Thursday, January 27, 2011


Chrystia Freeland has an interesting article  in ‘The Atlantic’ entitled “The Rise of the New Global Elite”.

It indicates, whether she quite intends to or not, that the time has come to speak of many things.

She is discussing, as she says, the rise of a new class of rich and superrich. This is a super-elite class of new-wealth CEOs of international and global corporations, none more than second-generation rich and many having acquired their wealth in their own lifetimes by their own activities.

This is not the ‘old money’ and the ‘old’ rich of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood flicks: older, having inherited their wealth that had been built up by earlier generations of their family or clan, aspiring to a certain old-Europe aristocratic clawss and detachment, and thinking of ‘the poor’ as being the objects of a certain amount of charity and otherwise separated from them by a comfortable abyss of wealth and social position.

The new “super-elite” are “hard-working, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition”. In a sense, then, they more closely resemble an earlier American type, the founder of great industrial enterprises and corporations and fortunes (think Vanderbilt, Astor, and Carnegie and Ford). The so-called Robber Barons of the Gilded Age but also the individuals who helped – with more ruthlessness as well as savvy self-application than their descendants or the nation at large might care to admit – harness America’s resources (natural, cultural, human) toward the marshaling of huge, corporately-organized Production and Productivity.

In a sense, the new super-elites have done the same thing.

Except that they have been doing it in other countries, using the cheaper labor and determinedly cooperative governments of the former Developing World to increase profits and to actually generate – over there – new huge middle-classes of consumers.

They are repeating the archetypal American magic of turning Resources into Produced Wealth.

Except they are no longer doing it in America.

As I have often noted, it seemed to me that the Beltway’s great strategic deal, struck originally by the Dems for political purposes in the 1970s but soon joined by the Republicans, was: pander to the New Left by granting all the many demands for this and that ‘right’ – especially in terms of employment – while also collecting through Tip O’Neill’s recently-erected PACs nice gobs of cash from the corporations to quietly allow them to pursue profits elsewhere on the planet.

This was a bipartisan gambit almost from the beginning. The Dems would be able to keep their newly valorized Identity demographics happy by pointing to the welter of laws that would force business to accept the burdens of opening up classic American jobs to increasingly numerous Identities regardless of the consequences to productivity and competence. The American job became ‘a piece of the pie’ for this and that group, with the radical-feminists insisting most weightily that employment was an absolute essential for female empowerment and liberation, and that employment in the ‘classic’ male jobs of industrial capitalism and production would also instantly confer ‘status’ and bring about essential ‘change’ in American culture and society. And anyway, smokestack industrialism was so ‘male’ – and mostly ‘white – and all that had to go, according to revolutionary doctrine of the day.

Daniel Bell’s 1973 “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (see my immediately previous Post) assured everyone that as a ‘mature’ capitalism, America would be shedding its ‘smokestack’ industries and becoming an economy of highly-educated, networking and net-worked collaborators in the generating of ideas, the shuffling of many papers, and the provision of services ranging from barrista to entertainment to government-employment by one of the dozens of thousands of Federal and State agencies authorized to make hires (according to all that welter of quotas and regulatory policies). And the ‘financial sector’ would no longer be a neutral, sober cash-careful repository of accumulated generated wealth, but would actually be one of the post-capitalist profit-center businesses, merging the old sober and solid banker with the gung-ho Gordon-Gekko tiger-like entrepreneurs and business whiz-kids of the ‘80s.

But the Right, always more business-conscious, had read Bell too. And if America was now going to de-emphasize productivity – in workplace and hiring regulations and laws, in the very warp and woof of the culture – then America was by government policy becoming deeply less Production-friendly. Quietly but definitively, it was time for the corporations to move on. They, unlike Bell, realized that somehow, somewhere, things salable had to be actually made in profitable quantities in order to make the money that Bell seemed to assume, rather airily, would just keep on coming (the Eggs, by divine indult, to keep coming even as the Goose was ‘devalorized’ and kicked to the curb – and maybe had for dinner at the gloating gatherings of this and that gaggle of revolutionary Identity-cadres).

Like the old Boston matron who did not ‘buy’ her hats but simply ‘had’ her hats, America – even in the eyes of the New Left – would not make its wealth, it would simply ‘have’ its wealth. And the only job of the government was to re-slice the pie and pass the plates around.

With increasing speed the corporations began not simply to eat up smaller American businesses but to outsource their production to countries whose people were willing to work for much less and whose governments would be more concerned with Production than with making the workplace a more sensitive and caring and enjoyable life-experience.

It was artfully done, resulting in an enchanting political kabuki that paid off for the corporations and the Beltway: the corporations publically accepted the ever-efflorescing tangle of regulations and laws that imposed increasing ‘reforms’ on hiring and work practices and made a respectable show of being gung-ho and ‘on board’ with it all; this enabled the pols to prove to their client-demographics that the pols could deliver the pie. But at the same time, quietly but surely, the corporations were getting out of town as fast as could be decently managed, assisted by new business philosophies such as out-sourcing, down-sizing, globalizing and this and that (which in Clinton’s time the Beltway erected into a major national Plan).

Meanwhile now, the Developing World host-countries’ price, often, was that an American-chartered corporation would have to create a local subsidiary to oversee things. The host government thus got a primary crack at the swag and the profits, alas, would mostly stay in the newly-blessed host country, where – as is now happening – new working and middle-classes would be created.

Which gets down to the point that one of the great un-mentioned dramas of current American and world-history has been the love-affair between formally American-chartered corporations and host governments and cultures and societies who are more amenable to re-creating the early eras of Industrial Capitalism in America. The Great American Dream is being recreated … just not here.

And since many Western nations that had succeeded in the original Industrial Revolution aped American examples, and were themselves therefore becoming increasingly less Production-friendly as they pursued American-type policies, then their CEO-classes too began to reach out into the Developing World. And again, not simply to create cheaper products to ship back to the home country, but to re-create the Industrial Revolution Moment (or Miracle, if you wish) in more and more of the Developing World, replete with those work-friendly working classes and even those budding middle-classes.

This new “transglobal community of peers” have actually got more in common with each other, Freeland says, “than with their countrymen back home”. And indeed, their ‘homes’ are the great jets that zip them from one venue to the next, for international conferences with each other. As one of them notes, he knows the stewardesses on his flights better than he knows his own family.

Freeland hits it nicely: no matter where they maintain their “primary residences”, “today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves”.

Nor are they embarrassed about the fact. Indeed, “many of them – as a result [of their hard work and unremitting travels] – have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly”.

The whole country, my fellow Americans, has become fly-over country and we are all backwoods trailer-trash to these paragons.

India and China – with their huge populations – are now the new venues of Productivity Capitalism, and their own working and middle-classes will be developed to consume what is made ‘over there’. Meanwhile, back at the (American) ranch, the now burned-out American consumer has been relegated to fly-over status, reaping now the bitter fruit of having been seduced without much objection into the bauble-wealth of Reagan’s borrowing (We became a debtor nation on his watch, rather than the world’s mightiest creditor nation) and the out-sourcing and down-sizing and privatizing sell-off wealth of Clinton’s day, and the somehow-so-appropriate Bubble-based wealth of the George Bush era.

Effecting this huge terra-forming transformation (eerily similar to the Beltway’s profound Identity-Politics terra-forming of American culture and society away from Productivity) makes this new super-class of rich consider themselves to be “the working rich”, whose massive tasks and the marvelous ideas they share at their international conferences to be well-worth their mighty incomes and emoluments. They have no shame and no qualms about the rightness of it all. They are most industriously and generatively content.

In a way children of the very ‘revolutionary’ era in American politics that considered all ‘change’ to be good, and the more transgressive the better, and considered ‘elites’ to be so far ahead of those who ‘just don’t get it’ that they need not waste time and breath ‘deliberating’ in a democratic sorta way, these new mega-rich elites entertain large thoughts of re-shaping not simply American culture (THAT has worked sooooo well) but of re-shaping the world’s cultures (perhaps into a new productive World-Culture, who knows?).

Whether at Davos, or in the first-class lounges of commercial jets, or in the first-class lounge that is the essence of the private corporate jet, or on yachts larger than many countries’ warships, they biddy-biddy-boom with each other, while consulting a welter of personal communication devices that make James Tiberius Kirk’s warbling communicator look like an iron toy.

And who knows but that someday they envision a corporate Star-ship (why not call it the Enterprise class?) that will provide them with a secure and comfy command-post to oversee their planetary plans.

Very much children of their era, spawned here in the past few decades, they see no ‘moral’ dimension to their wealth, nor perhaps to themselves. Like Carnegie they will leave behind Great Works as their undying monuments (although Carnegie sought to evade the ineluctable and implacable Hound of Hell by building free libraries across the American landscape, and who reads – or thinks they need to – any longer?). As the cadres of Identity-Politics plunged the culture into a monodimensional, this-worldly Flatness in which the success of the ‘revolution’ (whichever one you’re a cadre of) justifies all, they see their Great Work of terra-forming great swaths of the planet in the service of Productivity as their greatest service.

And, really, SOMEbody has to make stuff, no? Money doesn’t just grow on trees (although the US is now reduced to killing a lot of those things just to print up more dollars – much as the Germans did in the awful years after World War 1).

Freeland continues: “The good news – and the bad news – for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this new global perspective”. One international hedge-fund manager confided to her that the firm’s master investment committee “often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy”. And in one recent internal discussion, one of his senior executives asserted that “the hollowing out of the American middle-class really didn’t matter”. Said that gentleman, “if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle-class and meanwhile one American drops out of the middle-class, that’s not such a bad trade”.

Congratulations, my fellow Americans. You are now all collateral damage and ‘acceptable losses’.

The hell-hot ironies!

The Boomers hatred of the bourgeois and the Archie-Bunker blue-collars has morphed (or mutated) into this. Nor can the New Left refuse to accept that the whole idea constitutes a world-class ‘liberation’ and ‘empowerment’. Wheeeee!

But not for the ‘acceptable losses’ dwelling in fly-over country (formerly known as the United States). And for its inhabitants, formerly known as The People, but – what they hey? – they just didn’t get it anyway.

They’re going to get it now. Oh yeah!

Freeman quotes the marvelously-Correct Taiwanese-born CFO of a US-chartered internet company: Americans “demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world … So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value”. But of course, the whole idea behind the Revolutions of the Identities, erected into a Plan and a government policy courtesy of the Beltway, was that “productivity” was no longer a priority; that was so ‘masculine’, so judgmental, so ‘smokestack’. *

And as I said, since America already ‘had’ its wealth, then the whole government enterprise was simply to distribute the pie-slices and make a lot more client demographics beholden to their political patrons.

I think that the Bubble-era that seemed to take George Bush and the Beltway by surprise when it ran the whole of Good Ship America into a berg-field back in 2008 was really lubricated by the fact that by then the Beltway and Congress and the Presidency – regardless of Party – had come to realize that the F.I.R.E. sector of the economy was now in the driver’s seat and there was nothing they could do but let it go where it wanted to and do what it wanted to.

But how do you admit THAT to the American People? How admit to The People that you have pretty much lost control of the whole thing and are now just hoping to make your own nest-egg and get out of town before the whole thing goes kablooey? The Beltway had begun to resemble the Soviet nomenklatura of the mid-1970s: they knew the whole thing was coming apart and just hoped to get out of town with their swag before things got too obvious.

Neatly, in a recent report on a January meeting of American economists, those worthies lamented the fact that they were held in such disrepute. They cawn’t think why.

That they had either been witlessly or treacherously wrong about the economy’s health in the past decade(s) did not occur to them. Rather, “they seemed more intent on finding ways in which they could get ordinary workers to accept lower pay and reduced public benefits in the years ahead. This would lead to better outcomes in their models”.

Americans are now not only ‘collateral damage’ and ‘acceptable losses’ but mere statistics in theoretical models (that have proven inaccurate in the extreme). And Americans now have a whole new bunch of things to forget: like the days of decently-paying and reliable employment.

Because, insist the economists, they are going to be needed in the days and years ahead. While the economy will get better (by next year or by 2018, take your pick) yet “the new normal will be worse than the old normal”.

Meaning the party’s over and the good times will not be coming back. Gone, baby, gone.

This being the case, then, a few thoughts arise.

What happens when the corporations outgrow the government that chartered them? And this may already have happened; after all, Congress and the Executive have now proven clearly that they are unable to rein in either the financial or the corporate interests. First, because they are providing whatever actual income, or at least the appearance of wealth, the country can still lay claim to (unless you want to moon over photos and video-clips of huge nuclear aircraft carriers and whizzbang drones). Second, because the entire sitting political class – almost without exception – has indentured itself to the corporate monies piped to them through the PACs.

What happens to democracy when the government has a huge interest in folks not really getting a clear picture of how badly it has frakked up? If you think ‘advocacy journalism’ gave you a skewed ‘reporting’ on all the various happy-face ‘reforms’ of the past 40 years, wait til you see an entire government and elite apparatus that is advocating to make sure it doesn’t get kicked out on its well-padded collective behind.

What happens to the independence of The People when they are distracted by the intensifying urgencies of just putting bread (and I don’t mean that figuratively) on the table? Bad enough that the civic competence of the Citizenry has been eroded in divers ways over the past 40 Biblical years in order to neutralize debate and dissent as to the numerous ‘reforms’ of the Identity Age. But on top of all those Impossible Things the American taxpayer was expected to believe before breakfast, there is now the crazy-inducing requirement that Americans not-notice just how bad things are getting and that there’s nowhere to run and no place to hide (not even at the mall).

We are all poor now. The old cry of ‘social justice’ takes on a whole new meaning when you yourself are trying to raise a family and make ends meet or build a reliable future for yourself when the entire ground of the American experience has been allowed to take flight and leave you a groundling in Fly-over Land.

These promise to be interesting times. And this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with Destiny that will beggar the challenges that faced the Greatest Generation in 1941. Fifty years after he said it, JFK’s “long twilight struggle” has become, implacably, the American Reality.


*I relate this little story again: the same philosophy was deployed against the US military in the heady days of ‘de-masculinization’: the loss of a certain amount of war-fighting efficiency was perfectly acceptable in order to achieve diversity and empowerment. One highly-accomplished US Naval Academy graduate, invited back to address the cadets in the early 1990s, was told by the Academy’s command that he was welcome, but that he could not discuss Personal Achievement and Excellence, Leadership and Command, or Violence (as in war-fighting) … the Academy was now training team-players who would cooperate and be tolerant of each other. The officer wondered just why in hell they had invited him then. Whether this has anything to do with the current Navy’s disturbing record of command-removals and accidents, or to the overall military’s inability to achieve ‘victory’ in recent activities … is a question worth considering.

And all of the Politically Correct impossible-things-that-must-be-believed-before-breakfast may also help to explain why the military is losing so many mid-grade officers; see this article in the same issue of ‘The Atlantic’, which – alas – refers directly to “politically correct write-ups” that are “in abundance now” in the annual evaluation of competence process each officer must undergo, but then quickly moves on to other things.

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Friday, January 14, 2011


I recently read sociologist Daniel Bell’s 1973 book “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”*; it was re-issued with an additional, updated Foreword in 1999.

I’m only going to look at the Forewords in this Post, though combined they run (in Latin, small-case numeration) to a hundred pages.

It says a lot about what’s happened and been happening for some decades in this country, that so much of what has now happened – seemingly by (catastrophic) accident or inadvertence – was actually touted as the Coming Thing and very Cutting-Edge back in the balmy days of those “many revolutions all at the same time”. That was the brave chirp of Gerald Ford around the Bicentennial Year, hoping to sound as ‘with it’ as Mao but actually demonstrating how – in quintessentially American mode - the entire Beltway was figuring that if Mao was successful with One Revolution, then the Americans would be umpty-times more successful by simultaneously turning loose umpty revolutions.

In this, I think it must now be said, the Great Helmsman has been proven right: there’s only room for one Revolution in this town and we’ve already had it. If only the Beltway had been as insightful about that thingie in 1776 and all that.

Anyhoo, here’s Daniel Bell in a book in 1973 discussing the end of Industrial Society (IS) and the coming of the Post-Industrial Society (PIS). Perhaps the average American could be forgiven in those days for figuring that what happened in the bosky groves of academe need not concern them: what was bandied about in faculty dining rooms stayed in faculty dining rooms, and thankfully, it was a given in American politics that Congressmen rarely read serious books so the giddy whackeries of the Universitat would not be loosed upon the Citizenry.


Jack Kennedy had had to come up with a solution to his experience-and-maturity problem: he was running against Ike’s VP and therefore against the aura of Ike himself. An older, mature, hugely experienced and competent man (who made his share of darkling errors while in the Oval Office), Ike presented Jack with a serious problem: Jack was none of those things.

But that’s what hired hands were for, and there were quite a few of them stabled here, there, and everywhere on the vast Kennedy spread. And a solution was soon devised: Everything ‘old’ was bad; everything ‘young’ and ‘new’ was good. (Had he not fatally mis-invested his own youthful energies 5 years before, no doubt teen-throb, angsty Young Man James Dean would have been tapped for serious political frontage in 1960.)

God knows the last thing the Boomers had to hear was a message like that but, as perhaps future historians will say, “the very stars in their courses” …

Jack’s capacity had to be spackled up: already ‘youthful’ (which Ike was not) he would also be ‘classy’ (which the Kansas-born, no-nonsense Ike was also not). But he would also be really up-to-date with the latest cutting edge thought by surrounding himself with lotsa brains. University brains. The faculty dining halls doubled as bosky hiring halls for the self-proclaimed best and brightest. The old Progressive dream from sixty years before, given a huge boost by the New Deal and the recently-concluded Second World War, would finally be brought to a burnished Ultimate Fulfillment in 1960.

Class, brains, celebrity … all sloshed together and intermingled and interbred as the White House became a stud-farm for the Great And Glorious American Future. Americans, ominously, became as familiar with the White House dining room and the Red Room and the Blue Room and the East Room and the Rose Garden as they were with the geography of the Oval Olympus itself. Ike had meetings, and stodgy state banquets for old World War 2 acquaintances like Nikita K and De Gaulle; but Jack threw parties, and held concerts and cracked wise. God had given him the Presidency – he would enjoy it.

Thus the giddy whackeries were sucked forth from their darkling groves, issued clearances and passes, and allowed to roam the Federal Triangle in free-range liberty.

Vietnam they made, and while Martin Luther King brought the Civil Rights Movement to its pinnacle, the Beltway figured to improve upon it: they were paying all these elite knowledge-types so they might as well get some bang for the buck.

For too long a Citizenry still recovering from the double-whammy of a childhood in the Depression and a youth in a world war that literally went nuclear, and hoping to make it to old-age without a thermonuclear holocaust, figured that Washington was in the hands of – or at least under the control of – adults who had wide experience of the world and human affairs, seasoned by their successful management of great affairs, and old enough not to be distracted by lotsa shiny things.

I don’t think Americans really imagined that unserious counsels could really gain a permanent foothold in the city of Washington and Lincoln. There would always be some Adult Supervision.

Alas, like the Invisible Hand that theoretically kept capitalism on track and beneficent, Adult Supervision was far more of a hope than anything else. And that was then. Nowadays, if any Adult Supervision be espied in the Beltway it’s merely a revenant or a chimera formed from the swirl of swamp gas.

And so, speaking of chimeras, to the Post-Industrial Society.

Reading it now, and imagining that its ideas were being bandied about as True and Good decades ago, in all the nooks and crannies, dark or glittering, secretive or convivial, where the Beltway peristalsis grinds endlessly … it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if somebody had said to the Citizenry: This stuff is actually being talked about seriously in some verrrry influential places and you’d better look closely at it.

But no.

Bell opens his second, 1999 Foreword by quoting a 1998 article about Glasgow (the one in Scotland): gone were its smokestacks and shipyard cranes and all those who had served them; now the city was “a successful post-industrial centre for tourism, services, and shopping”. (xi)

Bell, it has to be noted, was writing in 1999: the last year, perhaps, when one could still party like it was 1999. The dot-com revolution, spun off from the amazing progress of desktop computing in the very early 1980s, was still steaming along briskly, like one of those gaudily-gilded Royal Navy battleships of 1899.

You might have asked yourself, certainly as late as 1999 but perhaps even as early as 1973, just where the money was coming from with which all these customers were paying for the tourism, the services, and the shopping. But that would have been thinking too much.

Bell divides up society’s core activities into Primary/pre-Industrial and agricultural, Secondary/Industrial and manufacturing, Tertiary/Transportation and Utilities, Quarternary/Trade and Finance, and Quintenary/Health, Education and Entertainment. (xiv)

The core was moving into the Quartnernary and Quintenary now, he said. The first two (and the Transportation and Utilities that would transport the products (grown and manufactured) and power the machines) were rapidly passing away. The Coming Age would belong to the Quarternary and Quintenary sectors.

Being a sociologist and not an economist – or perhaps not realistic at all – Bell doesn’t ask how a nation of almost 200 million (1973) was going to support itself by shuffling papers and working in hospitals, schools, and amusement parks.

But Bell is not merely predicting what he would like to see happen. He is reporting what is already happening: in the quarter-century between 1971 and 1996, that percentage of the American workforce engaged in manufacturing declined from 26 percent to 15 percent, and among them many were working in the sterile labs of computer-assembly plants rather than in smokestack factories. Manufacturing was providing less than 20 percent of GNP in 1973, while Services (verrry broadly defined, to include government jobs)) were providing 50 percent or better. (xv)

Correspondingly, among occupational categories professional and technical careers were increasing, and the skilled and semi-skilled work careers of Manufacturing’s realm were declining.

In what has now proven ominous, Bell notes that where Manufacturing required an infrastructure of Transportation (roads, bridges, tunnels), Post-Industrial society would require only serious commitment to a communications infrastructure. Thus suddenly in the mid-late 2000s, governments at all levels were taken as if by surprise as bridges collapsed onto the decaying roadways beneath them. Elite visions had not considered them necessary any longer.

Labor was no longer key; Knowledge was (or at least, having the credentials that implied the possession of same). (xvii)

The role of the “political order” (xix) in all of this was merely to “manage the disruptions” that would be consequent upon such “changes”. This would mean the disruptions to all those Americans somehow tied to the old Industrial, ‘smokestack’ economy, who ‘labored’ instead of ‘generated ideas’: it was a huge political challenge, ESPECIALLY if this task were to be carried out in a deliberatively democratic polity.

Which is not to say that the de-Industrialization, which Bell envisions as a force of History and Events that’s happening according to its own dynamics whether We like it or not, is something that the government should have merely ‘accepted’. Surely it promised a lethally dangerous challenge: not only shifting the ground under an entire nation’s livelihood, but also demanding the most vital and profound dislocation of lives.

A genuinely democratic political class would have brought the matter up for a wide public airing: many heads are better than one and, anyway, that’s the American Way.

But it is not the elite way and the centralized Beltway had started to become kind of full of itself. Not even Ike – the decline in America’s Industrial jobs from their all-time high actually had begun to manifest as early as 1947 under Truman – had really come to grips with it. But then, Americans themselves kinda hoped for a ‘better’ life for their children, and those Boomer children presumed that ‘better’ would mean with less of that messy ‘sweat of your brow’ type stuff.

But sitting on top of the world, and certainly on top of its own chartered corporations, the American government would have had the power to generate options as to how to manage this trend.

But then came the Sixties. The weapons-industries became, almost by default, indispensable, and increasingly so as other industries allowed themselves to fall behind other nations (automobiles for one example) or other nations were allowed to surpass Us (the Japanese in electronics, say, under Nixon, in support for Japanese government acquiescence in the Vietnam misadventure).

And as Identity Politics raised the art of the ‘deal’ to be the only actual role of government (forget sober and mature Adult Supervision or democratic acknowledgement of the role of The People rather than reliance on elites and ‘those who get it’) then this already monster thread in the national experience was interwoven, in a neat two-fer, with feministical concerns: the Industrial smokestack age was soooo ‘masculine’ (and they meant it in the worst possible way) and the Post-Industrial Age would be soooo feminine: requiring people skills and ‘relating’, emotion rather than reason, youthy experimentation instead of prudent analysis and balancing, ‘knowledge’ and ‘service’ rather than labor.

The new society would be based on Abundance and on Consuming that Abundance in ever-intensifying ways. The old Culture of Scarcity – requiring virtues and characteristics such as denial or postponement of gratification, self-discipline and self-application … was to be shed like an old snake-skin, to be replaced with ‘change’, ‘transgression’, and the old Rousseauian anti-civilizational disdain for whatever ‘is’ in favor of the ‘hope’ and ‘dream’ of what most surely will wondrously and natural come about if you just broke through all the old ‘walls’.

Deals were made as the pols tried to keep as many new demographic Identities as happy as possible, while also allowing Big Money to buy them off with PAC contributions while it sought cheaper labor elsewhere around the planet.

The Citizenry – most of whom not only ‘just didn’t get it’ but were also doomed to obsolescence by the coming Marvelousness – could be ‘managed’ until they finally gave up and sank into the lumpish torpor of thorough cultural defeat or had the decency to die off. It was urban-renewal on a societal scale, only the old buildings and neighborhoods were now entire swaths of human beings and – not to put too fine a point on it – Citizens (nor were the newly-reclassed members of favored Identities necessarily to benefit largely from the Great Leap Forward – but they would be ‘happy’ and for the pols that was becoming Good Enough).

The initial student revolts against War were joined by a revulsion against Industry in a too-simple acceptance of Ike’s warning about the ‘military-industrial complex’, and then the mutation was exponentially speeded-up by the stunning cultural Deconstruction demanded by feminism in its more radical forms.

But for too long too many Citizens figured that the government that managed to win World War 2 – pretty much single-handedly, with Britain playing Robin to America’s Batman, to hear the mythmakers tell it – could be relied upon to ‘win the peace’ and ‘manage things’. That the government was going to do a world-historical re-enactment of Phaeton stealing the Chariot of the Sun and taking it out for a joyride didn’t enter many minds.

Not even Ike could manage to come to grips with the challenge; and Jack Kennedy had his hands full with the Soviets and Civil Rights and the Israelis scheming to get their own Bomb and then he was gone and the Sixties began to explode.

The ‘old Left’ of the 1930s was declared obsolete as early as the Port Huron Statement of 1962, put together as the mother of all manifestos by Tom Hayden and the SDS; there would have to be a ‘new Left’. Tom Joad was going to morph into Archie Bunker and ‘ordinary people’ would be architects with computers (At home! On their desk!) and bosky big homes and European sports-touring sedans.

The university would become “a living model of the struggle for a new society” (xxi) – and THAT probably should have been a red-flag right there.

Society was entering a “post-economic” stage (xxi) and nobody thought to ask how the Golden Eggs were going to keep coming if the Goose were to become extinct. Americans didn’t MAKE their money; they HAD their money, like the old Boston Victorian dowager and her hats.

And that would commit the government to making sure that lotsa ‘money’ and ‘wealth’ was somehow kept flowing, even if only in appearance, in order to prove to the world – and to the increasingly obsolescent revenants of the Industrial culture – that you could indeed have a Politically Correct and Post-Industrial Knowledge-and-Service society without losing your shirt.

Reagan borrowed; Clinton sold off public assets and ‘privatized’ while erecting the Flight of Industry into  an economic philosophy of ‘globalization’; Bush the Second went abroad in search of monsters to destroy while allowing the descent into fiscal Bubbledom. The Financial Sector – a major element in the Post-Industrial society – became a hall of smoke and mirrors, built upon the illusory foundation of presumption that America could do what it wanted because America made History while the rest of the world followed (which came to a strange and dark fruition in 2008 as America made fiscal History that will keep historians shaking their heads for centuries).

But writing the second Foreword in 1999, Bell didn’t have to deal with this. Everybody was still partying like it was 1999 and ‘wealth’, real or illusory, casts a Siren-like enchantment (and then there’s the bit about Circe’s Island and the bit about being turned into farm animals – but Greek mythology had preceded the smokestack culture into the dustbin of history and anyway, the only mythology applicable to America, it has for so long been believed, is American mythology).

In his 1976 Foreword, Bell had ticked off a long list of characteristics of the PIS: the ascendancy of theoretical rather than practical knowledge; the creation of ‘intellectual technology’ (computers and such); the rise of a new ‘knowledge class’; the change in the character of work from producing stuff to relating-to-people; ‘science’ as the controlling paradigm of life; the change in political units from the old corporate and Party structures to more functional accretions: scientific, technological, cultural (the Identities and Identity Politics) and to different institutions: government bureaucracies, universities, social service complexes and the military [!]; information industries (formerly the ‘free press’). (xciv-xcvii)

And generally, the expansion of service at the expense of [productive] industry.

All of which, clearly, would be dear to the feministical heart. Everything ‘men’ were good at would be rendered obsolete, and everything women were claimed to be good at would become the new national Way. And if that demographic – or at least its most organized and vocal advocacies – were happy, then in the eyes of the deal-making car-salesmen in the Beltway what was not to like?

And all this in the Bicentennial Year.

This is not to say that Bell didn’t sense some issues beyond the purely sociological. The USSR, he thought, was going to be facing a major problem because if that behemoth too entered a Post-Industrial phase, then the “proletariat” – those masses engaged in mostly urban, factory work – would no longer be a significant class … and the Revolution (over there anyway) was based on (though not in) the workers and the proletariat. That, Bell rightly realized, would be constitute a formidable, perhaps lethal, challenge to the USSR.

In America, however, such a dethronement of the ‘blue-collar’ class could simply be ‘managed’; nor does he allow himself much political speculation as to what effect all of this would have on the structural and dynamic integrity of the American polity and the American Vision.

Identity Politics was still a newish phenomenon in 1976, and Multiculturalism (and its consequences for immigration policy) was still in its infancy.

He’s only concerned with changes of a sociological nature – “the social structure” and the “techno-economic order” – and thus “only indirectly with the polity and the culture, which comprise the other major realms of societal structure”; but he senses that all of the change is going to “widen the disjunction between the realms, since each now operates under axial principles that are contrary to the other”. (xcix)


Here is the technician allowing as how the internal dynamic stresses on the integrity of the overall American ‘thing’ are going to be increased exponentially and with contradictions that, logically at least, might be irresolvable ... but not to worry because hopefully this will all happen without losing core structural integrity. When they start talking like this about buildings or aircraft or ships, they are using nice words for ‘possible catastrophic failure’, which is itself a nice phrase for … it ain’t gonna stay up or stay afloat.

He explains (all of this is on page xcix). Capitalism at its birth was possessed of “a tenuous unity”: its ethos was individualism; its political philosophy was liberalism; its culture a bourgeois misch of utility and realism (hugely fraught and somewhat vague concepts themselves); and a “character structure” that valued “respectability, delayed gratification, and the like”. (You have to wonder at that “and the like” … character is not something sociologists really spend much time on.)

Now (1976) “many of these elements have withered or remain as pale ideologies”.

Roll THAT around in your mind a bit.

In the Year of the Bicentennial, and of the independence of the United States the two-hundreth, he’s pretty much declaring – by the by – that individualism, liberalism, the dominant culture, and the long-established (perhaps for a reason) characterological Trellis of the Citizenry … are all withered or merely pale shells, revenants and ghosts of a vanished time.

If you’ve ever wondered how it could be that ‘Liberalism’ seems to have mutated into something else altogether; how the national politics have been reduced to kabuki shows; and how the very fabric of American maturity – individual and societal – seems to have dissolved, leaving a chaotic, melted play-dough ooze to be ‘valorized’ as ‘transgressive’ and ‘progressive’ (but never RE-gressive) … if you’ve ever wondered about that, you have something to think about here.

AND if you further imagine that Bell’s ideas were the stuff of cutting-edge thinking in all those nooks and crannies of the Beltway, where the elite meet and greet and biddy-biddy-boom to make the History that later brassy neocon bumpkins would attempt to impose on other parts of the world … well, you can see where the Beltway was growing away from what any reasonable person would imagine to be maturely and ideally American.

And yet The People were simply told that this was all cutting-edge and that they ‘just didn’t get it’ and needed to shut up and stay off the flight deck while the elites launched their assorted ‘missions’.

Stay at home and watch it on TV, where you will see what you are wanted to see.

You either ‘got it’ or you were Archie Bunker. (And no, my idea of an enjoyable evening is not sitting around a neighborhood pub quaffing cheap beers and talking about ‘dem Bearss’ or ‘da Yankees’; but that’s not to say that those same people can’t rise to their role within The People when the necessity arises. Of course, the whole idea of Political Correctness and the manipulation of the news has been to ensure that nobody wakes up and realizes that the necessity has arrived.)**

Bell continues with a becoming equanimity that “[I]t is not at all clear that science, as a ‘republic of virtue', has the power to provide a new ethos for the society; more likely it is science itself that may become subverted. What this means is that society is left with no transcendent ethos to provide some appropriate sense of purpose, no anchorages that can provide stable meanings for people.” (xcix)

Somebody, no doubt, should do something about that before the Eighties roll around.

It’s as if you have technicians saying that Granted this amazing vessel is losing integrity on the molecular level, yet its design and technology are reeely reeely kewl and let’s have a walk around, shall we? The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – previously presumed to be a movable feast held in bosky faculty salons – is now the national Event, reproduced here, there, and everywhere, with the spirit of the Red Queen always hovering. Although, since the Year of Grace Two Thousand Eight, the lotus blossoms have run out.

“In effect”, continues Bell, “what a post-industrial transformation means is the enhancement of instrumental powers, powers over nature and powers, even, over people.” The uses to which such powers will be put – and by whom – “depend upon the values of a society”. (xcix)

Which values, he has already intimated, are already (1976) in profound and lethal disarray. (And this is before the effects of decades of vigorous, government-enable Deconstruction of the culture and its values.)

He concludes his Foreword, in a tone somewhat different from his prior thoughts: “A post-industrial transformation provides no ‘answers’. It only establishes new promises and new powers, new constraints and new questions – with the difference that these are now on a scale that had never been previously imagined in world history”. (c)

You’d have to go over the last 35 years kind of very carefully to find any sustained high-level engagement with what Bell, at the very end of his 100 pages of Forewords, warns of.

And now American failure – not success – is unfolding on a scale and with a relative rapidity “that had never been previously imagined in world history” for a hegemonic power in the absence of outright catastrophic war.

As Ike said half a century ago this weekend, at the end of his own insufficient tenure: “So much remains to be done.”


*The copy I will quote from is the Basic Books paperback edition: ISBN 0-465-09713-8.

**In a recent (2010) Hollywood sorta-kids flick having to do with a modern-day human child of Poseidon (by a human mother) going on a quest to prevent cosmic war by recovering Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt (entitled “Percy Jackson and” something something) there is as neat an image of Circe’s Island as I have seen recently: the eponymous hero-ling finds himself in a Casino (nicely named Circe’s) where the customers – all of them late teens and 20-somethings – are continually plied by the staff with tray-fulls of flowers (lotus blossoms, which they consume like mini-burgers). Percy starts to sense something is wrong, and eventually finds himself standing next to somebody almost his own age, but dressed kind of oddly, and with a familiar but long out-of-style haircut. The guy is playing a game or some music that is very dated, and Percy strikes up a conversation, during which he asks the kid What year do you think this is? To which, with ominous simplicity, the kid reveals all when he responds Duh, it’s 1971, man, I just got here and this place is great. At which point, of course, it dawns on Percy just what the scam in this Casino really is. (Neatly, ever-vigilant ‘security’ has noticed that he is refusing to eat from the tray of blossoms and the tastefully-dressed goons with the ear-pieces are ordered to converge on his location.)

The American lotus-blossom has been the oodles of seemingly endless cash and credit, appearing to be ‘wealth’. Spackled up with the conventional threat ‘You just don’t get it’ and enforced by elites who can always be counted upon to send around a server with a tray, and a lapel-camera to distinguish the sheep from the still-human. And deal with the latter forthwith.

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Monday, January 03, 2011


I have often taken the developments of the past Postmodern 40 years to task for Deconstructing* a lengthy list of the structural components of American and Western society, culture, and civilization. The idea is to get rid of a lot of ‘old’ and, of course, ‘oppressive’ stuff – which may be deliberately and consciously oppressive, or may be oppressive yet simply seem like the ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ thing to do, or may simply feel oppressive to somebody (whose particular group or Identity happens to have the sympathies of a vote-addled Beltway).

Having thus Deconstructed whatever you’re not happy with, you then have some space to ‘reform’, ‘change’, or be (pick one or several) progressive, transgressive, or – rarely considered – regressive.

The philosopher Roy Turner takes a look at K. Anthony Appiah’s recent book, ‘Experiments in Ethics’.**

Appiah is a celebrated commenter in the New Mode, and much given to opening up space while maintaining the modulated tone and careful, sober and mature appearance of heavy-duty, serious philosophy. Deconstruction is, like, philosophy, man! He is much in demand among the Correct godlings and godlingesses who preside over the various bosky glades of academe.***

Appiah has written his “little” book – read: small and thin – in order to “relate the business of philosophical ethics to the concerns of the ordinary, thoughtful person, trying to live a decent life”.

I’m all for that. Although you will note the number of what the late-Victorians called “portmanteau words” or suitcase words: empty containers that can be filled with whatever the owner wishes to stuff them with: ordinary, thoughtful, decent.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Trying to determine what is ordinary, thoughtful and decent and what is … something else and should be more accurately described using other terms.

Philosophy has always been a matter of thinking and of reasoning, at its core. But since Reason was one of the first targets of Deconstruction, and since Thinking is not easily given to simple, material scientific validation as in the physical sciences, and not easily quantified as in the social sciences, then there’s always going to be a gap between Philosophy and the type of Evidence and ‘Proof’ that the physical scientists offer in regard to the Laws of Thermodynamics and Gravity (although once you get into 20th century Quantum Mechanical science then you are catapulted back into realms beyond the Material).

The ‘social sciences’ – once regarded, with some accuracy, as ‘soft’ sciences – have always relied on a curious blend of a particular practitioner’s assumptions and presumptions and visions, combined with a concern for numbers: statistics, algorithms applied to groups of human beings and social forces … that sort of thing. The ground here is a lot softer, mushier even, than Newton’s or Copernicus’s.

The social sciences, then, were clearly useful to Deconstruction: they were ‘sciences’ and could provide the status of ‘scientific proof’ or ‘evidence’, while at the same time they were limited by few solid actualities and realities, and thus, being of the consistency of play-dough, were able to provide as much space an any enterprising Deconstructor might choose to open up.

So it can come as a surprise to nobody when Appiah burbles authoritatively that in order to develop his thoughts here chosen to base himself in “social sciences” because they are “fairly straightforward”. Which is a statement that says much more beneath its surfaces than it does above them. Because “straightforward” here refers to the results of ‘studies’ that can be tailored to give you almost any results you seek. And because “straightforward” can thus easily degenerate into a code-word for “Correct and just what I want to hear”.

Appiah is concerned that there is, as best he can determine, “a serious problem with the ordinary citizen’s moral intuitions”. By ‘ordinary’ he means the folks who ‘just don’t get it’; and ‘moral’ of course is a vital realm of human inquiry and guidance that doesn’t lend itself to material evidence and proof: Newton and Copernicus wouldn’t be able to prove ‘morality’ with carefully observed and painstakingly devised mathematical calculations designed to reveal the presence of clear laws.

And yet, to say that therefore ‘morality’ doesn’t exist because you can’t prove it mathematically is an assertion that can’t possibly be true. There are, as I always say, planes within the phenomenon of human being and human existence that are not material, and that do not exist on the level of physical, observable, material reality, but that are still very much real.

THAT is the confounding reality about the complexity of human being – perhaps of Being itself – that has always been a stumbling-block for the Modern spirit (forged in the budding ‘science’ of the 15th century in the West) and even more so the Postmodern spirit (forged in the 20th century in the West).

Appiah locates this problem in the fact that the moral intuitions of the ordinary citizen are too often “unreliable and incoherent” (read: un-Correct) and this, he thinks, stems from the very problematic existence of “common sense”. He wants to undermine and de-legitimize the authority that those ordinary people (curiously, he calls them “citizens”) ascribe to ‘common sense’.

Now you can’t just go and laugh. Recall that in the Jim Crow South – which by the time of the fine first phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s had been in effect for almost 70 years – generations of otherwise decent folks had been raised with the ‘common sense’ that the ‘traditional’ if peculiar Southern approach to race was just that: ‘common sense’ and ‘tradition’; and that to flout it would be ‘immoral’, putting the entire Southern white community at risk of losing its structure and the beliefs that framed and shaped its life and world.

It was precisely this problem that captured the attention of many ‘progressive’ and liberal thinkers, as it had many 20th century European thinkers, especially in the postwar period as European colonialism came to be considered a wrong-path to take, or at least to continue.

The trouble – especially for American politics and culture – lay in the conclusions that were drawn from the Jim Crow situation.

The traditional Catholic (that organization had put the most sustained and comprehensive Western thought into the matter of the moral) assessment would be that while there is a moral element, and a vital element it is, to human beings and indeed to Reality itself, yet that moral capacity or potential had to be well-formed. Since it would operate in the non-material realms of thought and belief, of ‘conscience’, then the human conscience had to be well-formed.

To use a somewhat ham-handed analogy: if a starship’s guidance computers were going to work in the trackless wastes of deep space, then they needed that first set of Prime Coordinates, against which every other bit of location-information or course-plotting information would be judged. If the starship computer didn’t have accurate Prime Coordinates, accurately entered into its core from the get-go, then the vessel would sooner or later lose its way out there, despite the best efforts of its crew, no matter how capable they were.

The Catholic idea was that God was the Prime Coordinate, and God’s Law of Love (a poor translation choice in English; ‘respect’ might work better). Since it was not always clear – dealing with this type of Laws isn’t the same as conducting research on gravity or thermodynamics or opticks – and since young humans had to have their conscience-computers programmed with the Prime Coordinates in at least basic form as early as their  mind began to form in childhood, then in the ‘shipyard’ of the Family the child-new vessel would be given that priceless and indispensable set of Prime Coordinates.

Nor were these Coordinates in essence a matter of opinion or consensus, any more than Gravity was a matter of opinion or consensus. This was the way Reality was indeed structured and governed, created by God. (I’m not delivering a sermon here; I’m trying to convey the position which the Church held.) A vessel would have to conform to the Reality of the Universe’s dynamics, like a plane has to conform to aerodynamics, or it will not stay in one piece very long; like a plane has to be able to figure east from west and north from south or it won’t be finishing its journey (UNLESS the whole idea of a plane trip is simply Aimless Wandering).
Humans being humans, two things followed: A) their cultures and traditions became part of the moral fabric or Trellis that helped to shape and sustain them; and B) the effects of selfishness and disrespect would always be present, seeking to bend what Martin Luther King aptly termed “the moral arc of the universe”. This deforming dynamic would be present in humans and through them in the institutions they created and in the traditions and ‘common sense’ that they derived and developed.

So there was always a need to help shape a ‘properly informed’ conscience; to give the human conscience those Prime Coordinates and then to ensure that it stayed close to them. And – even more dynamically – to continually assess the general assessment of the accuracy with which those Prime Coordinates were being conceived: as historical developments moved along, you had to both i) ‘judge’ them in light of their conformity to the Prime Coordinates and ii) expand your concept of how those Coordinates figured into the course you were pursuing (perhaps it would need to be changed due to what you recently discovered, or due to the deflections of gravitational pull, that sort of thing).

But Americans – although they pretty much invented the Star Trek vision itself – were never quite patient in the careful-thinking department (many of the Framers were concerned that people could not be trusted to function as The People, to deliberate carefully and to keep themselves well-informed and to ensure that their children were well-formed in civic competence, you will recall).

Quick, sweeping, ‘practical’ solutions – known for their ‘cash value’ in William James’s unhappily pragmatic and materialistic phrase – was the American way. And much more so in the late Sixties than ever before.

Back then to Appiah, who is unhappy with not only the deep complexities of ‘moral’ thinking but also with the un-Correctness of the moral as it relates to the agendas of the revolutionary agendas of the Identities.

It was ‘common sense’ for quite some time to think that the earth was flat, he notes. Which is true. But that is not the realm of the ‘moral’ (let me call it the Moral from here on, just to keep the perspective of how vital it is to adequately and accurately grasp Reality). While it may well be that humans will continue to make discoveries in the material realm (which is the only realm in which genuine science and its remarkable Method can operate), such that at some point common-sense about the material realm will change, yet the Moral common-sense can never change because it is built into the unchanging nature of Reality itself (if, you assume, in the Catholic sense, that God is moral and created the universe to give it that ‘moral arc’).

So while We no longer think it is common-sense to assert that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around it or that the earth is only 6,000 or so years old, you can’t really imagine a human reality in which it is no longer common-sense to Love (or Respect) other human beings. (Although just how to demonstrate that Respect, as individuals and societies and cultures, is always going to be a dynamic frontier.)

A humanity that no longer considered itself bound to Respect its own kind (add if you wish: because that is how the Creator Shaped humans) is not going to be a humanity, but is going to be some other type of being. And such a ‘development’ will involve not an E-volution but a DE-volution into some lesser and nastier type of being.

Appiah, much given to the political and the Postmodern, isn’t interested.

If human beings continue any sort of moral discourse, it is not because there is some beyond-material (or Meta-material) Moral ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ or even ‘in there’ (in the nature of the Reality or imprinted in the nature of the human being him/herself). Rather the ‘moral’ sense is some capability, like being able to play football or drive a car or sew, that can be taught and perhaps changed rather easily and conveniently.

After all, Moral with that capital-M implies a boundary, a limit, and also a criterion of judgment by which humans not only judge others but under which each human stands under judgment him/herself. And if there is a Moral, then there is a Creator of the Moral who will also be doing some Judging. All of this is wayyyyy too judgmental for the Postmoderns. (And to some extent, alas, Americans too – who sort of have always eased their path by figuring that since the country was especially chosen by God, then it sort of had a license to do whatever it thought best; the post-Sixties variant being that America is still special but not because there is a Moral God or any God but because its ideas are so reeely reeely great.)

There is another prof at Princeton with Appiah (you’re paying top dollar for this stuff) who adds that in physics there is a sort of “folk physics” (common misconceptions held by most scientifically uninformed or scientifically untutored people) and then there is genuine physics. Which is true enough.

BUT, the prof, continues, maybe then there’s the same sort of situation in the matter of morality: there is a ‘folk’ morality that is held by the uninformed (those who ‘just don’t get it’, perhaps) and a more genuine morality held by … well, apparently by those who ‘do get it’.

But this sally falls right into the deep trough separating material, this-plane-of-existence science from other-plane-of-existence Morality. And, as the Catholic view has always noted, if you are dealing with so vital a human capacity – imprinted in the human by its Creator – but therefore also not ‘material’ but rather beyond-material (or, ‘spiritual’, if you wish) then this Princeton prof is trying to compare rocks and oranges and figures there is a world-class level of knowledge to be gained from it.

And as Turner points out, there isn’t a well-established body of evidentiary material knowledge relating to moral issues the way there is such a body of knowledge in physics.

To use my own example – and a vivid one it is but only so that it is more clear: a simple German with no formal scientific training might not have understood or might have had whacky ideas about the jet propulsion dynamics of the ME-262 jet fighter, and you couldn’t have trusted him/her to go near one at the Luftwaffe test hangar. BUT a simple German (as many of them did) might have had a ‘common-sense’ feeling that it wasn’t right to go killing the mentally-disabled just because they were in the way – and held to that despite the protestations of officially-approved academic and medical professionals with wall-fulls of degrees and credentials in their field who supported the program.

(Yes, you might then ask about the Holocaust: once, as Hitler did, you simultaneously terrified people into realizing that if they disagreed with the government they and their loved ones would pay dearly for it, and also then offered them – especially the young (a special interest of Hitler’s) – a ‘scientific’ proof-theory that dehumanized other human beings and monsterized them as a ‘threat’ … then you as a government or a movement began the truly diabolic work of dividing not only human beings from each other (Aryans from Jews) but also from their own true natures. Thus the Prime Coordinates of the Moral have to be not only early-implanted in the budding human conscience, but also carefully and courageously nurtured; this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insight, which he backed up with his own life).

Turner acutely observes that what both Appiah and the other prof, one Harman, “seem to find attractive” is the type of social science “literature” that “seems to undermine the ordinary thoughtful person’s faith in the notion of character”.

I would say that this goes back, at least, to the American experience of Jim Crow: if so many ordinary and decent Southern folk for so long considered it ‘moral’ to impose the Jim Crow regime on Southern blacks, then clearly 'morality' and 'character' are suspect terms, and they are clearly so liable to evil-manipulation that they lose all legitimacy.

But that’s to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

King himself held for the clear immorality of Jim Crow and had every confidence that once that was demonstrated to white Southerners then their natural moral sense would start to kick in, overcoming the decades of inculturation into the vision of the Jim Crow regime. He didn’t hold that Southern whites were naturally immoral or that morality didn’t exist (indeed for him Morality was more attuned to Reality than Jim Crow, which was not only evil but un-Real and out-of-sync with that “moral arc of the universe”).

The Jim Crow experience – and King’s overcoming of it – demonstrated the validity of the ancient concerns for forming children with the accurate Prime Coordinates as early as possible, and then the responsibility of adults and their culture to help the child grow and expand that Moral competence, and then they would exercise (in a democracy) through their Citizenship competencies the Moral influence to ensure that the culture and its laws conformed to that Moral.

If you can see how to do things differently, be my guest.

Morality is an on-going process that requires constant self-judgment the same way sailing a ship requires constant checking-on (‘judging’) the vessel’s course. And it requires constant assessment of the culture. And a certain amount of judgment. And a certain amount of courage, especially when the culture (as in Bonhoeffer’s Germany) starts to go haywire.

Turner observes that Appiah and Harman “both abhor this notion [of ‘character’], although it has long been implicated in ethical theory” and that what Appiah apparently likes about what particular pieces of social-science ‘literature’ he has selected is their “explosive revelation that conduct, far from stemming from character or reflecting something deep and stable in the psyche, is determined by the situations in which we find ourselves. Conduct is a creature of context.”

I accept that Turner, a philosopher, uses the word ‘psyche’ and not ‘soul’; I’d opt for the latter. In fact I subscribe to the Catholic vision that ‘soul’ is precisely that ground – Given by the Creator – within the human that imparts a depth and stability.

And also the human quality. For animals, conduct is indeed a result of context: the fox, as Carlyle mooned, will go after the chicken if there are reasonable prospects for success, and will waste no time worrying about whether this is the proper thing for a fox to be doing or what consequences this foxy assault would have on the chicken or its loved ones. Of course; there is no love in the example, the fox’s nature is to find food and chickens are – in the foxes’ world – the food, and there is no common-ground in the animal world between the fox and the chicken. And there is not even any capacity within the fox to entertain such matters.

All of which simply goes to show that animals and humans are different in some fundamental way, and that you can’t easily or usefully draw analogies between the behaviors of one animal species toward another (especially when one species is the natural prey of the other), and that humans are morally responsible in a way that lower animals are not. It’s not easy being a human and conducting a Moral life, and ‘groovy’ and ‘just doing what feels good’ don’t even begin to comprehend the magnitude of the task of human Mastery and Command of the Self.

Harman actually goes further than Appiah and asserts “virtues and vices” to be “nonexistent”. So then, Harman can ask breezily, “If we know that there is no such thing as a character trait and we know that virtue would require having character traits, how can we aim at becoming a virtuous agent”.

They pay big bucks for this sort of stuff at Princeton (which is reflected in the tuition).

But this is the type of discourse the Brits neatly label If-I-Were-A-Horse talk. Because we don’t ‘know’ any of the things on which Harman builds his conclusion. It’s a mind-game. I have seen an awful lot of this type of ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ passing for ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’ in this and that field of the Postmodern empire. The Beltway has been far more impressed with it than it had any right to be.

As Turner says, this bit from Harman implies, among other things, that “if someone supposes that developing a robust character would sustain a morally decent life in the face of changing circumstances, he is plainly mistaken.”

Yes, humans are imperfect even in attempting to ‘do the right thing’. Which doesn’t mean that the right thing doesn’t exist but simply that it takes a whole lotta serious work and thought and courage to do the right thing, and it is vital – humans being social animals – to have a culture and traditions in place that support that endless and ongoing task (and responsibility) and so you shouldn’t go Deconstructing lots of serious stuff unless you’ve really really really thought things through. And that does not include simply coming up with If-I-Were-A-Horse ‘proofs’ that can only ‘work’ in maybe getting you a free beer (or single-malt, or Chardonnay or Bellini) at the local pub. But it’s no basis for national policy. (And can you say “Iraq War”?)

And as the Eastern mystics long ago realized: the fact that six blind men each have a hugely inaccurate mental picture of elephants based on each blind man’s hugely insufficient information, doesn’t mean that elephants themselves don’t actually exist.
Among the experiments upon which their assertions primarily rely, Appiah and Harman are particularly fond of those conducted by researchers who determined that when approached for pay-phone change (how old are these experiments?) strangers are more likely to give it when near a “fragrant bakery” than outside a “neutral-smelling dry-goods store”. (Are these government-funded experiments, or are they covered by tuition?)

Appiah, drawing himself up to full scholarly authority (think of Gandalf revealing himself to Bilbo when the little guy doesn’t want to leave the Ring of Power in the envelope on the mantelpiece, or Mithrandir revealing himself as Gandalf the White against the evil spirit of Saruman possessing Theoden of Rohan), ladles it on with a trowel: “Many of these effects are extremely powerful” and “huge differences in behavior flow from differences in circumstances that seem of little normative [that is to say ethical] consequence”. Notice the hyperbole in language as well as the disproportion between the experiments’ results and the conclusions Appiah draws.

About all I can see this establishing is that if you take some drugs (those naturally occurring endorphins prompted by the scent of fresh-baked bread) then you’ll be nicer to srangers. Surely this is not news. Indeed, Our hard-pressed troops on the Eastern Front are now given – as a matter of military policy – all sorts of drug-cocktails (and are also going to be required to take ‘positive thinking courses’).

Yes, a few nice endorphins may give folks a little bit of extra leeway in feeling benevolent (although I am guessing that’s not so effective nowadays), but you can’t base the entire pyramid of Deconstructing the concept of human character and the existence of the moral or the Moral on such a pin-point. There is a reason that the pyramids were built with the wide and thick part on the bottom; it’s a big part of the reason why they are still standing.

But if drugs are the only way to make humans more benevolent, then We are heading into some dark future that heretofore was only the province of Science-Fiction of a particularly dysphoric and dystopic bent.

And if the only thing that makes you do the right thing is having been in a situation where you’ve just had a pleasant experience and are feeling kinda good about life, then ethics and humanity are reduced to a ridiculous shell. And a profoundly inadequate and inaccurate conception of what the human Task and Mission really involves. It is a job of work. And, if I may go beyond even the best philosophy, you can’t do it alone or Alone.

And apparently what the Germans found among the Einsatzgruppen troops in the Ukraine is also true now in Afghanistan: certain acts, especially if ordered with some regularity, result in the troops needing an awful lot of alcohol or drugs to dull the pain. The operative question being: why the pain if there is no Moral within the human himself? You can order troops to fire machine guns into concrete or sand-bag targets day in and day out and your only command problem will be – for some – a degree of boredom. But if you order the same act when the guns are aimed at human beings … something else happens altogether.

How many Allied and Central Power senior officers didn’t bemoan the fact that in the trenches of World War 1, facing each other day upon day, their troops had a disturbing tendency not only to live and let live but to purposely refrain from offing the other side’s guys unless specifically ordered to and supervised by the officers themselves? The celebrated ‘Christmas Truce’ on the Western Front horrified the generals (as well it should have) but it would have become an annual tradition with a wide popular base among the troops if the bosses hadn’t threatened courts-martial and the inevitable firing-squad from your own side.

You can see where all of this is useful to Appiah and the cadres of Deconstruction. If there is no ‘character’ then you can’t ‘judge’ folks for not having it; you can’t ‘oppress’ people by expecting them to conform to it; you can’t insist that this or that progressive or transgressive excitement isn’t a good idea; and so you open up all sortsa ‘space’ for folks to ‘beeee freeeeeee’, as the Boomers always figured was the way to go. In fact, you can't insist that there is some Beyond or some capital-letter anything that might stand in the way of the total autonomy of every individual (and that of course would be good thing because autonomy is a total good and Shape and Boundary are totally bummers and anyway it's in the Constitution and et cetera and et cetera and et cetera).
But, Turner judges rightly, “Appiah and Harman are untroubled by flawed reasoning”. And this has been a problem with the ‘revolutionary’ approach that all the Identities adopted in the Sixties and that the Beltway accepted as ‘progress’ and the media valorized in sound-bites and cutesy feel-good, upbeat and ‘constructive’ reporting.

What Turner judges about Appiah and Harman applies as well to far too much of the Postmodern world: “Character is part of being human. We lean nothing of how we live with it from Appiah and Harman or the experimentalists, who have nothing to say about the qualities or conditions of a decent life, let alone offer any advice for its attainment.”

You might say that Appiah and Harman resemble those fabled Chinese ‘scholars’ who sought to learn about the horse from ‘studying’ the Unicorn. Having constructed their own ‘reality’ they then figure they can learn about genuine reality (or Reality) by studying their doodles. And, having gained the ear of the imperial government, they THEN insist on making the rest of the people accept the cartoonish conclusions they have drawn from their own cartoons.

Does any of this have a familiar ring?

And if so, What then is to be done?


*Formally, the term Deconstruction is from the realm of literary criticism. It refers to a French-based philosophical-literary method that presumes from the outset that there are deep-seated contradictions, whether purposeful or unconscious, at the heart of a work (literary or film) and thus sets out to expose them by delving below the target-work’s surface meaning.

Of course, you can see what might happen if you give yourself over to a Deconstructive turn of mind and simply aim it like a destructo-beam ray gun at anything (philosophy, culture, ideas, other people’s beliefs, other people’s actions): you can, as the system intended, cut apart just about anything you aim at.

The system is not designed for ‘CON-struction’. Having created ‘space’ by blowing apart what’s already there in a work, Deconstruction then yields to whatever the wielder chooses to fill the newly-created space up with.

I use the term in the more general sense: the Revolutions of the Identities needed to create ‘space’ in American culture – its practices, its beliefs, even its credibility and legitimacy – in order to trowel in whatever ‘fresh, progressive and cutting-edge reform thinking’ the particular Identity’s advocates sought to force-feed into the national bloodstream.

And you can always imagine it in a more literal sense of the building trades: de-constructing a building means ‘taking it apart’. I have often used the image of a ship at sea or a plane in flight – carrying passengers – to better convey the actuality of what it means to vigorously and excitedly Deconstruct a culture and a society and a civilization. Which is what has been happening in these parts for 40 years. (You can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the deconstructors lost control of the amazing destructo-beam and somehow hit the economy as well as ‘the culture’.)

**The article is entitled “Ethics Made Easy: ‘Feel Good, Do the Right Thing’”, by Roy Turner; it is in the Oct-Nov 2010 issue of ‘Philosophy Now’ magazine, pp. 29-31. The article is available online only to subscribers or by purchase here.

***Where, by the by, 85% of college grads – those who have secured the vital Ticket to Success – are now returning home after graduation to live with their parents, up from 65% in 2006. I can’t imagine what happens to those young adults who don’t have much of a family life to return to. Another sign that the water is now rising into the previously dry decks of the ship reserved for the marvelous Knowledge-and-Service society that would remain unsinkable as the gritty, sweaty, and so repugnantly and oppressively ‘male’ productive culture was ripped out and tossed overboard into History’s voracious ocean.

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