ALCOHOLICS AND BALLERINAS
I came across a remark made by an alcoholic in a treatment-program that operates housing in which the patients are allowed to drink (which is probably a Post all its own): asked if this ‘permission’ to drink was really helping him in his life, he shrugged winsomely and replied “ballerinas dance, alcoholics drink”.
There is a huge and treacherous gap in the reasoning under that comment. I’d like to look at it, since it may not be visible to the naked eye and certainly not to generations whose only training in getting beyond appearances and surfaces has been to ‘suspect oppression’.
Specifically, I want to look at the way recent political convenience in this country (and throughout the developed nations of the West) has required doing very serious damage to the entire task of growing up as a competent human being with a reasonable chance of success at sustaining one’s life as a human being.
To do this, I am going to look at Chapter 5 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book “After Virtue”.* The Chapter itself is entitled ‘Why the Enlightenment Project Justifying Morality Had to Fail’.
Even such Enlightenment luminaries as Kant, Hume, Smith, Diderot and (in the next century) Kierkegaard, dwelt in the afterglow of the Medieval Christian synthesis and can be seen – whether they realized it or not – as “inheritors” of that remarkable tradition and its achievements.
Specifically, they all agreed to great extent upon “the character of morality” and upon “what a rational justification of morality would have to be”.
The vital basis here would be – as the Medieval Synthesis coherently and clearly dealt with – that A) there are essential features of human nature and thus that B) you can use your reason to work out from that nature what is moral and what is not. (This is just on the philosophical level; leave ‘God and religion’ out of it for the moment.)
By the time of the Enlightenment the Conductor had been dismissed and the individual players were coming up with their own interpretations of the score: Diderot and Hume figured that “the passions” were the essence of human beings; Kant thought that it was the human capacity for “reason” and for the “universal and categorical character of certain rules of reason” that all humans would by the workings of their natural reason have to accept; Kierkegaard thought that whether passions or reason, the fundamental human characteristic and ‘nature’ was the ability to “make a decision”.
MacIntyre (and I agree with him) judges that the entire Enlightenment project went off the rails at just this point and from then on has never had a chance to get where it originally hoped to go.
This is important for Us today because the Enlightenment Project was crucial in birthing ‘secularism’, the thought that the world and its affairs can get along very well without any Beyond or any Above or even any Deep Purpose coming from somewhere within the human or material realm. And it is this Enlightenment-generated secularism which has been taken up – for political more than for philosophical reasons – as the Correct understanding of what humans and existence are all about, and how they operate. More on that in a bit.
Aristotle in his day had come to the conclusion that everything has a function or a purpose (the Greek is ‘telos’, the adjective in English is ‘teleological’). And that once you understood the function/purpose, then you could get on with figuring out ‘morality’: whatever contributed to the function/purpose was moral, and whatever didn’t wasn’t.
But he was a shrewd enough observer of things and people to realize that just because something ‘is’ doesn’t mean that it is automatically the best instance of its kind that it can possibly be. A plow may be a good plow or a bad plow depending upon whether it is able to successfully and effectively perform the function of plowing. (Indeed, it almost goes without saying that when you say ‘plow’ you automatically presume the further judgment or evaluation as to whether it’s a ‘good’ plow or a ‘bad’ plow, since it seems to be an ineradicable characteristic of life in this world that things do not always function as well as they might.)
Thus, Aristotle saw, there is in this world a profound and essential difference between a thing-as-it-happens-to-be and a thing-as-it-should-be.
And, of course, the same goes for human beings: there is a profound and essential difference between a human-being-as-s/he-is and a human-being-as-s/he-ought-to-be. Ethics, then, would be the organized knowledge that would help a human being achieve that “transition” from ‘is’ to ‘ought’.
Once, for example, you say a person is a ‘sea captain’ you automatically presume the next level of analysis: good sea-captain or bad sea-captain? Meaning: does this individual competently and effectively fulfill the tasks that go with being a sea-captain?
In the 12th century the Medieval Christian synthesis took the philosophy of the newly-rediscovered Aristotle and blended it with Christian religion: the ‘function’ of the human being was blended with the ‘nature’ and ‘vocation’ of the human being as a being created in the image and likeness of God, whose ‘function’ was (in the terms made famous by the Baltimore Catechism) to “know, love and serve God”. (You might think that this formulation leaves more than enough leeway not to seem ‘oppressive’, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.)
And so too, in the Medieval Synthesis human morality and ethics then receive the weight not only of reason and philosophy but also of Divine Law. But then again, if it is law designed to help achieve the function and fulfill the purpose, then it’s kind of helpful law. Sort of like the law written in big red letters that all pilots must always and everywhere and under all circumstances obey regardless of anything else whatsoever: do not attempt to fly this aircraft in reverse. Bad things – very bad things – will happen if you do. And not just because God, perhaps in a bad or ‘oppressive’ mood, has decided to impose a penalty; rather, because such an act is profoundly contrary to the functioning principles of the aircraft.
But the core dynamic here is not ‘religious’ in origin but ‘philosophical’ and rather clearly deploys the human ability to reason and think plus astute observations and conclusions drawn from those observations – which is not a bad simulacrum of the Scientific Method.
And so, in order to figure out your ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ you have to have a solid grasp on the nature and purpose and function of the human being. You can’t just have an ‘ethics’ without any knowledge of the ‘function’, any more than you could figure out your position in space without a set of core coordinates upon which all subsequent calculations are based.
So with Aristotle (with the addition of the religious and theological level in the 12th century A.D.) you have for humans a triple-component schematic: human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be is initially unable to achieve complete congruity with human-nature-as-it-ought-to-be, and so needs to be helped to make the transition to genuine fulfillment and functioning through morality and ethics and practical reason.
You have an initially incongruent human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be; you have rational rules and precepts that can be taught and learned (and thus the skills mastered with practice until they are habitual); and you have human-nature-as-it-ought-to-be (which you can work toward throughout your life, since nobody seems to ever become perfect at it).
In a relevant aside, I’d note that Christian thought took that ‘initial incongruence’ that Aristotle noticed – the one between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ – and developed it into the concept of Original Sin or Original Sinfulness, which is not a specific sinful act but rather a predisposition to act in such a way as to degrade your purpose and nature as a human being (rational being created in the image and likeness of God).
So throughout the period of the Medieval Synthesis, to say that somebody ought to do something was to say that doing that something would enhance the function and progress of that person toward achieving the true purpose of his-her human nature.
Curiously, it was the Protestant Reformers and their still-Catholic Jansenist contemporaries who tossed out Aristotle and emphasized ‘God’s will’ as if the whole matter of ethics and morality were simply a matter of us human kids having to do what daddy wanted no matter what he said. Which wasn’t – and isn’t – the case at all.
There is no place for ‘reason’, said Calvin, since reason – along with every other human capability – was contaminated by the Fall. Only God’s grace can save you (and that depended very much on whether Calvin’s God was in a good mood or not).
Worse, Blaise Pascal – who in many ways was an astute observer of things and life – was also a man who admired the newly-developing Science of the era, and decided that since Science cannot reach conclusions about the non-material aspects of existence (about, say, human nature or purpose) then no other form of mode of reason (such as philosophical reason) could do so either. (Which is akin to saying that if several blind men each come up with a different description of the elephant, then the elephant cannot provably exist.)
So by the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century those folks had inherited only incoherent fragments of a once coherent explanatory system. They were incoherent because you cannot start with different assorted notions of what human nature and purpose is, and expect to come up with a universally valid idea of what ethics and morality must be. If, for example, the flight schools each had different definitions of what an aircraft is, and how powered-flight works, then it would be impossible to achieve a coherent and comprehensive (and working) mastery of a pilot’s job. (And if the government, eager for the votes of pilots and potential pilots, insisted that that was OK and that all the graduates should be allowed to get into the left-hand seat anyway … well, let’s not get ahead of things here.)
The great symphony of the Medieval Synthesis now not only had no Conductor, but its assorted players and instruments were not even working off the same sheet of music. You would pay money to listen to that?
You can imagine what would happen if a human civilization and society and culture lost any firm or coherent grip on just what the nature and purpose of a human being is. If, that is to say, it suddenly was ‘no longer clear on the concept’. Would you fly an airline that hired pilots who weren’t clear on the concept of powered flight? Or who had been trained to think that there may be many concepts of powered flight and ‘rules’ for one school’s pilots might be merely ‘irrational presumptions’ for another school’s pilots? (The aircraft, and the rules of aerodynamics, after all, remain stubbornly real, regardless of the various pilots’ education – or lack of it.)
The Modern Age – and the ‘modernist’ approach to philosophy, literature, art and religion – reflect this massive gelatinous fluidity that had suddenly been injected into the foundations of the West. Things get confused, and a mushy profusion of possible ‘concepts’ about ‘the human’ pop up like kudzu. It is certainly possible, and the Age insisted upon it, that all this booming and buzzing confusion was actually a ‘creative’ profusion, a celebration of pluralism (as they like to say nowadays).
But then, there are places where it isn’t such a great idea to be unclear on the concept, or to have many concepts seeking to operate all at once, or where some concepts even insist that there can be no concepts at all. The pilot who claims that his way is fine regardless of whether any other pilots agree with him is going to have you sharing the skies with some might unpleasant possibilities.
Some things need a sort of coherent and reliable and sustained stability – foundations, say, or fundamental concepts about essential realities that have immediate consequences on life and history. That sort of thing.
But if things were queasily mushy and fluid in the Modernist Age, they went right off the rails in the Postmodernist Age.
And I’d say that there could have been no Postmodern Age without the assistance of the Beltway, or – in the initial phase – the Democrats who in the very early 1970s embraced radical feminism (which is quite a different thing from ‘feminism’ or ‘women’) whole-hog in a desperate bid to win huge numbers of votes to replace those lost with the break-up of the old New Deal coalition of Northern and Southern elements of the Party.
If radical feminism was an ‘interest group’ it was also a hell of a lot more than that. It was an Identity, claiming the clear and certain boundaries of sex: every woman was a member (whether she knew it or not, wanted to be or not) of their Movement; it had an agenda that was not only ‘revolutionary’ in Method (only the vanguard cadres, those who ‘get it’, have the right to control power), but was also ‘revolutionary’ in Agenda: what they wanted, pretty much, was for the US government to erase any and all practices, traditions, culture arrangements, or societal arrangements, which in any way gave ‘men’ more ‘freedom’ than women (which could only have come about in the first place if said women were ‘oppressed’ by men through the evil Patriarchy).**
I don’t know if the Dems of the day back then really knew what they were doing, or whether they simply tossed everything out in a fit of absence of mind (or electoral anxiety and greed). But before too very long it became clear that in order to give this new Identity everything it demanded, large chunks of some very basic structural elements of American and Western civilization would have to be ripped out and tossed: the Family; Marriage (in any recognizable traditional form); the concept of there being a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to go about doing politics or even to go about being a person and conducting a human life.
And – they were nothing if not logical, these gimlet-eyed cadres – the very definition of human life.Women, the cadres had discovered, were always ground-zero for getting stuck with babies after sex, which could only be the result of the patriarchy of Western civilization and proof-positive that the Beltway must release them from their oppression. Which oppression, they insisted, did not begin until birth and which was nobody’s business but their personal own what they did with the ‘result’ of a sexual encounter with somebody, including any irrelevant entity such as the husband with whom the aforementioned sex had been had.
The government, in all its Branches, had to find a way to approve; political arithmetic alone demanded it. And in putting the weight of its authority (and its purse) behind the whole shebang, an incoherent bundle of corrosive and unprovable speculations, accusations, assertions and dampdreams – that would otherwise have remained in that far corner of faculty dining room behind the plastic ferns populated by the tenured but crazed true-believers in this or that bit of crackpottery – became the cutting edge and very officially Correct policy of the planetary hegemon and the self-proclaimed victorious protector of Western civilization against the crazed cadres of the Communist East.
But Western civilization, and its morality and its ethics, had been built on the Greek Aristotelian and Medieval Synthesis, and American culture was influenced by that still-powerful afterglow, since even the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, for all their confusions, still believed that a) human beings had a nature and a purpose, b) human reason could figure out that nature and purpose and thus that morality and ethics, and that c) in such a way civilization and culture could somehow go on helping train the young how to get from as-you-happen-to-be to how-you-ought-to-be.
This was part of the warp and woof of the basic fabric of the thing. You could no more start just ripping stuff out than you could decide to quickly alter the foundations of a 100-story skyscraper after it was opened and fully occupied; or pull out and change the engines of an ocean liner while it was at sea with passengers aboard; or rip out a pound of flesh from a living body without also pulling out a whole lot of fluids and attached viscera thingies at the same time (even Shakespeare realized that couldn’t be done).
But the new Identity (theoretically controlling – though it has never been proven – a magical 52 percent of the electorate) needed much to be gotten rid of – and quickly.
There could be no ‘human nature’ because they needed the ‘space’ to redefine cultural arrangements; there could be no ethics or morality because they were planning on a lot of things being declared right and good that would otherwise have been though wrong and bad; there could be no purpose to human beings because they planned on trying out all sorts of stuff that might not work – but as long as there is no ‘purpose’ anyway, then who could say it didn’t work right?
And there couldn’t be any rival system that could stand up and remind everybody that what was being demanded – and dutifully provided by the Beltway – was incoherent and quite possibly unworkable and rather probably harmful to most of the human beings who would – willingly or otherwise – find themselves mixed up in it.
So philosophy – at least the way the Aristotle used to do it – and religion – the way the Catholics used to do it – had to somehow be tossed, or at least undermined. Aristotle was a Dead White European Male and Catholic priests had other problems with males, especially younger ones, and so the values of the Synthesis must be bad because of it.
And Science itself had to be twisted into service. In the current ‘Times Literary Supplement’*** the reviewer traces out how the biological sciences are now struggling to conform to Correctness: under no circumstances, even in studies of Evolution, must any reference to be made to ‘purpose’ or ‘teleology’. Nor is there any narrative or overriding conceptual ‘story’ as to how things happen; stuff just happens. Nor can there be any reference to Mind instead of Matter; it’s too dangerous because if there is any Mind in Nature then you get a God or a Purpose that might get in the way of the Movement’s Agenda.
There is only Matter, and whatever it does, it does randomly and without plan – since really, there is no ‘it’ there to do anything and the stuff just happens. And so, also, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from ‘is’ – there is no connecting medium, what is happens randomly and without consciousness, so you just have to deal with it (how convenient).
So if you want to keep your eligibility to receive grants and get invited to the big-venue conferences, then you’d better stay away from the deep end of the pool and paddle around in the Correct end. Thus there is an eager and expensive search for the primal and irreducible agents of history and progress, little monads of Matter that somehow are the only things driving all history, animate and inanimate, human and animal. (Although even if you were to find one of these asserted thingies, you’d then have to try to explain how it can combine with gajillions of others of its kind into the amazingly complex life-forms that are in evidence all over the shop here, and still remain Mind-less and utterly random … but to Correct Science, this is already thinking too much.)
The gene has been put forth as the new Final Frontier that will explain everything Correctly (or at least without endangering the Rube Goldberg machine that Correctness is enforced to protect). But there is no such discrete thingie as ‘the gene’ that somehow accounts for ‘everything’. The term is used as a shorthand term to deal with the assorted bits of information, but it is not “the sole motor” of evolution.
And even if it were to exist as merely carrying ‘information’ then what is the intelligible structure which that information conveys and transmits? Oops, any talk of ‘intelligible structure’, like Rawls’s aversion to ‘overarching narratives’, is taboo. Verboten. Nyet. And etcetera and etcetera and etcetera.
But it is not only asserted to be the radical individual thingie that (so curiously and conveniently) reflects the radically independent sole-motor ‘New Woman’ of the radical-feminist cadres’ consciousness-raising. It is also a ‘selfish’ gene – existing in the primordial authority of the most basic level of being merely upon its own authority, which authority it also then deploys ‘selfishly’, and thus also so curiously and conveniently reflecting the radically-independent I-can-abort-if-I-please ‘New Woman’ who - according to the Correct philosophy - doesn’t have to care about anybody other than herself.
But, as the review notes, if there is any intelligent information being conveyed, then “the whole concept of ‘mindless matter’ is unsustainable”. Because intelligence automatically implies consciousness. And if there is consciousness in the universe then … well, you aren’t going to be getting any more major grants if you put that in writing.
In fact, you could make a very good case that intelligence automatically gets you involved not only with ‘consciousness’ but with ‘self-consciousness’.
In which case the Universe is not so much driven by Matter but by Consciousness, or Mind.
And in fact, some physicists are beginning to wonder if rather than say that “consciousness is a property of matter” it is more accurate to envision “matter is a property of consciousness” - and take a moment to roll that one around. It echoes the ancient conception of the body being in the soul, rather than the soul being in the body. But in any case whatsoever, none of it is Correct.
And while many biologists are trying to worm their way out of the evolution-and-Correctness mess by trying to become more like the really really serious and hard scientists such as physicists, who are reputed to have the clearest idea of just what the ‘fundamentals’ of It All are, yet today “physics itself has become spectacularly critical of any sort of atomism or ‘monadology’” – the physicists, that is to say, are no longer trying to reduce It All to one little material thingie that does all the work with none of the complications of Consciousness, Spirit, Purpose, Nature, or any of the other not-Correct stuff.
Worse, physicists today “are far more receptive to the idea that if anything is ‘fundamental’, it has to be consciousness”.
To the cadres of Correctness (among whom, I am going to imagine, are many recipients of this or that prize for making ‘feminist’ contributions to this or that science) this can only be gall and wormwood. They had been working toward Lysenko-izing American science: ensuring that scientists understood that in the New Order, scientists would first determine what it was they were supposed to ‘discover’, and THEN make sure that their experiments and observations ‘discovered’ it. And nothing else. Or else.
Now it turns out that Science itself, which they had been counting upon as a useful idiot, if not an ally, has started discovering that the reality of the universe is not necessarily set up to moisten the dampdreams of the cadres.
Which can only pose a threat to the (incredible) credibility of the Post-Modernist and radically feminist Correctness regime. The scam, in best revolutionary fashion, was to seize control of the government (accomplished when vote-desperate Dems started signing blank checks to the Revolution, and then all the Beltway pols and bureaucrats got in on the game). Having achieved that, the cadres got regulations and laws passed that made it much easier to get more of their number into key educational institutions, where they began ‘discovering’ stuff that (so conveniently) ‘proved’ the rightness and need of the Revolution. Simultaneously getting into bureaucracies, more regulations were passed. More ‘research’ and ‘discoveries’ were made.
It was all done in a very ‘scientific’ manner, because this was a cutting-edge Revolution that was based on ‘facts’ (although it also claimed that ‘facts don’t matter’) and ‘reality’ and not on stupid old abstractions and mystifications thought up in the service of oppression by eons of Dead White European Males and their whacko male Sky-God.
Science, it was hoped, would now continue its usefulness by finally destroying the last vestiges of any sort of a universe whose evolved order might in any way limit, boundary, or otherwise interfere with the total autonomy of the Revolution’s New Woman.
Science would do that by showing that the evolved universe is nothing but Matter interacting with itself randomly: no Purpose, no Meaning, no Nature of anything (including humans), no God, no Natural Law, no Natural Order … nothing that could stand in judgment on, or give any voter a rational ground to base a judgment against, anything that any totally autonomous New Woman and the Revolution might wish to do.
The idea, you might notice, was not lost upon Bush-Cheney and the rightist whackjobs like John Yoo, who quickly saw that if the New Left was going to rip the country and the Constitution apart in the service of the agenda of New Woman (Womyn?) then the New Right could rip the country and the Constitution apart in the service of total autonomy for government. And who could argue that there wasn’t a certain neat, almost photogenic, symmetry in that? And since the New Left relied on government power to impose its agenda on the Citizenry, and the New Right was planning to use government power to sidestep Constitutional limits and deploy military forces overseas, then the total autonomy of government had something to like for the two biggest Mobs in the Beltway. Such a deal!
Now, however, Science is beginning to realize that things can’t be as simple in the real world as the political schemes of the bosses would like it to be. American science, that is to say, is discovering what Soviet science had learned long before: when science is subordinated to political schemes (always in a ‘good’ cause, of course – what leaders ever said ‘This is a bad and evil idea but here’s what I want done anyway’ … ?) then science will be debased and the politics will fail; Truth – as every Revolution has to learn all over again the hard way – is going to come out.
The moral arc of the universe bends toward it; human nature seeks it out – and not even Stalin could change that in the long run.
It may yet be that the radical feminist cadres will pray, with that inimitable Dead White American Lumpen Male, Chester A. Riley: “What a revoltin’ development DIS toined out ta be!”
If human beings have a function philosophically and – why not? – a spiritual purpose, nature and function as well, then moral and ethical statements are factual statements: such and such is a good way to be human or a bad way. Which is NOT what Revolutionary Correctness wants to see at all.
But if there is NO way to ground a human purpose, nature, or function, THEN there is no way anybody can ‘judge’ anything or anybody else. And moral statements cease to be factual are reduced to the status of opinion. And perhaps to the same level as ‘religious opinion’ – which a Federal judge in Massachusetts recently characterized as “irrational” by definition (perhaps he meant non-rational or meta-rational, but then maybe he really meant what he said).
When a civilization turns upon itself, carrying its great founding genius to unbalanced and self-destroying extremes in a parody of its own best beginnings, it becomes decadent. Like a Ferris wheel that has come loose from its concrete base and moorings, its still-working motors simply roll it away drunkenly (that marvelous image from the concluding minutes of Stephen Spielberg’s 1978 under-appreciated gem, “1941”).
I think that has happened to this country. But wait.
It has happened not because the Citizenry decayed out from under the government, but because the government committed itself to an ultimately decadence-producing agenda and then strove mightily to fulfill its ponderous indenture by imposing it overtly or slyly upon the Citizenry.
The Great American Experiment in popular government has always actually been more of a Great American Gamble: that somehow human beings can come together in a polity and through common and careful deliberation exercise their Sovereign Authority to shape their polity on their own, rather than be indentured (or worse) to a King or a Leviathan governing apparatus.
The Framers themselves were not completely comfortable with that Great Vision. While it might work in small venues like towns and counties (although who in 1787 could forget the Salem Witch craze of less than a century before?), a larger national government would require representatives. The solution was frequent elections and the system of checks-and-balances, in order to keep the great Wheel of Government from developing its own momentum (and its own Will) and running away with everything.
Lincoln was always aware of this conundrum: can a government amass the power to function effectively without by the very exercise of its power undermining the sovereign rights of The People and of the Citizens? He was the only one among American Presidents to face a Civil War, and his were terribly difficult times. The actions he took were taken under the one exceptional situation that the Framers had recognized and acknowledged.
By the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, however, there is some question as to whether anybody in Washington really believed that the country – now so complex and large and diverse – could be effectively governed and its energies and resources harnessed, without the clear and direct direction by people who genuinely knew what they were doing in a way that no simple Citizen could ever know. Teddy Roosevelt wanted to run the government, but at least wanted to use its growing authority as a counter-balance to the great corporate combinations and their intensely concentrated wealth. William Howard Taft couldn’t see how else it could be done, but hoped that those who knew how to do things and who had power to get things done would act responsibly. Wilson was convinced that only a truly Great Man could be a Great Leader, which is what he figured the country would now always need.
None of them had really any practical use for the Vision of 1787. Perhaps they sensed, at some level, that they couldn’t afford that Vision.
And throughout their Administrations the Progressives were urging government to use its authority to clean the country up: clean up the food, clean out the nests of child laborers, get rid of liquor, and in a thousand ways be the Great Sheriff that would clean up Dodge (according to whatever this or that Progressive thinker took to be the Great Problem or Great Outrage of the day). There were problems that extended beyond any individual States, and there was also the Convenience Factor: it would be a lot easier to get one Federal law passed or regulation imposed rather than get each individual State to do it.
A great complex machine like the country had become now required ‘experts’; not necessarily great human beings, but greatly knowledgeable ones that knew what they were doing and - always a slippery definition – what had to be done.
People ‘just didn’t get it’ because they couldn’t get it – everything was so complicated that the average Citizen just couldn’t get a handle on enough matters to form a respectably serious opinion.
That tension – between expanding the power of the national government to keep up with the expansion of the country’s complexity and retaining the Founding suspicion of and limits on the power of the national government lest it swallow up the power of the States and come to infiltrate the entire polity – posed a monstrous challenge.
Things were then rendered even more complex when the national government under FDR extended itself to combat the Great Depression and try to smooth out the workings of the economy, and then immediately thereafter when the national government directed the nation in the largest war-effort in its history, militarizing the already corporatized and industrialized society.
But what happened in the late 1960s pushed things to an entirely new level.
The old Progressive urge to ‘improve’ became much more ‘revolutionary’. Not only did the Content of their demands insist upon all sorts of ‘change’ that went beyond ‘reform’ into ‘revolutionary’ change, but the Method of their demands also reflected the ‘revolutionary’ mindset: only those elites who ‘get it’ should have any real voice, and their job would be to get control of the huge government power and wield it as they saw fit.
If the original American Vision was already weakened widely by the 1890s and 1900s, it has now been weakened deeply and profoundly.
There is no easy answer to this problem.
At this point, even if the money – that mother’s milk of government-programs – runs out, will there be enough Americans left who can step up to begin functioning once again as not only ‘concerned’ but truly participant citizens, dedicated to a common-weal and to a sober and serious management of a nation far too riddled by excitements and appearances?
The American polity – unlike Divinity – is finite, and it cannot continue to absorb ad infinitum the various ‘deals’ that each sap it of vital and genuine strength. I sometimes think of the commonweal as a whale, under attack by sharks: while few sharks can individually take enough bites out of a whale to kill it, a frenzied gang of them certainly could reduce the great creature to bloody bones if allowed to go at it long enough.
When is long enough? That is the question.
If since the turn into the 20th century there has been a major question as to whether the country has gotten too complex for The People, and if since the turn into the 19th century there has been a major question as to whether people can ever really reliably function as The People, then thosequestions have in the past few decades intensified exponentially.
The revolutionary theory and the revolutionary ‘science’ and philosophy (or non-philosophy) introduced in the service of the radical feminist agenda, have now posed a profound contamination hazard: generations of Americans are now exposed to the corrosive undertow of ‘conventional wisdom’ that there is nothing solid upon which to ground any sort of judgment, and that there is no way in a mindless material universe that any input can matter except the organized and power-driven input of a government. Thus participatory democracy declines as citizens decline to participate in what appears a hopeless and meaningless activity.
Worse, maturity declines as people, facing the prospect of weathering the challenges of the perennially unruly human self and the perennially treacherous uncertainties of human events, without family and without committed human connection, and with only the increasingly cash-strapped government to rely for hope (or ‘optimism’), consolation, support, care, and any meaning beyond their own momentary exhilarations … will respond to such a frakkulous challenge by withdrawing from social participation, whether noisily or quietly.
A spiritually and philosophically immature people will not be able to function politically as The People. And if there is no People, why keep a Constitutional Republic? Why keep the American Republic? As John Adams said – almost as if he had a crystal ball into the America of today: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
If it appears these days as if the Constitution is not working as well as it ought to be, I would suggest that even before directing primary efforts at the Augean Stables in the Beltway, We must look to Ourselves. I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who has said that the liberal project has always been to make a just government but not a just people.
Like the concrete base upon which the well-constructed and well-powered Ferris wheel is anchored, a just and well-grounded People – comprised of a critical mass of individual Citizens who are themselves grounded in a mastery of their human nature (philosophically and perhaps theologically as well) – is essential to anchor the great Machinery of the Constitution and the Republic.
This is what I would call civic or ‘meta-civic’ competence; it is a priceless and indispensable asset to the American polity or to any polity. And it is not something that you can ‘get’ overnight. Nor is it something that can easily be recovered if lost.***
In the mindless race to the conceptual bottom that has become the pandering politics of Identity in the past three decades, the Beltway has accepted the corrosion of the fundamental life-force of the American polity (PLEASE don’t say that the fundamental life-force of America is ‘the economy’): Nothing and nobody can have a Purpose, nothing and nobody can be judged, nothing or nobody can ever be wrong (except white males, and then excepting from that set the subset known as ‘male feminists’ who have proven they ‘get it’), and there is no morality (which is a relief to the government which no longer has to pretend).
So this meta-civic competence is a gift that reaches back to Aristotle; it presided over European culture’s high noon through the Medieval Synthesis devised by Aquinas. And it came to America in the still-powerful afterglow of the later Enlightenment.
The materialism that shadows all earthly endeavor, intensified by the ready abundance of consumer capitalism; the shocks to faith and reason administered in the 20th century by the First even more than the Second World War; and the stunning adoption in the early 1970s by the Beltway of what was essentially revolutionary Method and Praxis, and everything that has flowed from that frakkulous decision … brings Us to the point where the Agenda now demands that the country abandon all philosophy (except its own web of justifications for its demands, which it insists is not philosophy at all – with which insistence I think I would have to agree).
Such a demand will Flatten Us, Flatten this country and its ethos, and snuff out whatever hope and light this Great Gamble ever had of being a beacon to the nations. And in that regard, the night is far advanced.
I urge that We do whatever We can to make sure the dawn is not far off.
And in regard to that opening comment about “ballerinas dance, alcoholics drink”: balletic dance is the result of consistent effort to discipline the self to develop a particular functional human skill. Alcoholic-level drinking is rather the opposite on all counts, requiring not the development of competence and self-discipline but rather the abandonment of self and life to a rather primal human ‘passion’, to consume and to thereby induce a less-demanding level of consciousness. This may in some ways be considered a disease, but it in no way can be spun as an ‘achievement’. It is a clear consequence of the times that such a dysfunction can be even imagined to be a sign of achievement.
*MacIntyre, Alasdair. “After Virtue”. Notre Dame, IN: U/ND Press, 1981. I am using the text of the 3rd Edition, published in 2007. ISBN 0-268-03504-0.
** At the 1995 World Women’s Conference in Beijing American feminists were opposed to supportive resolutions on Marriage, Family, Freedom of Religion, problems of motherhood, and parental rights. It must have been clear to many societies in attendance that what the Americans wanted to bring along with ‘democracy’ was going to be hugely corrosive to their cultures and even the stability of their societies and perhaps their governments.
***In the print edition for April 22, 2011, pp. 8-10. The review is entitled “Such A Thing”, by Rowan Martin. It reviews Conor Cunningham’s book “Darwin’s Pious Idea”.
*** As developing nations are learning as they try to operate great aircraft carriers in mimicry of the US Navy in its heyday, you can’t just build the vessel and buy the planes from somebody and paint your national emblem on them; you then have to develop an entire complex matrix of cultures and competences: the pilots who can operate from the ships, the sailors and officers who can handle the ship, the support specialties that service the planes and their subsystems, and a general can-do culture that saw its best days (and I am NOT saying this out of witless sentimentality and nostalgia) in World War 2 and most certainly in the past two decades has taken a beating from Correctness from which it will not soon, if ever, recover.
Labels: American culture, Aristotle, Enlightenment, Medieval Synthesis, philosophy, postmodernism