Morality for a conventional animal

February 18, 2015



How We Got Stuck in the Funhouse

What is is less important to us than what ought to be.  The reason is simple.  We judge the one by the other.

At the elemental moment of experience, we impose a moral scale on reality.  This is unavoidable.  We can’t possibly stand outside ourselves.  Even those who seek God in revelation must do so through the dark mirror of their humanity.  Even for them, man is the measure of all things.

If morality is the judge of reality, the question would seem to be what system of morality brings the greatest justice or completeness to the trial.  This has been a reflexive tic of educated persons in my lifetime:  the judgment of morality, ending always in a guilty verdict and the death sentence.  In the rush, a step has been missed.  The old morality lies dead by our own hand, yet the superior alternative is nowhere to be found.

Those marching toward that land of milk and honey were lured into a conceptual funhouse from which they never emerged.

We can’t transcend the world to judge the world.  We need a moral standard to discover a superior morality:  but in that case, the decision is already made.  Once I need a standard to find the standard I get lost in an infinite regress.

The fine spirits of my generation took the verdict against morality for granted, but this reflected a sense of the historical moment, the zeitgeist, and beyond that the oppositional herd instinct of the intellectuals.  A positive alternative was lacking.  A platform from which to condemn the old morality was lacking, so the accusers made strange gestures toward universality and science, and ended exactly where they began – appealing to the old morality they had discarded as if it were a universal or scientific truth.

German and French philosophers paved the road to the funhouse.  They dismissed reality as mere convention, and repudiated convention as a mask for exploitation and abuse.  But this indictment could only be derived from the most conventional of moral precepts, directly descended from Christianity.  The philosophers were looking for an Artist-Tyrant beyond all morality but instead found the middle-class parson who had troubled their childhoods.  They spoke of authenticity and existential freedom but they were stuck in the funhouse, going round and round.

The rest of us followed without a moment’s hesitation.  That’s the seductive power of style and fashion.


How Convention Trumped Perfection, and Always Will

We have been driven to the edge of moral dementia by the uniquely modern quarrel with convention.  In the past, convention was just the way things were done.  To us, it’s the curse of history – a masked lie – a magician’s cloak dropped over reality to conceal the immorality of power.  We think ourselves worthy of lives that are perfect and true, and we look on our existing social arrangements with a ferocious loathing.

Those who dispensed the lethal injection to the old morality intended to clear the ground for an authentic moral order.  But nothing is happening.  The world-historical clock remains stuck at a minute before midnight, while the new dispensation refuses to be born.  Such an absurdity can be explained only in the context of history, which is to say of tradition and convention.

In principle, morality and convention differ sharply.  The one aims for high ideals, the other for compromises so we can get along.  Morality is absolute and universal, convention relative and local.  Morality commands “You shall not kill,” but convention finds many reasons to do so.

The sophisticated and super-educated of our times, in their simplicity, believed they could rip away the veil of convention, and dwell in a world ruled by lofty ideals.  Behind the veil, however, they found – nothing.  That world does not exist.  It has never existed.

Functionally, the gap between morality and convention narrows to the vanishing point.  We are born with certain behavioral predilections.  This has been called the moral sense but is really an instinct for rightness in social encounters.  It resembles the language instinct in being a generic endowment “tuned” to the specific idiom of the community.

The mechanism for moral tuning is imperfectly understood, but seems to involve observation, imitation, and powerful emotional tags that convey the feeling of right and wrong in many settings and circumstances.   In this manner, ought becomes enthroned at the gateway of experience.

Abstract principles play no part in the tuning process.  They are supplied after the fact:  that “all men are created equal” was to Jefferson a self-evident description of reality, rather than a newly discovered axiom from which all justice must follow.  Once articulated, such principles get absorbed into the moral language – but the fit with the community’s ideals of behavior is always imperfect, always riddled with exceptions.

Any attempt to formulate morality, like geometry, from axiomatic principles will necessarily fail.  The cause of failure isn’t our fallen state or conspiracies by billionaires.  Geometrical morality must fail because ours is a deeply conventional species.  If we rip away convention we slip insensibly back into convention – never pure morality.  If we deny the legitimacy of history, we set in motion a tragicomedy of unintended consequences rising out of the depths of historical causation.

That describes our present condition.  We have rebelled against history and failed, and now we are sick with vertigo in that funhouse of unintended effects.


Conventional Morality and the Morality of Convention

The strictures of convention must be treated with great care, not because they are right in every instance but because they tap directly into potent emotions.  When displaced, these emotions can explode into nihilistic violence.  The twentieth century, a long experiment in the trampling of convention, invented the killing fields and the extermination camp.  The new millennium, at war with history, seems to be staggering in the same direction:  we are the first to crash commercial aircraft into skyscrapers.

Syria 2015

Syria 2015

But this is a call to caution, not to fatalism or moral inertia.  Conventions change:  they must, if they are to adapt to a highly unstable human and technological environment.  The break with the past is always difficult, often traumatic.  Many of the conventions that have evolved since 9/11 and the emergence of social media would have been considered dueling offenses by our great-grandfathers.

The only meaningful question before us isn’t whether the old conventions were superior to the new, but how on earth we can arrive at such a judgment.  The way out of the funhouse, for those who wish to leave, consists of discovering the authority or criteria that entitles us to call some aspect of conventional morality right or wrong, better or worse.

The pleasure principle and its obverse, the precautionary or victim principle, are applied by default in the public arena.  Both pointed the way to the funhouse.  We have been pleasured and victimized by special pleaders into a state of utter bewilderment.

Morality consists of behaviors found to be successful and right in the past.  “Successful” means that the behavior binds the individual to the community.  “Right” means that it moves in the direction the community has set for itself.  All this is given.  We confront morality from childhood as a series of tragic choices, by which we amputate our most urgent desires so we can learn to live with others.

But there are choices.  Without repudiating morality or veering from the historic direction of the community, we assert ourselves.  Moral boundaries fit no person perfectly:  in a gray uncertain hour, each of us must cross the frontier.  Many do so out of selfishness.  That is almost always a false step.  But morality can judge morality.  Convention can oppose convention.  Human nature, our native sense of rightness, will set boundaries beyond which no social arrangements can function.

Motherhood is an ancient moral ideal for women.  Success in the pursuit of an interesting career is a more recent ideal.  Choices must be made.  Something will be lost.  So long as the pleasure principle has been discarded, so long as the community’s perspective has been considered, an individual is free to wrestle with her private circumstances.  Her path through the wilderness will be her own.

Independence is a necessary condition in a democracy.  Sustenance is necessary for life.  Dependence on government handouts will threaten personal freedom, but may ensure survival.  Choices must be made.  To the extent that the individual has risen above a childish self-indulgence, he is free to make a call.

The same is true of private choices like abortion and of more public decisions like a stand on gay marriage.  History and the community must have their say.  Selfishness can play no part.  Beyond that the individual must search his private store of wisdom, and judge.


The Amorality of Government, and Who Is Responsible

Conventional morality is nothing more than the sum of such judgments.  It isn’t tidy, but it allows free range to trial and error, success and failure, and so opens the way for our moral thinking to evolve gracefully with our changing circumstances.  It is also morality as actually practiced in an open society, as opposed to our fond geometric illusions or the circular condemnations of the philosophers.

The top-down approach that unleashed a torrent of rights and prohibitions for political power to impose has conspicuously failed.  Absolutist zeal is no match for the hardness of reality – or the digestive capacity of history.  The lost highway of radical transformation dead ends in disorientation and nausea.

Morality works on a more human scale.  Modern democratic government, for example, connects to office-holders, factions, and voters, never directly to morality.  A president or an attorney general can act immorally.  The same can be said of a bureaucrat or a voter.  Government, considered objectively, is just machinery.

While it’s true that convention pertains to community, and reality, and history, responsibility ultimately must always take the form of a personal decision.  The only legitimate player in the moral drama is the individual.

In praise of (my) ignorance

January 21, 2015


The truth – the whole truth – lies beyond the reach of the human race.  God may perceive all of reality at a glance, but the rest of us are doomed to a point of view.

Science, the modern form of revelation, deals with a limited set of facts and relationships.  Its truth is esoteric, partial, and passive.  Research can deliver a life-saving vaccine:  but caring about human life is a moral proposition, unprovable by scientific methods.  The brilliant scientists of Nazi Germany perfected the jet engine, rocket propulsion, and the mass production of murder at Auschwitz.

Truth isn’t up for grabs, of course.  It isn’t socially constructed or invented by evil white men.  If you believe that, stand for just a fraction of a second in front of an onrushing truck.  The world can kill you.  We learn that lesson early, or we are crushed by it.

Truth is perspectival.  I can see you only from where I stand – never as you see yourself, never as others see you, never totally, never absolutely.

Being human, I perceive truth under a specific aspect:  that of my perspective.  So I know a bit, but I miss a lot.  Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building is a radically different experience from street level.  In each case, we think we know what we’re looking at, but we miss a lot.

To speak with absolute certainty is to strike an affectation.  I find this to be the comic failing of our moment in history.  A great revolution in information and communication has placed all authority in crisis, yet people tend to speak in dogmatic assertions, as if they have access to the whole truth.  They concede that you and I are blinded by a point of view, and miss a lot:  but not them.  Since “them” means us, any discussion quickly takes a sour, theological turn.

The translation of the Bible into the vernacular spawned a host of sectarian prophets who insisted they alone understood its message.  In our time, the unprecedented dispersal and democratization of information has had a similar effect.  Facile minds are amazed by how much they know, and find easy patterns, and preach to the multitudes the one true way in politics, or economics, or war and peace, or food consumption, or social relations.

Latter-day sectarians think they own the lever with which to move the world.  But the reality is, they don’t.  They believe they can ordain the future.  But they can’t.  Failure is inevitable but always interpreted as betrayal.  Truth then becomes something ordinary people can’t handle:  a murky conspiracy, the rule of secretive vampires.

Much of the anger consuming our public debates pours out of a conviction that truth really is up for grabs – that nothing exists unless powerful people wish it so.  As an explanation of the world, this is largely self-refuting:  every accusation must be understood to be a manipulation, around and around.  But as an exercise in shifting blame for failure and moral inertia, it’s emotionally satisfying.

An age of affectation feigns to see through the truth:  but we are still clueless children playing games in the street, while that truck, loaded with randomness, bears down on us.

Accepting that truth is perspectival doesn’t entail wobbliness of any sort.  It entails humility.  It’s a sharp reminder of the human condition.  Every day I must wrestle with the angel of doubt.  On every question I am forced to measure, dismayed, the vast abyss of my ignorance.

I’m an analyst.  I spout assertions all over the place.  Should I hem and haw and qualify?  That would be indigestible.  Should I assume the mantle of authority?  That would be dishonest.  Is there a middle ground?  Probably, but it would mean absorbing as many different perspectives on the subject as my limited mental bandwidth can hold.  That’s time-consuming and hard.

Is the payoff worth it?  Much of the time, the effort seems disproportionate to the output.  I labor mightily to get at truth, but deliver a point of view.

Yet all this turns out to be healthy:  possibly for me, certainly for us.  Humility is the beginning of true science, the foundation of what Karl Popper called the open society.  Ignorance invites tolerance:  I want to get to where I’m going, and your directions, though contrary to mine, may actually take me there.

I don’t need a mystical feeling of fraternity to hear you out.  I just have to remember that the world is very large, and that I am small.

Failure, too, becomes a source of enraged cynicism only if I presume a right to God-like infallibility.  Failure is information plugged into the one process that has ever propelled the human race forward:  trial and error.  This method isn’t called “trial and glory” for a reason.  In human affairs, most things fail.  We then have a choice:  learn and advance toward the light, or scratch the itch of wounded vanity and blame the world’s injustice.

Nor is this choice in any sense determined.  If ignorance is infinite, so are the paths that lead to truth.  We decide on direction.  As an analyst, I decide.  Reality contains an element of freedom, and for this reason acquires a distinctly historical flavor.  (The universe, without changing a single atom, resembled a clockworks in the eighteenth century, a folded sheet in the twentieth, a crazy dynamic system today).

Truth comes with a history and a genealogy.  Those who aspire to an unchanging realm of perfect certainty misunderstand the human adventure, which is a great migration into the unknown.

Christ, Christianity, and Christmas

December 23, 2014

nativity 3

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of the man the Greek gospels call Jesus Christ:  that is, “Joshua the Savior.”  He is worshipped by Christians the world over as the son of God, but all acknowledge his humanity, and it is the human aspect of Jesus that I would like to consider.  No man has had a larger impact on how we understand right and wrong, or on how, in consequence, we wish to behave.

It is remarkable how little we know about Jesus, and how well we know him.  We don’t know when he was born.  December 25 is just a convention, probably borrowed from the Roman carnival of Saturnalia.  We don’t know what he looked like or what he sounded like, though in an age of face-to-face persuasion his physical presence must have been charismatic in a literal sense, and his voice (Life of Brian notwithstanding) must have carried over the multitudes.

He was a middle-class boy, a carpenter’s son from the hilltop town of Nazareth – a place with a view of the far distance.  Those who watched him grow up there apparently considered him a perfectly normal person, and couldn’t imagine he would amount to much.

He was a wonder worker.  While he lived, that was the quality that set him apart from other men, and gave weight to his words.  There was a hidden power in the carpenter’s son, a force that could be felt even in the hem of his cloak, and it allowed him to bring the dead back to life, and give sight to the blind.  In our rational age, this claim has been a source of embarrassment to some.  Thomas Jefferson famously tried to write a gospel without miracles, which is like rewriting Moby Dick without the whale.  Others, less well disposed (see Life of Brian, above), have ridiculed without mercy the miraculous side of Jesus.

From the perspective of morality, the wisest take on the subject comes from the 1953 movie, The Robe.  In it, crazed Emperor Caligula takes the skeptic’s position, screeching, “Do you expect us to believe these stories that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand… make the crippled walk and the blind see again?”  To which Richard Burton, playing the tribune who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus, replies:  “It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, Sire.  All that matters is that there’s no story that he made anyone blind.  There’s no story that he made anyone a cripple or ever raised this hand except to heal.”

Jesus was a teacher, a rebbe.  He interpreted Scripture and Law in the synagogues of Galilean towns – including Capernaum, where a very fine synagogue of that time has been discovered.  Often, he went beyond the letter of the law, to what he maintained was its true intent.  He thought, along with many in his day, that a great upheaval was coming, and he preached a moral transformation to make Israel worthy of God’s judgment.

The wealthy and the powerful, the lawyers and intellectuals earned his scorn:  they were “whitewashed sepulchers,” brilliant outside but full of corruption inside.  Like his miracles, the anti-establishment side of Jesus has been a problem for comfortably established Christians.  His condemnation of the rich surely inspired modern-day socialists and Marxists:  there is a sense in which Marxism can be understood as a Christian heresy.  But one shouldn’t make too much of this.  Jesus saw in poverty a glorification of the spirit, whereas Marx, a materialist, wanted to abolish poverty.

Jesus was probably the first pacifist.  He taught, “Resist not evil.”  This too was an exaltation of the spirit over physical power, and it is, I confess, the Christian doctrine I find most troublesome – though one, luckily, that has yet to be implemented in any Christian country.

I said that most people think they know Jesus well.  If we were asked to wrap up Jesus in a single word, that word, let me suggest, would be “forgiveness.”  He offended the orthodox because he forgave law-breakers, and affirmed that God forgave them too.

Today we live in harsh times, with videos of beheadings and sexual predations just one click away from one’s monitor.  But we can form no idea of true harshness:  of the unforgiving nature of the ancient world.  Even the best and noblest of the ancients, like the Athenians, showed scant acquaintance with compassion.  Everyone believed in winning.  Everyone equated greatness with goodness.  To be poor was not only a misfortune but a disgrace.

That this world is beyond our comprehension is due entirely to Jesus.  He introduced into human morality a nobility far loftier than any imagined by the Greeks (though glimpsed, it may be, by Socrates, who reasoned that it was better to suffer wrong than to inflict it).  The strong, we now believe, exist to protect the weak.  The rich, we make certain, are taxed to support the poor.

The human spirit isn’t always, or even usually, enriched by winning:  those who retain their dignity in great adversity, those who suffer well, are the spiritual equivalent of conquistadors.  First among these was Jesus himself, who cried from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  I don’t know a more moving question in religion, or a more frightening insight into the loneliness of the human heart.

In imitation of Jesus, we seek to forgive.  Being human, we often fail:  we bear grudges and look to even scores.  But unlike the Athenians of old, we feel this behavior is petty, ignoble, unworthy of a moral adult.  We know too well how much forgiving we each require, and we hope our community – which is, ultimately, the human race – finds the generosity of spirit to wave away our transgressions.  In the physics of morality, we move upward only when others are raised above us.

Happy birthday, Joshua of Nazareth.

Capitalism and its discontents

December 9, 2014

anti-capitalist protest

Two observations kept intruding on me as I read Deirdre McCloskey’s magisterial take-down of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The first is how fortunate we are.  Americans today stand on the crest of that colossal upsurge of wealth McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment, which has made us 900 times richer than our forebears in 1800.  This is unprecedented in human history – and it doesn’t even account for qualitative improvements, like streaming video on a wall-sized, high-def TV or my ability to communicate through this blog.

The second is that most people seem to feel the opposite of fortunate.  They are unhappy, they are disgusted with the system that has placed all that wealth at their feet, they want more, they want less, they want different.  From the airless heights of the French intelligentsia, where Picketty hovers effortlessly, to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where mobs are burning down neighborhood stores, everyone is in a mood of repudiation, everyone condemns, attacks, secedes.

This too is unprecedented in history.  Malcontents in the much poorer societies of the past rarely blamed the system.  They never proposed alternatives, probably because they were unable to conceive of any.  Spartacus aimed to lead his army of escaped slaves out of the Roman Empire.  He had no interest in establishing a Freedmen’s Socialist Republic.  The great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages were spasms of violence and destruction.  The peasants craved revenge, not a new order.  Wat Tyler, closest thing to a political radical in the period, became enraged during negotiations, attacked the Mayor of London with a dagger, and was cut down by the king’s men.

Anger drove the underclass to insurrection – but pure negation isn’t much of a program.  Once the spasm was spent, the rebels had nowhere to go, and they were exterminated in every instance.

The possibility of revolution – of an alternate system, conceived in somebody’s head, imposed on the real world – appeared at a fraught moment in time:  the intersection of Enlightenment faith in the rational reordering of society with Romantic contempt for human life in the pursuit of noble ideals.  By 1848, Marx could write that the “specter of communism” haunted Europe.  The substance of the apparition was mostly dreamed up by Marx himself, but in 1917 it materialized in Russia and began a career of devouring humanity that is not quite over yet.

Communism wasn’t the only phantom at the capitalist feast.  Fascism, National Socialism, anarchism, syndicalism:  all shared a visceral loathing of “bourgeois” existence and the wish to replace it with a more heroic alternative.  The poor and the working classes did not participate in this system-making, any more than had the slaves or the serfs before them.  Inventing anti-capitalist systems was a bourgeois sport.

Marx came from a rabbinical family.  Lenin’s people belonged to the bureaucratic elite.  Mussolini’s father was a well-educated blacksmith, his mother a teacher.  Hitler rose out of the Austrian petite bourgeoisie, Stalin out of the Georgian equivalent.  Mao was the son of a wealthy farmer.  The same was true of Pol Pot, who studied radio electronics in Paris.  These were not the wretched and exploited, desperate for any alternative to their miserable lives.  They were all creatures of the Great Enrichment.

The most implacable enemies of capitalism were the pampered children of capitalism.  It would be a kindness to say that they turned against the system only because they were for a wonderful, if imaginary, ideal of society.  But we know this to be false.  In this late hour of our late age, we know revolution to be a fever dream.  The specter of communism, as an alternative system, was exorcised in 1989 and 1991.  By then, all other alternatives lay in the dust, defeated.  Capitalism has stood unconquered and unchallenged, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty, since 1991.

Yet the feeling of revulsion has, if anything, intensified.  The attacks and repudiations have multiplied.  Capitalism has lifted much of the human race from its ancestral misery, but it is above all to be condemned by its chief beneficiaries as a moral abomination.  Thomas Picketty tells us so.  Barack Obama tells us so:

So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed… this increased inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people… The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years… The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups:  poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.

All those who wish to return to 1970 – or 1950, or 1920 – raise your hands.  There have always been people who romanticize the snows of yesteryear, but this strikes me as a new pathological reflex.  Something about capitalism nauseates a large class of thinkers, commentators, politicians, academics, artists, writers, moviemakers, and entertainers who participate in the system and know perfectly well that there are no alternatives.

The question is what.

Capitalism has been accused of ruthlessness and inequality, but all systems that preceded it were far more ruthless and unequal.  Greed is also a red herring.  I imagine that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a runaway best-seller, has made a fortune for its author, who now stands in the same unequal relationship to other economics professors as do corporate CEOs to their employees.  Is Thomas Picketty a greedy man if he chooses to keep his money?  Is he a blood-sucking speculator if he invests it in the stock market?

Anti-capitalism sometimes resembles the anti-Semitism that has been so often associated with it:  a hatred of people who succeed when right opinion holds they shouldn’t.

But I want to put forward another possibility – one that is rarely considered.  Modern capitalism, properly understood, is a matrix of practical and ethical rules that place the burden of the future, with all its terrors and uncertainties, squarely on the shoulders of the individual.  To be a capitalist means to have internalized the “bourgeois virtues” McCloskey believes were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.  The effect is personal responsibility over future risk.

Capitalism in practice isn’t the implementation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Its towering figures are far from Christ-like:  they might be rampant nerds like Bill Gates, or visionary jerks like Steve Jobs.  But all who are in, big and small, stand on their own two feet.

Capitalism – together with its twin sister, liberal democracy – means childhood’s end.  We stand, for better or worse, as adults, liberated from the tutelage of priests and emperors, lords and kings.  Our actions have consequences.  We are now players in the cosmic drama and have achieved what is sometimes called “human dignity.”

Predictably, it was the old elites, the churchmen and the courtiers, who first drew up the charges against the capitalist class later accepted by Marx and Picketty:  that they were greedy, that they put on airs, that lending money was an activity best left to lesser beings like the Jews.  The rise of the capitalist was experienced by the old regime as a monstrous violation of the natural order, children suddenly running the household.  Here was the source of the gag reflex.

This infirmity has taken two distinct forms in the modern era.  The anti-capitalist movements of the last century raged against social rules and conventions, and despised the bourgeois for his self-restraint.  They craved the right to settle scores, the freedom of the assassin.  “We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism:  speculators must be shot on the spot,” Lenin ordered.  Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” followed the Al Capone template.  Behind the romance of revolution lurked the grim impulses of violent criminals.

The dominant critique of capitalism today, however, is an updated version of the courtier’s complaint.  It asserts that the human race is not yet out of its infancy, and must be protected from its own decisions.  The new protectors are experts and bureaucrats who act on scientific principles.  The future is revealed to them alone.  They are the adults in the room, and they are able to see, at a glance, that capitalism is a screen for swindlers who profit from the innocence of the people.

President Obama began his administration with a plea that we “set aside childish things,” and the burden of adulthood in a nation of troubled minors has been felt in every word and deed of his since.  He does not believe that we stand on our own two feet.  He does not believe that we will figure out how the broken bargain of capitalism has “hurt” so many of us.  He’s certain that future risk will destroy us unless he intervenes with a firm parental hand – for example, by checking up on our credit card bills and seeing off the bad company we keep.

He is not alone.  The pope, for one, agrees with him.  Thomas Picketty and so many others agree.  If they are right, both capitalism and democracy are doomed.  If they are wrong – and, almost certainly, they are – then we had better hope that their callow gestures of disgust and theater of repudiation don’t wreck the Great Enrichment, and induce a self-fulfilling disaster.

Campus Zeitgeist, then and now

December 8, 2014

In 1965:

naked students


campus rape protest

Cause and effect?  Neo-Victorianism?  Who knows?

The curious case of the feminist fainting couch

November 12, 2014

fainting victorian lady

My wife was a French major, but she’s forged a career as a high-level engineer and manager in a famous tech company.  She bore and raised three children, and put up with me, while out-competing males in one of the most male-dominated industries.  I always thought of her as my ideal for humanity, but if I were into women’s causes I would consider her a heroine of feminism.  However graciously, she pushed and shoved her way into a man’s world.

Not so.  From the scattered signals I get – admittedly, as a self-identified member of the “guy” construct – women’s advocates aren’t interested in success stories.  They don’t much care for female winners and trail-blazers.  In fact, they seem altogether bored by working women.

The portrait of womanhood that emerges from the effusions of their professional advocates is of a frail, genteel, terrified creature, forever shocked by encounters with the indecent urges of male sexuality.  Attend college, you get date rape.  Step into the street, you are deafened by the wolfish howls of men.  Get online – trolls call you unspeakable names.  The workplace?  Ground zero for an epidemic of disgusting male behavior.

What’s a liberated woman to do?  The next stage of feminism may well be the fainting couch, or even the fainting room, where Victorian ladies were expected to withdraw while getting over those annoying spells of female hysteria.  Life is too crude, too naked, too sexual – we’ve even come to call sex “gender,” as if reproduction were a grammatical exercise – for the more spiritual half of humankind.

Here is a “trigger warning” in an MIT survey to students on the subject of sexual assault:

Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts… This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting.  Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.

Apparently, even reading that the body has parts and sexual assault occurs can induce a swoon.

If women are sheep, then who is the shepherd?  Who rescues the eternal victim?  I have no clue.  Not her “partner,” certainly.  That Victorian standard has been allowed to lapse.  The government?  Come on.  That’s where you drown in testosterone.   Feminist organizations?  They are the ones leading the frantic chorus of “Be afraid – be very afraid…”

Here, though, is the wretched truth:  the sexual nightmare described by the advocacy groups actually exists.  Male fighters for the Islamic caliphate regularly rape, brutalize, and enslave female captives.  They recently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered a woman in Iraq for the sin of promoting women’s rights.  On occasion, some of these practices have been exported to the democratic West.  Muslim men in Rotherham, England, for example, raped and prostituted 1,400 underage girls during a span of 15 years.

A naïve observer, an analyst from Mars, might conclude that these horrors have inspired the note of panic in the feminist world-view, and that the men responsible for them must be the natural targets of feminist outrage.

Not so.  There has been mostly silence.  Women’s advocates seem profoundly indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated against women in the Middle East, much preferring to troll for date rape in Cambridge.  Concerning Rotherham, the omerta-like silence was so deep that the male abusers continued to abuse, undisturbed, for many years.

Dwelling on such subjects doesn’t make you a favorite of the women’s movement.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali defied her patriarchal culture, and has campaigned relentlessly against the mistreatment and mutilation of women in Muslim lands.  Religious zealots murdered her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, and have threatened to murder her.  In a logical universe, such an assertive female would be a leader among those who advocate women’s causes.

Not so.  Hirsi Ali is invariably described not as “brave” or “uncompromising” but as “controversial” – meaning she’s upsetting.  She talks about Islam and body parts.  Tender spirits who become exposed to her are expected to dash off to the fainting couch and wanly clasp to their bosoms “resources for support.”

Not controversial, somehow:  that college administrator who imagined the ultra-clever kids at MIT would be horrified to learn sexual assault is a thing.

Does any of this matter?  Only if morality matters – and it’s the peculiar contention of this blog that it does.

Morality presents the individual with rough-and-ready signposts to the good life.  Human beings prefer purpose to drift.  We demand that our personal story have a theme, a clear direction:  that we inch toward some ideal.  For guys, it’s easy.  Get a job, get a woman, play it straight with both – bingo.  You’re one of the good ones.

Young women, as they look to the future, confront a trackless jungle of contradictory moral imperatives.  Should they mate, or avoid rape?  Marry, or embrace freedom?  Go for the big family, or the big career?  The signs point in every direction.  The good life is nowhere to be found.

Anyone who thinks women are faint-hearted and easily shocked hasn’t met my wife or daughter.  But if they were, what earthly good is served by constantly proclaiming that men are terrifying predators – and that women should withdraw and beg for “support” from a safe distance, rather than engage and compete?  That feels like the opposite direction from equality:  from happiness, too.

To accomplish anything in life, to exist as a moral agent, even the most fragile Neo-Victorian feminist will have to rise from her couch and walk smack into the world as it really is.

Freedom and community

September 19, 2014


Two powerful impulses propel the modern soul.  One is the wish for an ever-expanding circle of personal freedom.  The other is a craving for authentic community among like-minded persons.

Immediately, trouble arises.  We walk the earth twitching with tension, bent under the weight of a terrible contradiction.  My ideal dispensation would make of life a canvas of infinite possibility and experimentation, over which I am supreme, an artist-tyrant, attended all the while by friends and neighbors whose behavior I have scripted to careful specifications.  I must be free – all others, authentic.

I suppose most people today would shrink from using the term “artist-tyrant.”  And of course, realistically speaking, they are right to do so.  As a rule they only crave a little adventure, nothing more:  a temporary release from the rigors of social existence.  A week at a nudist beach, say.  Or a grotesque tattoo.  Or milder still, the loud public embrace of one of those moralistic causes, like gay marriage, that absorb our neo-Victorian minds.

The difficulty is that these tiny assertions of freedom take place in an empty theater.  I crave applause.  In the way of all humanity, I require validation, which can be delivered only by a community working under shared rules, but everybody else is at that nudist beach alongside with me.  We are all together, but nobody’s there.

Most of us would also probably deny wishing to script the human race into a supporting cast or approving audience to the exercise of our freedom.  We just ask for a little companionship.  We love freedom, but hate loneliness.  But this resembles the argument of the cheating husband who demands that his wife remain faithful.  It’s morally false.

So let me make the point very plainly.  Freedom and community are not rights to be claimed, or virtues to be internalized, or even conditions to be achieved, whether by luck or willed effort.  They are problems to be wrestled with, painfully, at every level of human existence, from the personal to the cosmic.

Freedom is a problem because it’s empty.  It must be filled with something.  To be sure, I can decide to fill it with community.  But what exactly does this mean, and how does one go about it?  The path to community, it turns out, is twisted and steep – mortal mistakes are possible along the way.

The problem with community is that it can’t be produced or tailored on demand.  It can only evolve on its own terms, over time.

From a certain perspective, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be viewed as the political and economic liberation of hundreds of millions, who nevertheless felt lost, cheated, and enraged by their new condition in life.  Many abandoned the old faiths and ideals, without having a clue about what to put in their place.  Such people, whose numbers were legion in Europe, hungered after a messianic future or an invented past:  hence the cult of authenticity preached by Martin Heidegger and his intellectual brood.  Authenticity condemned liberal democracy, capitalism, industrial life – the present order, with all its confusions and compromises – to oblivion.  It justified nihilism now for the promise of community, maybe later.

Given the temper of the times, it was probably inevitable that these existential cravings would assume political form.  The mass movements of the last century failed to reconcile the tension between freedom and community, but were highly successful in identifying culprits.  For the proletarian, it was the kulak and the bourgeoisie.  For members of the Aryan race, it was the Jew and the gypsy.  Happiness was possible only after the extermination of these selfish troublemakers.

Fraternity, converted into political action, invariably ends in holocaust.  This remains as true in our day as it was during the horrors of the twentieth century:  President Obama, who seems to think that mere passage of time has lifted the human race above such irrationalities, is perpetually shocked by events.   Today a seeker after an invented Islamic caliphate (offspring of Heidegger rather than Muhammad) must begin his quest with the elimination of troublemaking groups:  Yazidis, Shias, Christians.

It is sometimes maintained that mass movements represent a flight away from freedom, to a more childish and obedient state.  I can imagine a different motivation.  The mass movement offers freedom of a peculiar kind:  that of the criminal.  It holds the faithful together by a powerful bond:  the knowledge of having spilled rivers of innocent blood.

The new millennium has stumbled on a new manner to organize community:  the (mostly) virtual network.  These are freely chosen, egalitarian, and clustered around an object of true interest – computer games, say, or some political predilection.  One joins the network at will, participates as much or as little as desired, and departs without penalty.  Networks lack the intrinsic virulence of the mass movement.  None has ever built an extermination camp.  Yet they, too, in their own way, are problematic.

The problem with networks lies precisely in their openness, in the extraordinary degree of freedom allowed to participants.  There are no headmen, no fuehrer principles, no hierarchies or ruling castes – but also no rules, no plans, no programs, not even the outline of an ideology to guide positive action.  The network grows up and blows up at the speed of light.  Only a powerfully persuasive shared point of reference can keep it together:  almost always, this has meant being against.

The community that sprang up around the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page in opposition to the Mubarak regime in Egypt demonstrated the power and the problems of networked action.  The page, managed on inclusive and interactive principles by a few individuals – notably Wael Ghonim – mobilized hundreds of thousands to participate in the street revolt of January 2011.  An authentic loathing of the regime held this network together.  Members lacked a shared ideology or program, but were united against the status quo. Once Mubarak, object of their loathing, was shoved offstage, neither the site, nor any of its members, nor Ghonim, had any positive contributions to make regarding the future of Egypt.  Power devolved first to an old-fashioned mass movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and later to the same institution that had produced Mubarak – the military.

Eternal negation is the price of online authenticity.  To retain the (short) attention of participants, the political network, much like the mass movement, will end up slouching toward nihilism.

Entry into a network is easy.  All I need is an opinion and a cell phone.  I can cash in my freedom to oppose this or that – capitalism, say, or President Obama, or a dictator like Mubarak, or a semi-dictator like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.  But the path to community, I repeat, is torturous and often painful.  At the end of the day, much more than opposition is demanded.

Initiation into a traditional community was never comfortable, never easy.  Terror and pain guarded the gates to adulthood.  Many reasons have been given to explain the harsh ceremonies of traditional societies, but the simplest answer works best for me:  the higher the cost of entry, the greater the value of membership.

The same principle holds true for contemporary life.  Something must be yielded before something can be gained.  In this regard, the oath administered to new US citizens, which requires that they “renounce and abjure” past allegiances and “protect and defend” the Constitution against all enemies, is a true rite of passage.  The Europeans have struggled to develop a similar process.  At one time, the Dutch asked immigrants to watch a video showing naked women and same-sex lovers, to test their Netherlandish tolerance.

The English, having absent-mindedly become “British,” can’t articulate what that means or what the penalty should be for renouncing and abjuring – witness the panic around the vote for Scottish independence.  Today twice as many supposedly “British” Muslims fight for the Islamic caliphate than for the British armed forces.  These are not immigrants but the children of immigrants:  young people lost to crime and violence on that twisted road to community, beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition.  I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation.  But what am I saying when I use those words?  Conversion, properly understood, means revelation:  it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life.  The experience is always traumatic.  Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

The agony endured is every bit as physical as it is spiritual.  St. Paul “fell to the ground” and became temporarily blinded by his revelation on the road to Damascus.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James records cases of conversion attended by “unconsciousness, convulsions, visions, involuntary vocal utterances, and suffocation.”  Community at the cosmic level can’t be achieved simply by knocking on the door of the right fraternity house.  Something – sometimes everything – must be yielded, if something is to be gained.

In a sense, such transformations are a consequence of personal freedom and choice:  but that’s not how it feels.  The convert feels chosen by a higher power.  The path to spiritual community appears to run through what James termed “self-surrender.”  The abiding paradox of personal freedom is that it often achieves the most complete individual regeneration by forsaking the individual’s will and its desires.  My freedom to alter my life in some wished-for direction becomes more potent the less I concern myself with my life and plans and directions.

I think this paradox throws light on our present condition – on our conflicted hunger for more freedom and more authentic community.  Freedom, on the moral plane, is not about personal achievement or private satisfaction.  The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson well understood, is identical to the practice of virtue:  insofar as I possess human dignity it is because I freely choose to act in ways that benefit my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my church, my town, even my country, no less than myself.

Sartre said that hell is other people.  Granted that French philosophers, like children with disabilities, should be treated in special ways – but that is still a remarkably obtuse and wrongheaded judgment.  Authentic community is other people.  There is nothing else that can stand in their place.  Personal freedom is the basic unit of moral information in my interaction with others.  And it may well be that, at the psychological level, we as a species have been selected to feel satisfaction in the exercise of generosity and justice toward the people around us, and to be penalized with tension and unease when we allow our private cravings to consume our freedom of action.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.