Vulgar Morality turns five

December 27, 2009

I had no idea what I was doing when I began this blog, five years ago this day.  I know a little now.  If one puts aside the rant as an art form, a blog becomes a sort of musical composition, with themes that swell and fade, and return again, woven together into the louder music of the Web and the larger themes of our civilization.  It’s personal, not business, but it’s also shared, communal – a polyphony.

At the last birthday of this strange child of mine, I sketched out the changes in the environment which have transpired since I began blogging.  Here I want to dwell briefly on the lessons this blogger has learned about life, the universe, and everything:  more precisely, about the cluster of ideas and ideals, centered on freedom and morality, which have been from the start the beating heart of Vulgar Morality.

Since it’s a fifth birthday, I’ll offer five grand lessons learned along the way.

LESSON ONE:  The rationalists aren’t the good guys.  Ideological conflict today isn’t about left and right – terms coined in the French revolution and about as useful to us as powdered wigs.  Nor is it liberals against conservatives – labels meaningful to the Victorians, possibly, but hollowed out by age and wear.

No.  The great moral struggle of the twenty-first century will be between rationalists and irrationalists – between those who believe in formulas and those who believe in experience.  The rationalist maintains that, as with a mathematical equation, there can be one and only one answer to moral and political questions.  The irrationalist accepts many paths to salvation.  The rationalist therefore seeks to compel, control, regulate, take away choices, while the irrationalist wishes to expand the sphere of freedom to the largest extent consistent with our customs and traditions.

From the caves of Afghanistan to the halls of Congress, the rationalists have been on the march since Vulgar Morality was born.

LESSON TWO:  Scientists are really bloated bureaucrats.  Like werewolf victims in old movies, scientists have metamorphosed from quasi-saintly figures dealing in quanta and quarks to growling turf warriors requisitioning billions in government largesse.

This doesn’t mean they’re wrong on any given subject.  It does mean they aren’t disinterested – on the contrary, they have a deep interest in specific outcomes that promote their authority and prestige.  It also means dissidents get attacked by packs of hungry scientists, and are torn to bits before they have a chance to be heard.

LESSON THREE:  The “educated citizen” is a figment of the news industry’s fevered imagination.  The public – so this idea goes – is dull and ignorant, and only by consuming news, print or broadcast, will it become fit for democracy.  But obtaining information was always trivial.  It’s getting rid of it that’s hard, particularly in the age of the Web.  The person who remembers the birthdays and anxieties of those around him is a better human being, and citizen, than the one who can recite every atrocity committed in Iraq.

LESSON FOUR:  Liberal democracy is the cause of, and solution to, the great disruption of the world.  Modernity was unleashed by an explosion of individual choices in politics and the marketplace – and modernity cuts two ways.  It seduces with a bounty of personal freedom, long life, good health, high education, easy travel and communications, but it repels and disgusts with pornography, drug addiction, the collapse of the family, commercial exploitation, and stark materialism.

In the tension between attraction and revulsion, many old traditions have disintegrated, and many comforting faiths have been lost.  The ensuing moral confusion has been a source of violence and suffering.  Some, like twentieth-century totalitarians and Islamists today, imagined they had found the formula to the riddle of modernity (see rationalists, above), which they sought to impose by force.  Others, like present-day Europeans, lost the ability to believe in anything, and stopped reproducing.

The seductive aspect of modernity makes it irresistible.  Even North Korea, in time, will fall under its spell.  The question is how best to cope with the dark side of creative destruction.  Liberal democracy returns the individual to the center of decision-making.  It makes the pace of change a matter of political choice.  It allows for a moving balance between personal freedom and community customs and traditions.

None of this guarantees success.  The peaceable kingdom, always a dream, becomes a hollow joke inside the storm of disruption.  But liberal democracy offers the only means to negotiate with an inevitable change – and it can succeed without bloodshed or decadence, unlike all alternatives.

LESSON FIVE:  America is truly exceptional.  I have traveled to very many places.  I have seen people living in great comfort and great misery.  Nowhere have I found people so willing to take their fate into their own hands – so trusting of strangers, so willing to associate with them to achieve their ends – so suspicious of state power.

To an American, freedom and equality are natural conditions which a corrupt government can take away.  To everyone else, freedom and equality must be imposed by crushing those who stand in the way, something only a Leviathan-like government can attempt.  The difference between the Bill of Rights and the guillotine measures the distance between Americans and even the most fortunate peoples.

When my kids were small, I semi-snoozed through school celebrations, but I enjoyed  watching the schoolchildren.  American kids are fearless.  I mean that literally:  they have never had occasion to be afraid of an external power.  They stand proud and confident, guileless yet self-disciplined, wildly competitive, brimming over with attitude.  They clearly view the world as an endless treasure quest, and they can’t wait to get started.  We adults need only to stay out of their way.

The world needs that kind of mindset.  Freedom is rare enough, and the law of historical gravity maintains that free peoples eventually wear down – that the tendency, all things equal, is toward paternalism, regulation, and tyranny.  America’s blithe assumption of personal freedom and limited government counterbalances the trend.

That balance has swung back and forth since this blog began.  On the whole, however, I believe the world is a freer place today than it was then – and it is that way, in large part, because of the exertions and sacrifices of the American people.

I’ll take that as a birthday present.