Since the day I started blogging, I’ve returned repeatedly to an issue I find fascinating: America’s retreat from a God-derived, externally driven moral system in favor of an alleged moral system that is, in fact, a peculiar amalgam of emotion (“if it feels good, do it”), arrogance (“I’m Ivy League educated, which enables me to understand the real moral issues here”), and Marxist-based (social or economically oppressed people always behave morally if their transgressions are against “the man”). I’m returning to this issue today because Jonah Goldberg has a new article — actually, an excerpt from his contribution to a new book — that also examines this phenomenon, although at a deeper level and with greater style than I could ever achieve.
Because I’m a firm believer in eating dessert last and in writing my posts so that they build up to a stirring crescendo, I’m going to begin this post with my own meager offerings on the subject of America’s new morality before getting to Goldberg’s article and the ideas it raises.
To explain my fascination with America’s tremendous moral shift, I credit a news story I heard and a movie I watched during my long years as a generic Democrat. They made me realize that we are in a time when our popular culture encourages every man and women to be his own god — at least if that man and that woman include in their doctrine the basic premise that men are bad, white men are really bad, and that everyone else lives in a hierarchy of victimhood that determines their moral-status.
It was an NPR report I heard in the 1990s (and that I cannot locate in the NPR archives) that first alerted me that America was well on its way to abandoning traditional moral notions, especially those predicated on the Ten Commandments. As best as I can remember, the report was about an American high school that was trying to deal with an escalation of student-against-student crime, most of which, I think, involved theft. The school instituted special classes during which a counselor would talk with groups of students in an effort to get them to change their habits. The NPR reporter attended one of those classes.
During the class, the counselor had the students imagine a scenario in which they’d left their wallet behind and someone walked off with it. Once the students had that picture firmly in mind, the counselor asked them to discuss their feelings. The students readily did so, describing anger, frustration, sadness, perhaps empathy (if they imagined the thief needing stolen money to buy food), a desire for revenge, etc. After all the student had talked about their feelings, the counselor suggested that, if they stole something, their victim might also experience those same feelings. The implication was that it’s not nice to inflict negative feelings on others.
This being the 1990s, when the journey from garden-variety Democrat to hard-core Progressive was still a work in progress, the reporter was taken aback, something that I doubt would happen today. I remember his wrap-up, during which he noted that the counselor never once mentioned that, as a moral matter, stealing was wrong. Empathy was the name of the game.
The reporter may have been perplexed by this omission, but even then, despite my Democrat identification, I wasn’t. If the students had been so bold as to ask the counselor why stealing is wrong, the counselor would have been at a loss for words. His answer would have boiled down to “because it is.” The reality is that, because religion is banned from schools, the counselor had no higher authority to justify the claim that stealing is wrong. The only thing he could do was point to feelings — which are definitely real for the person experiencing them — and to hope that teenagers, who are collectively the most narcissistic beings on earth, would have a sudden burst of empathy that would override their selfish, and presumably irresistible, urge to make someone else’s possessions their own.
A few years later, in 2000 (when I was still thinking of myself as a liberal Democrat), I watched The Contender, a movie in which Joan Allen played a candidate for Vice President who was the victim of appalling sexual slanders put about by Republican villains so dastardly that they made Snidely Whiplash look staid and restrained. During her darkest hour, Allen goes an empty basketball court where, while shooting basket after basket, she breathlessly recites the doctrinal beliefs of what she calls a church based in “this very chapel of democracy” (i.e., Congress).
Here’s the video, followed by a transcript:
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentleman of the Committee. Remarkably enough, it seems that I have some explaining to do. So, let me be absolutely clear.
I stand for a woman’s right to choose.
I stand for the elimination of the death penalty.
I stand for a strong and growing armed forces because we must stamp out genocide on this planet, and I believe that that is a cause worth dying for.
I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home. Period.
I stand for making the selling cigarettes to our youth a federal offense.
I stand for term limits and campaign reform.
And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of Church and State, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism.
Now, I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves, that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very Chapel of Democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain, and this church.
(A decade after watching The Contender, and being rather stunned by its navel-gazing in lieu of traditional morality I wrote a post explaining how Allen’s monologue sounds remarkably like something Barack Obama would say. A couple of months after that post, I again had occasion to note that Hollywood movies conflate the Progressive platform with an absolute moral code.)
By 2006, when I’d finally crossed the Rubicon and become a full-blown constitutional conservative, my sense about the politicization of morality, and its alliance with Marxist political doctrine, was well-enough developed to become a post at American Thinker. The catalyst for that article was yet another movie — Maria Full of Grace — from 2004. Maria Full of Grace follows the sordid picaresque adventures of a small-town Latin American girl who comes to America as a drug mule. I disliked the character’s narcissism and amorality, but didn’t really get steamed about it until I somehow wandered across the reviews written when the movie was first released.
What horrified me was that the MSM’s movie critics, all of whom hew left, were raving about Maria’s moral righteousness — and this despite her many traditionally immoral acts. For example, when Maria found she was pregnant, she refused to marry the father of her child. Once having dumped her boyfriend, she became a drug mule and then, when the drug lords were after her, she deliberately placed innocent people (including children) in danger in order to protect herself. As far as the critics were concerned, the fact that Maria lived a dead-end life in Mexico (“Maria is a victim of economic pressures,” said Roger Ebert), her choices were all righteous. She was a victim and, just as blacks cannot be racist (never mind the slurs they direct at other races or creeds), it appears that, in the Marxist economic hierarchy, poor people cannot be immoral.
Given my ongoing thoughts about America’s changing definition of morality, you can imagine how excited I was today when I read Jonah Goldberg’s Empty Integrity, an essay he wrote for The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell. Using pop culture as a springboard, Goldberg examines way in which Americans are being encouraged to abandon traditional morality in favor of feelings. Goldberg describes a pop culture in which interesting people with whom we are made to empathize are viewed as morally superior to boring, unpleasant people, regardless of the fact that the former have utterly abandoned traditional morality (e.g., criminal mastermind Walter White, from Breaking Bad), while the latter are still trying to conform to that same traditional moral behavior (e.g., Walter White’s wife).
With his trademark humor, Goldberg cites to one hugely popular show after another, in which audiences are encouraged to identify with, or at least root for, the villain, rather than the good guy. This is an inversion of pretty much all Western popular culture going back thousands of years. To help constrain human conduct, Western cultures have defined what is “good” (the Judeo-Christian culture uses the Bible to provide this definition) and has then shaped its popular culture to elevate and make this good accessible. Now, though, with Hollywood in thrall to a worldview that denigrates faith, and believes that morality is the same as feelings — provided, of course — that those feelings are being felt by a member of the victim class — there simply is no room in entertainment for the traditionally moral guy to be either interesting or successful.
Or, as Goldberg says:
The truth is, it’s hard to find a children’s cartoon or movie that doesn’t tell kids that they need to look inside themselves for moral guidance. Indeed, there’s a riot of Rousseauian claptrap out there that says children are born with rightly ordered consciences. And why not? As Mr. Rogers told us, “You are the most important person in the whole wide world and you hardly even know you.” Hillary Clinton is even worse. In her book It Takes a Village, she claims that some of the best theologians she’s ever met have been five-year-olds (which might be true when compared with a certain homicidal Ukrainian priest).
Such saccharine codswallop overturns millennia of moral teaching. It takes the idea that we must apply reason to nature and our consciences in order to discover what is moral and replaces it with the idea that if it feels right, just do it, baby. Which, by the by, is exactly how Lex Luthor sees the world. Übermenschy passion is now everyone’s lodestar. As Reese Witherspoon says in Legally Blonde, “On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life.” Well, that solves that. Nietzsche-Witherspoon 1, Aristotle 0.
The above two paragraphs, while amusing and informative on their own, don’t do justice to Goldberg’s carefully (and amusingly) developed thesis about the death of traditional morality in America. I urge you to read the whole thing.
Because the intellectual universe often harmonizes nicely once I get an idea my head, just an hour or so ago, a friend sent me an article showing that Jonah Goldberg and I aren’t the only ones thinking about the way in which morals are becoming de-valued in America, especially because of Marxist thought. Larry Correia, who earned well-deserved internet fame for his Second Amendment defense after the Sandy Hook shooting, has written a sterling post about the peculiar “morality” amongst self-styled Social Justice Warriors (“SJWs”).
Social Justice, as you’ll recall, is a movement predicated upon dressing the tenets of Progressivism up as moral imperatives. Leftist churches that don’t have time for Christ’s teachings, as well as Leftist synagogues that find the Torah old-fashioned, are big on social justice teachings which fill the gap created when House’s of Worship cling to their religious status despite having actually abandoned their religion.
The occasion for Correia’s post was a breaking story from SJW-land about the fact that one of its members, using a variety of alias’s, used the SJW’s crude tactics of insults, threats, intimidation, etc., against his fellow SJWs. Horrors! After absolutely savaging the SJW’s hypocrisy because of the way it accuses mild-mannered conservatives of oppression, intimidation, etc. — and then uses precisely those tactics to destroy the conservative — Correia gets down to the whole privilege hierarchy that the SJWs use to justify their hypocrisy:
If you really want to see just how stupid people can get, read the comments, where SJWs argue about “privilege”, where a bunch of white, liberal suburbanites excuse attacks on people who disagree with them, because they probably possess some nebulous concept of privilege. Like me for example, I grew up with Portuguese Dairy Farmer Privilege, where all that back breaking manual labor, knee deep in cow shit, at 3:00 in the morning, in order to scrape by in near poverty all those years, somehow turned me white and made it so that it was okay for SJWs to lie about me.
Privilege sounds awesome. You guys should totally get some of it.
Please read the rest here. It’s that good.
Reading the above, I’m reminded of that old joke that “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Any person who has even a vestigal sense that traditional morality serves society well because it demands that people behave well towards others (and then enforces that demand by reminding people that running afoul of these rules could cause eternal damnation), is going to be worried about the fact that we’re dangerously deep into “do-it-yourself morality” territory. ” Do-it-yourself morality is sold as a paradise in which people’s innate innocence, empathy, and good sense (something everyone who has ever cared for a toddler knows is a fantasy concept) inevitably lead them to do the right thing, resulting in a pastoral wonderland where the lion lies down with the lamb.
When this particular fantasy fails — which is always a surprise to the useful idiots — the new moralists tell the public that there is, in fact, original sin. Unlike that stodgy Catholic teaching about original sin, however, true original sin doesn’t occur in all people. Instead, it’s only to be found in oppressors. Oppressors are guilty of everything; the oppressed are guilty of nothing. Under this paradigm, morality is what the oppressed do to relieve themselves of the weight of oppression. Interestingly enough (at least to the ever credulous useful idiots), this so-called morality doesn’t work either. Indeed, it has an uncanny knack of leading first to riots (think: Ferguson) and then to rebellion and revolution.
Once rebellion and revolution are on the menu, the likelihood of a freedom-based constitution emerging is close to nil. (If you want an analogy, try to imagine how many monkeys, on how many keyboards, for how many years, would be able to come up with that doctrine. Can’t imagine that? Neither can I. The Founding Fathers were not the norm; they were a complete anomaly, and their like will probably never been seen again.) What inevitably emerges from the chaos is faith in the strongman, whether that strongman is big government or big dictator.
Our Man Obama of the Blessed Pen and Phone is working hard to merge these two bigs, with a Big Man heading a Big Government. “Mess on the border? Don’t worry, with a stroke of the pen, I’ll erase the whole problem of illegal aliens by redefining them as legal.” “Concerns about two-tier pricing for broadband internet access? No fear. With the stroke of a pen, I’ll bring the internet in the government fold, along with one of my solid-gold, time-tested promises that this act is to free the internet from businesses, rather than to subordinate it to government.”
When it comes to America’s fall from a traditional morality that is premised on externally imposed values of justice, respect, and grace, and enforced by the hand of God, it’s frightfully easy to talk about the problem, and to describe its various manifestations in great detail, . What to do about the problem, though, remains the big question. As Jonah Goldberg’s article makes clear, even those of us who decry this bizarre societal fall from grace are avid consumers of the same Hollywood and Madison Avenue fare that drives the fall.
So, having written this nice, very long post, I have a question for you: What steps can we, as ordinary individuals take, to try to resurrect the notion of a morality that transcends human emotions and politics, and that must be enforced if a society is to survive and thrive?