In Praise of Moral Judgment

The American Left lost its way, and most of its persuasive power, when it gave up making strong moral judgments. This happened, probably, in the 1960s and ’70s when the Left’s ideal of tolerance came somehow to mean even tolerance of positions that were antithetical to tolerance. The Left, by the 1980s, was being accused of censoring Right-wing speech simply because the Left had traditionally spoken out against it. The Left’s attempt to make its language more culturally sensitive, so-called “political correctness,” was used by the Right to shore up its case: these people are hypocrites, conservatives said; they preach tolerance but will not tolerate speech they find offensive.

Those on the Left didn’t have a ready answer. In the name of radical pluralism, they surmised, the voice of the Right must be heard without judgment.

The problem with this position was that it made the Left look weak and ineffective, even absurd. This allowed intellectual lightweights like Rush Limbaugh to float in and kick the nearly inert body of American progressivism almost to death. I say almost to death because a few mildly liberal politicians like Barack Obama are still able to eloquently if not forcefully articulate progressive positions. They lack credibility, though, because they are unable or unwilling to act on their rhetoric, making that rhetoric seem even more useless and empty.

Most of this mess could be sorted out if the Left were to rediscover its moral voice. In the past, the progressive voice in America has been tied to humanism, both secular and religious. Even though we remember him only as failing to end the teaching of evolution, William Jennings Bryan was a powerful force for progressive change, deeply concerned about issues of social justice backed up by a deeply felt Christian humanism. In fact, the major worry about Darwinism during Bryan’s time was that it denied the human exceptionalism that kept people moral: without the ability to perfect oneself, to be more like God, human beings could not become the moral beings they needed to be in order for a more just and equitable society to exist. This strong strain of American Christian progressive humanism managed to survive WW2 and saw its apogee in the post-war Civil Rights movement, the most successful and effective parts of which were practical applications of Jesus’s ideas about non-violence.

Secular progressivism also developed its own strong voice—one that can be found everywhere from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to mid-20th Century Existentialism. The secular brand is rooted not in the notion that we must be moral to reflect that we are created as an image of God or that we must be moral because we will be eternally judged. Instead, secular progressive humanism postulates that human life is worthwhile because it is the only thing we have; we have developed culture and civilization to make things better for ourselves.

I contend that what distinguishes us as a species is the ability to intentionally build societies and that those societies exist to help human beings survive, to improve the lot of humans, not to degrade it. Culture in this sense is a continually adaptive adaptation, but one that requires us to always mind its purposes, since the tools of culture can also lead to inequality, injustice, war, slavery, genocide.

We have a felt sense of this need for bettering ourselves. People yearn for freedom, agency, safety, connection. People feel slighted when they are not dealt with equitably, and people despair when they see no hope, no opportunity, when they feel no control over their directions and fates. This felt sense goes deep; it provides the motivation for revolution and reform, for compassion and for resistance. We may be able to intellectualize injustice, but when we suffer under it, it makes our lives worse. Because of this felt sense, we need not rely on a single religious system to inform our culture, but we’d still do well to acknowledge the ways the various constituent faiths inform how we deal with the social problems that lead us to it. We need not even universalize a particular set of values to deal with them; it is enough to ask whether or not they are working to give the people in a society a shot at living without undue suffering. Further, we do have good, empirical evidence that people who live in more egalitarian societies live longer and report happier lives.

As it appears in our current culture, in an extreme form, American conservatism advocates inequality and economic uncertainty for the vast majority. It promotes a system that denies basic health care to millions of people, promotes stress and overwork for those who do have jobs, and protects a privileged few at the expense of the underprivileged masses. To live in the nation the American conservative movement has created is, for most people, to live shorter, poorer, less happy lives than the ones that our material prosperity should be able to support.

It is not unfair to judge the conservative movement as a bad thing for America. It is not censorship to speak out against it; speaking out is merely practicing the same right to speak freely that the conservatives claim not just for themselves but for the corporations they run. In fact, speaking out is the means we have of being intentional about what we want as a society. The only way we can demonstrate how things can be better is to show how bad they are now and how wrong-headed are the plans of those who would make things more difficult. We are, in fact, duty bound to expose injustice and inequality if we want our society to live up to its purpose and its promise.

This is exactly what the American Left should do. In doing so, it should make peace with progressives of faith. It does not matter why you want to dignify human existence; it just matters that you do. It should articulate, clearly and forcefully and without apology why the ideas of the Right are mean-spirited, degrading, unjust, and wrong. The Left should regain its moral voice and let it ring loud.


Restoring American Civilization: a Conundrum Trending Toward Cynicism

We've heard quite a few politicians declare lately that what they're about is “restoring American civilization.” I've had a difficult time figuring out exactly what they mean. “Civilization” pertains specifically to cities, and since most cities that have grown up on this continent since colonization have been based on models from Europe, I can only assume that advocates of restoring American civilization must be referring to the great cities of the Mississippian culture which flourished in the Southeast and Midwest some thousand years ago. The massive mounds on which they placed their cities have yielded indications of a complex society supporting hundreds of thousands, with trade routes running all the way from Mexico to the Great Lakes.


If that's what advocates of restoring American civilization mean, then I'm all for it, though I'd be squeamish about the human sacrifice part, at least at first. I mean, open sacrifice takes some getting used to when you've grown up with it happening overseas beneath a hail of bombs or quietly in the streets and homeless shelters and hospital emergency rooms as is our current custom. Besides, other than the few bits and pieces the ground has given up, we know very little about the Mississippian way of life, and it seems a scanty trace to go on when doing the complicated business of restoring a whole civilization.


Even more damning, archaeologists suspect that the Mississippian culture collapsed because it was fueled mostly by corn, and therefore it couldn't sustain itself after a year or so of drought. Surely we, with all our sophistication, would have nothing to learn from a culture that relied too heavily on a single resource.


But perhaps I'm wrong about what those who advocate for restoring American civilization mean. Perhaps they mean the great cities of the United States at its 20th Century peak. These industrial giants certainly were impressive: steel mills and factories, elaborate systems of electric-powered public transportation, convenient housing. They were also the crucible of great social movements that led to the liberation of women, reasonable wages and working hours, safe working conditions, and modern sanitation techniques. But to hear the same people who advocate restoring American civilization scream about how terrible are regulations and trade unions and workers' rights makes me think that this, too, is not the civilization they mean.


I suppose we're left with the great Pueblo culture of the American Southwest. Here again, though, we had a culture based on corn and prone to collapse in the face of drought. Besides, the Pueblos were in caves, and at our current population of more than 300 million we'd be hard pressed to find cave space for everybody.


Having ruled out the available options, I am still not sure what civilization those who say we should restore the American one are referencing. Perhaps I'm taking it too literally. Maybe it's a rhetorical move; they leave the term “civilization” sufficiently vague to allow themselves the opportunity to insert whatever issue they are advocating or to exclude whatever issue they're currently against. This would be kind of like how the terms “real America” and “family values” have been used before. But to think that way would be to practice that least American of our shared values: cynicism. And who could ever accuse our restorers of American civilization of that?


Re: From Actual Student Papers

“We can hear the rosters cackling, but we have to go back in to town which is twenty mile away.”

“The bulkiness of it made it nice to see but at the same time the way it was shaped made it be arrow dynamic so it could fly through the air in a perfect spiral.”


A Polite Request

I call on all older poets to kindly die,

on all the Greatest Generation schussing dust,

on all the crotchety Boomers stuffed into too tight,

too young dungarees in futility against the wrinkles

to generally step aside, take a dignified dose

of cyanide and make way for the young and the no-longer-

quite-so-young, those few in count but patient

in soul who have waited until the dawn

of middle age for a book, a book, our kingdoms

come, a book—or even a berth in the hallowed

galleys of academe. We're too aged to be pulling

your lattes anymore; you've milked

your connections, dug dry the groovies

of your whoreson hips. Now die.

You're bored with poetry anyhow, tired

enough to seep sentiment and senile

to the degree you believe any of this matters.

Let us, for once, for all, plumb the deaths

of this pointlessness, lose ourselves in lines too long,

the coffee-fog and wine-breath

                                                         of empty






Brewing Violence: the Political Ferment

Why is everyone reluctant to call the killing of six people in Arizona and the critical wounding of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords what it is: mass political assassination and an act of terrorism? The shooter made very clear statements online about his political views, and while they may have been more than two standard deviations from the mean for most of us, they are not far out of line for the Tea Party, a very successful force in the last election.


Jared Lee Loughner's motives are obvious, but admitting that he is indicative of an incredibly dangerous and violent political minority would force us also to admit that top-down organization is not necessary for terrorism to flourish; in fact, it's more effective without it. Our experiences with al Qaeda over the past decade should tell us this, but then we'd have to admit that our military actions against them are futile, and that would hurt our collective pride.


People like Loughner and the assassin of Kansas doctor George Tiller, Scott Roeder, and the pilot who crashed his plane into an Austin IRS office, Andrew Joseph Stack III are reacting to a perceived threat. They are acting alone, but they are spurred to act by a political perspective that has been carefully cultivated by some incredibly rich and powerful people, from Rupert Murdoch to the Koch brothers, who maintain their power not only by getting their people elected to congress but also by chilling their opponents through fear of financial, professional, and now physical consequences. By avoiding organization, there is plausible deniability, and while they may not wish that domestic terrorism to develop exactly, they certainly do little to prevent it. Sarah Palin went so far as to use the graphic of the crosshairs of a rifle's scope on her website to target Giffords and other Democrats she wanted gone after this last election cycle. There is more than a rhetorical difference between using words like “target,” or “set your sights on” and using a graphic representation. The former requires one's imagination to be engaged, and by so doing, invites reflection. The latter may be intended symbolically but presents the content is a way that does not invite reflection, that creates an immediate, seeable reality, working directly and instinctively.


For the political Right to admit that they are creating an environment for these sorts of things to happen and thrive is to admit some degree of culpability, and that would never do, so John Boehner says that there's “no place” for this sort of thing, then, as sure as you're born, will come right out with the same rhetoric during the next round of political debate. To admit that we have some degree of power over the cultural and political environments we create would also force us to admit that we contribute to the discontent in the Muslim world that has led to al Qaeda, that we contribute to the drug-trade-fueled violence just across Arizona's border in Mexico. In other words, to admit our culpability would also be to admit that our actions are wrong and that they should change, to admit that making things better might actually cost us something in terms of our lifestyles and our ideas about ourselves.


These situations also point out how ill-equipped we are as a nation to wield the tremendous power of free speech. It is necessary for self-government, but, like any other power, it requires responsibility not just on the part of the speaker but also on the part of the audience; we must be intellectually equipped to deal with propaganda and BS. To be responsible enough to be part of our own governance, we need to be equipped to sort out reasonable messages from unreasonable ones and to research that about which we are ignorant. Unless and until we are collectively ready to live up to the responsibilities of self-government, expect more violence, more desperation, and the retrenchment of those who foment it.


Capitalism's Twisted Gospel

Wall Streeters proclaim the free market gospel not because they really believe it (that would mean they were capable of genuine belief, or, for that matter of genuineness), but because it reinforces the idea they have of themselves as “Masters of the Universe.” The term was used so often by the fawning news media of the so-called “best and brightest” that they started to actually buy the hype. Chances are, though, that they thought pretty highly of themselves before that. You don't go into investment banking—that is to say buying and selling other people's hard-earned nesteggs—unless you already have an overdeveloped sense of your own abilities, a sort of reckless self-confidence and unswerving faith that your powers of perception and calculation are superior to those of other traders. This is the sort of business that appeals to those who are sure they can beat the spread, so sure, in fact, that they're willing to gamble billions of other people's dollars to prove it. For these people, admitting that the system sometimes fails is tantamount to admitting that they sometimes fail, and that would throw the whole game of confidence—in both senses of the term—entirely off.


The Wall Streeter loves free market theory not because it's free, so much, as the market can be just as capricious a tyrant as any mad king, but because he would not be able to function at all if he did not believe that he and others like him will always be able to produce a better result. But here inherent contradiction reveals itself. Maintenance of the market is not, in and of itself, a value of free market capitalism. No business will ever subsidize a competitor in order to keep the market actually free when a monopoly looms. No CEO or day trader or investment banker is ever going to turn down free government cash, even though his principles should, in theory militate against it. His sense of himself as Master of the Universe will, in fact, drive him to sending his cronies into positions at the Fed in order to make things just a bit more free for himself, especially if he works for Goldman Sachs.


Free market capitalism thus contradicts itself on a fundamental level. It will periodically need to be propped up with government dollars when it fails, but it also does not allow itself to admit that the “market downturn” or “correction” was, in fact, a failure of capitalism. It does not permit admitting that shuttered factories and shuffling, homeless families represent failures of capitalism. It will not allow accepting that polluted rivers and depleted resources are failures of capitalism.


Thus we are locked into a perpetual cycle of boom and bust, fated to make the same mistake in perpetuity, fiscal year after fiscal year, market cycle after market cycle, bubble after burst.



So, it's great that people are getting some backbone and pushing back against the invasive TSA body scanning and pat-downs in airports, but slowing things down in the security line is just going to increase travel stress. It won't work anyway: all three branches of government are far more beholden to big companies like airlines than to the desire of plebs like us not to get groped or exposed as we fly. If you really want change, you have to hit somebody's bottom line, and the obvious choice here is the airline industry. If you want to protest pat downs and body scanners, just don't fly. Take Amtrak or Greyhound or your no-brakes Camry. Bike or roller skate to grandma's house, or just Skype in your holiday greetings. But whatever you do, don't fly commercial.

Then, and this is the important part, LET THE AIRLINES KNOW WHY. Jam their customer service lines on Black Friday, crash their servers with e-mails, flood their mailboxes with letters. They'll call their lobbyists, and you'll be surprised at how fast a bipartisan solution will be found.

Now, if there is a similar solution to reversing the idiotic foreign policy that foments terrorist attacks to begin with, please let me know.