point. Arguments about morality don’t have to be coherent or particularly sound. Indeed, according to MacIntyre, such arguments CANNOT be coherent or particularly sound. They are jumbled, discordant messes, designed not to persuade but to coerce. And what, frankly, could be more coercive than making nuns pay for birth control – or, if they refuse, to fine them up $70 million a year?
Do you think that men and women should use the restrooms that correspond with the genitalia they posses? Well, that makes you a moral cretin, at least according to the ruling class. Do you not care either way which restrooms people use? Too bad. That too makes you morally problematic to the denizens of our ruling class. You should care, they think. And thus they will do their very best to make you care and to make you feel ashamed for ever having not cared. Do you think that illegal immigrants should be returned to their home countries? Do you think they should, at least, not be provided with state benefits? Well . . . guess what? That makes you evil. And your “moral” notion of states having the right and the NEED to control their own borders is pure bigotry. And you will be made not only to care, but to change your mind. Or else. Do you think that “diversity’ is a tiresome cliché used by elite institutions to enforce political conformity and to stifle dissent? Yikes. Sucks to be you, James Damore. We’ll see you on the unemployment line.
Unfortunately, the list goes on . . . and on . . . and on. It doesn’t really matter where you stand on these issues. Personally, we’re all over the board on them. What matters is that a more or less unified and homogeneous ruling class has its beliefs and will use the coercive power of its institutions to enforce those beliefs. You do not have the option of dissenting. You do not even have the option of not caring.
And that brings us back, at long last, to case of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Like we said at the top of this piece, we don’t care about those players. We don’t care that they’re kneeling. We don’t care whether Colin Kaepernick kneeled because he wanted to call attention to police brutality against the black community or because he wanted to call attention to himself, in the vain hope of getting himself traded. But again, we are not allowed not to care. We will be made to care.
If you ask Kaepernick or any of the other players who protested alleged police misconduct by kneeling for the national anthem, they would tell you that all they were/are trying to do is “raise awareness” of the conditions to which they object. That’s all well and good, we suppose, but then, that’s the point: what is “raising awareness” if it’s not trying to force people to care? And what do a group of pampered millionaires playing a kids game know about the real conditions that affect people’s lives? They know only what they know, their own experiences, and they know only that they can and should coerce others into agreeing with them, regardless of the cost in terms of social harmony.
This is not, we should note, to excuse the people on the other side of this issue. Donald Trump doesn’t get a pass on this one. His comments were merely the flip side of the protests. He talks of patriotism and love of country and respect for the flag. But true patriotism (as MacIntyre points out in the “They Said It” quote up top) does not exist. It cannot exist in a society in which there is no community to love and to honor. In Trump’s manner, patriotism, the flag, and so forth are mere terms used to evoke emotions and thereby to coerce agreement. Here, he is no better than the rest. You may agree with him more than the others. And we may so as well. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t trying his very damnedest to make you care, just as coercively as the other side.
If you find all of this exhausting, then we suggest you get some rest, because it’s only going to get worse. As the ruling class continues to congeal into a privileged, homogeneous mass; as the study, much less the habituation of ancient works and eternal virtues become less and less prevalent in the post-modern educational milieu; as the various sides in the contest to control society’s moral positions grow less and less attached to the ancient virtues and more and more certain about the righteousness of their own self-interests; as moral coercion moves from the verbal to the physical, even the violent; our civilizational and national bonds will continue to crumble.
We have long argued that the greatest sin one can commit in the post-modern political world is that of “judgment.” We’re not so sure anymore. At the very least, it seems that apathy runs a close second. Everything is political. Everything is “moral.” And you are not allowed not to have an opinion or, for that matter, to keep that opinion to yourself.