Gunning for No. 12

by Patrick J. Deneen on September 17, 2010 · 41 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire

Number One

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes of a “values breakdown” in the United States that is leading to low student achievement and a general decline in American responsibility and motivation. He cites several articles that decry American self-indulgence, our endless striving to get-rich-quick, our societal-wide eschewal of sacrifice, our pettiness and petulance. For the first time in memory, I found myself agreeing with Friedman.

Alarmed that this couldn’t possibly be right, I reflected further and concluded that, while I agreed with Friedman’s conclusions in nearly every particular, I disagreed with the way that he had framed the column and, indeed, found in the very framing the likely source of the very decline of which he writes – a source about which he is eerily incurious.

The column opens and closes with a lament that America has lost its way, particularly that it has ceased its civilizational quest to be and remain always “Number One.” He points especially to the example of the “Greatest Generation” who made such great sacrifices – most visibly and brutally on the shores of Normandy and on once-unknown Pacific islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa – and laments that today’s generation no longer emulates their example. He concludes with the observation that it is the Chinese and Indians today who have the values of our “Greatest Generation”: “a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.” Without a restoration of values, he writes, we are destined to remain “Number 11” (according to one recent ranking) and perhaps fall even lower in the worldwide rankings.

Friedman doesn’t ask the obvious question: how is it that the children of the “Greatest Generation” became such slackers? How great could they really be if they couldn’t do the one thing needful of any generation, namely, raise their children to be responsible, motivated, hard-working, even self-sacrificial? To what do we attribute their monumental failure?

Might it have something to do with the deeply ingrained idea and evident reality – certainly rampant by the time of the end of the Second World War – that the U.S.A. was and must forever remain Number One? What, after all, is the point of being Number One? If the evidence of the half-century of the post-war is any indication, to be Number One means you have earned the right to be lazy, irresponsible, self-indulgent, short-sighted and hedonistic. You have accumulated the power and the wealth to demand that the world serve you – whether through currency seignorage, energy proctorates that foster clientelism and radicalism, cheap overseas labor that keeps American “consumers” in a permanent condition plastic-addiction, and a popular culture that promotes indolency, irony, disrespect and a general worldview that nothing is to be taken very seriously. If we wonder what has happened, we might start by looking at the “Greatest Generation” and the ways in which they enjoyed the spoils of being Number One – and in which they transmitted that sense of entitlement to their children.

How does one persuade young people today that they have been given a bad lesson at the hands of their elders and from the outlets of “culture” from which they have deeply imbibed? (a “popular culture” developed by – the Greatest Generation!). It’s likely that nothing but real hardship will have any impact at this point: much of the current generation has led a very easy life and has come to expect that everything comes easy. Yes, there are intimations of hardship in their peripheral vision, including incessant background reports like the release of yesterday’s data pointing to a dramatic rise in American poverty. But, for the most part – plugged in to endless distractions from Facebook to ITunes to “Reality” television – they are oblivious, blithely confident that the order of the world has been arranged for their pleasure and titillation.

Friedman reveals the depth of our own confusion in his passing description of the various sources from which a motivation to strive and achieve come. He writes that “Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.” Today, the greatest source of motivation – at least that which I see in young students who are, indeed, motivated – comes from the same get-rich-quick assumptions as their parents, which comes from all of the above-named sources but one. Friedman equates “curiosity” and “ambition,” but I would submit that long before our young are able to develop a healthy sense of curiosity – that “wonder” from which the human impulse to know and discover arises, according to Aristotle – adults of “the Greatest Generation” make sure that the primary motivation is “ambition,” but only insofar as one’s efforts are undertaken in order to ensure outsized rewards in return for the markers of achievement (i.e., credentialing). Our motivation is to be “Number One” so that we can continue to have prosperity bought on the cheap. However – as we are rapidly discovering – this is not a long-term business plan.

Perhaps it may be some consolation to reflect on the similar emptiness of Indian and Chinese efforts to be Number One. Their reckless entry into the modern pursuit of “power after power that ceaseth only in death” seems bereft of even the residual compensating virtues that seemed to at least accompany the worst of American ambitiousness. Our residual admiration for the yeoman farmer, for the small town, for the virtues of hard work, loyalty and decency (mostly now seen on commercials for Pick-up trucks) is real if otherwise increasingly unlived. It is within an imaginable possible future that those residual values may reassert themselves, even at the “price” of dropping even from Number 11. I say – Go for it! – let’s aim for #12 (which, incidentally, is Germany, and by many measures – including my own anecdotal evaluation – is doing much better than us, and managed the financial crisis with more responsibility than us), and leave the bad parenting to the Chinese and Indians.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Sam M September 17, 2010 at 8:18 am

Agreed. I think it’s also important to think about being “rounded.” Is it better for a nation or a tribe or an individual to sacrifice everything to be tops in math or criquet or lawn bowling, or to be decent at math and english and shop? There’s a place for all approaches, I suppose.

More important, regarding the “Greatest Generation,” we certainly owe them a debt of gratitude for charging all those pill boxes, etc. But they have been pretty shortsighted since then. Michael Kinsley makes a great case here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/10/the-least-we-can-do/8228/

They are breaking us with Social Security and Medicare. They are taking out more than they put in. So much for delayed gratitude and maturity. They bought suburbs and 57 Chevys with my money. Come on, pops!

avatar polistra September 17, 2010 at 11:07 am

The Greatest Generation didn’t think about being or becoming #1. In getting through the Depression and WW2, the focus was on preserving and regaining our way of life, protecting family and town from starvation and invasion. We were understood to be a major power because we had a large navy and army, not for any moral superiority. We wanted to win because we’re us, not because we’re special or angelic.

This USA!! USA!! USA!! WE’RE NUMBER 1!! WE’RE NUMBER 1!! WE’RE NUMBER 1!! crap didn’t really start until the mid ’80s, by which time we were already around #6 on most meaningful indexes.

avatar Jordan Smith September 17, 2010 at 11:22 am

It’s likely that nothing but real hardship will have any impact at this point…

Never have truer words been spoken.

As for those pick-up trucks ads of which you speak, all I perceive there is a $30,000+ d**k extension pitch to lost, little boys who don’t know how to be men. So they buy really, really big trucks. And then join the best equivalent of a frat house: the local volunteer fire department/search and rescue outfit.

God help us.

avatar David September 17, 2010 at 11:37 am

What everyone is lamenting is that they don’t have the willing backs of the servant class to build their Tower of Babel upon. The ruling class smelled this as early as the 60s and began a shift to consumerism to make use of the masses that wouldn’t respond to the whip. The psychology changed and so the form of enslavement had to as well.

Forget being #1, forget all the crap they tell you that you need to have “arrived” and ignore the Joneses. Live a virtuous life in whatever remnants of real culture have been passed down by your fathers and mothers. There will be both sufficient productivity and consumption for the world to continue spinning.

avatar @kicktheball September 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Fascinating. This discussion could go in many directions such as… How is “virtuous” to be defined? How do we address the impending bankruptcy of SS & medicare? Isn’t it ironic that the Germans are retreating from Democratic Socialism and warning our current administration against heading down that same dead end? Speaking of Germans, I believe the average German saves nearly 10% of their income. Hmmmm, that seems smart.

Instead, I would, with all due respect and no malice, ask Mr. Deneen and the other contributors above; how have you managed to overcome the cultural slide and emerge as producers and not slackers? What steps are you taking to pass that on to your children and/or other youth?

avatar Hans Noeldner September 17, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Patience, Patrick, patience. The evidence indicates Friedman is not completely immune to the infusion of wisdom – albeit at a glacial pace.

It is courageous of you to contend that the Greatest were less than entirely virtuous and far-sighted. The tail-fins and chrome-plated clusters of faux-rockets on a ’59 Chrysler may not have frightened many children walking to school a half-century ago, but the human impulse to display those fins is now manifest in the Escalades and Hummers which loom high above today’s tots.

By the way, the precise term for Billy Fourwheeler’s 19-foot-long, three-ton motorized manifestation of manhood is “codspiece”. Of course no Billymobile is complete without that distinctive turbo-whine, either: one might suspect that nothing less will induce Billy’s mate to ovulate.

avatar Christopher Carr September 17, 2010 at 11:00 pm

“it is the Chinese and Indians today who have the values of our “Greatest Generation”: “a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.””

I think it would have been interesting if Friedman had pointed out how our policy strongly incentivizes consumption now over future consumption, and whether or not this may be related to the hedonism he describes. Are people just being rational?

avatar Jordan Smith September 18, 2010 at 10:30 am

@kicktheball:

I moved to a small island, and am building a house and developing a piece of property with my father. I am trying to become as self-sufficient as possible (fishing, prawning, hunting deer, raising chickens, fruit trees, and vegetable gardening). I am learning to live with less and with greater efficiency while trying to foster and build community with the other mostly part-time islanders.

I would like to pretend that I am doing this because I am clever and can see far into the future, but the truth is that I am here because I believe this is where God has led me and what he has inspired me (and my father) to do. My other directive is Ezekiel 21:6-7. Beyond that I can’t be certain.

I suppose one could criticize me for retreating rather than leading a charge against the deterioration of our culture, but I think we are waaaay beyond that point. There comes a point where Jeremiah retires from the futility and self-flagellatory nature of prophesying to nitwits and just tells everybody to settle down, get married and make a life of it because they’re going to be in exile for a long time. I think we are at that point. There is nothing stopping the collapse now. (For a bracing vision of America read Chris Hedges Empire of Illusion. Better to accept the inevitability of it all and start preparing for the Dark Age ahead.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 18, 2010 at 12:08 pm

The term “sore winners” coined by John Powers seems to sum things up nicely. I would not lump the volunteer firemen in this group however, no matter how much they like their trucks. Small town volunteers are the rudiments of recovery.

One thing I do know from experience is that my old man in Brokaw’s so called “Greatest Generation” would have scoffed at the idea. People used to do things first and leave it to the un-productive to talk about it. Now, with productivity reduced to the abstract, all we have are bean-counters providing commentary .

Do as I say, not as I do…the new mantra of the Sore Winner.

avatar @kicktheball September 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Jordan, thanks so much for your answer and doing something. I applaud your efforts and am cursed with a similar apocalyptic vision of our future, hoping against hope that we have not passed the tipping point. It is rare to find someone throwing Bible verses around as well. I will see your Ezekiel and raise you a Rom 14:4; you will get no judgement from me on your choices. A caution, be careful how you wield that “sword”, it can cut both ways. A question, how will you influence others to be givers and not takers? If you don’t plan to, fine, I was just wondering.

Rather than throw the “Greatest Generation” under the bus entirely I am inclined to invoke the adage, “The road to destruction is paved with good intentions.” Granted, a case can be made that this same road has been tried by generations and nations before us and met with a similar end. Shame on them for not learning their history lessons. What is our excuse?

Is it possible that just as some use a pick-up as a “codspiece” others use words and advanced degrees to the same end?Rather than cast aspersions at pick-up owners, I suggest our time is better spent looking for solutions.

(BTW: I am glad to have stumbled across you all. I think I would enjoy an evening of dialogue with you as this asynchronous stuff is less than desirable to me.)

avatar Jordan Smith September 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Disclaimer:Forgive this lengthy and rather personal response to @kicktheball, replete with Biblical references and tedious sermonizing on what is largely a political site. But I think this is a Front Porch and if you aren’t interested in our conversation or don’t like what I am saying you can always scroll right past.

@kicktheball:

I’ve always preferred Romans 14:2. ;)

As for Ezekiel 21:6-7 there is no mention of any “swords”. But if you are referring to the verses that follow, I think it is the LORD who is to wield the sword of judgement, not us. And if you flip back a few verses from where you are in Romans to Romans 12:19 I believe you’ll find more support for this view in the old “Vengeance is mine!” verse.

As to my effectiveness in influencing others? I take my cues from the Gospel of John and professional sports. Which is to say I try not to concern myself with it. Jesus was fond of saying “I only do what I see the Father doing”, which is another way of saying “I just listen to Coach YHWH, do my job and take it one game at a time.” Stick to the process and let God worry about the results. That doesn’t mean I don’t often stop and take stock and make sure I haven’t gone wildly off course.

What does that look like? Mostly it means paying attention to my own heart. It means never allowing the crap of the world to drown out or distract me from the deepest things of my heart–my longing for God, family, community, beauty, belonging and rest. And if I reject the illusions of the world and remain vulnerable and weak, and yet keep fighting for what is good and right and true while holding onto hope despite the difficulty of my current circumstances… well, then I have succeeded. And not only in some theoretical way that will pay off in “Heaven”, but because people can see our integrity visibly in the way we carry ourselves and in the work of our hands, right here on earth. Everybody hungers for quality, this kind of reflection of God, and if we live in it and foster it, people are drawn like moths to the flame.

Incidentally, the picture of my life I painted is somewhat incomplete. My father and I are not anonymous figures by any stretch of the imagination in our own little world. This island is mostly deserted year round, but on weekends in the spring and fall, and all of July and August, the Christian summer camp over yonder is swamped in a large community of people. My father spent a lifetime volunteering for the camp, designing and constructing many of their buildings, most notably their fantastic Chapel. I too volunteered there for many, many years. We are well known, and the house we are building and property we are developing (decades in the making) have achieved an almost legendary if not notorious status, partly for the length of time the work is taking to complete, and partly for the beauty and craftsmanship in the place. A witty friend noted: It’s like erosion in reverse. In our experience God seems to work this way, so we take it as a compliment.

This weekend there is a young people’s (18-25ish?) camp on the island and just last night I spent a number of hours talking to and praying for a number of young people, and in particular one young man who was (no joke) raised by two retired fashion models. They (his parents) expect him to be “a captain of industry” (his words) or something else no less impressive. You couldn’t make him up. He really is the cliche that Mr. Peters and so many other pundits lament. The doom of our civilization. And yet all he really wants is to know what he is here for. As the tears poured down his face there was no doubting the deep hunger in him for something genuine. He is desperate to just belong somewhere and to have a real purpose. Anyways, all of this is to say: I haven’t just abandoned the world and I think I am called to encourage people to take the long, hard road, if only by my example and not by my words.

As per pick-ups and codpieces, perhaps my observations are only “locally” applicable. (And I agree that words can be used just as priapically (is that a word?) as pick-up trucks.) It’s just that around these parts there is a kind of macho, viagra-popping, porn-watching, Nickelback-loving neanderthal that has taken to pick-up trucks on steroids even though these trucks never leave the pavement, let alone feel the weight of a sheet of plywood. And they often seem to sport the volunteer fire department/search and rescue decal of Lions Bay, the schwanky, high-end village across the water on the Sea-to-Sky highway to Whistler. But again, this is a small world around here.

How about you? What are you doing to resist the cultural slide?

avatar Jordan Smith September 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

To return to the article above: I think Deneen is saying essentially the same thing. Forget about results or rankings, and return to hard work, loyalty and decency (as D.W. Sabin recently exhorted) and the rest will take care of itself.

To me this is a result of humility before God, and more in keeping with Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” than with the deceptive rallying cries of the Glenn Beck’s or Sarah Palin’s of our world.

avatar James Matthew Wilson September 20, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Per Jordan Smith’s reflections:

The one virtue a parent must instill in a child, without which all the others will come to naught, is not prudence — but piety.

That fruit of the Holy Spirit, piety, orders all the other virtues and orders one’s actions — in and out of the seasons of prosperity. With it, prudence works for good ends and one cleaves to the Good and what it gives us more steadfastly. Without it, one is just a gaping and hungry mouth, with appetite but without taste.

avatar dave September 20, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Friedman wrote “Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great?” We did, Thomas.

“But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”

avatar S.L. Toddard September 21, 2010 at 9:04 am

He cites several articles that decry American self-indulgence, our endless striving to get-rich-quick, our societal-wide eschewal of sacrifice, our pettiness and petulance

This is a result of America’s materialism (note: I do not say greed or consumerism). The belief that physical matter is all that exists leads inexorably to the gluttony and hedonistic consumerism that now stupifies our countrymen.

avatar Christopher Carr September 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

@S.L. Toddard

Or the belief that physical matter is all that exists leads to Stoicism, which is just about the least materialistic philosophy around.

avatar @kicktheball September 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

@ Jordan – thanks for the flesh out. I was really just curious and I hope you know that my comments were in no way accusatory, merely an attempt to encourage us all to be circumspect. The “sword” of which I speak is the more general “Sword of Truth” not a specific verse you cited. I really respect and appreciate your thoughtfulness.

As for me, I start at home raising 4 children and imploring them to grow up loving God more than anything else, reminding and showing them that their love for God is necessarily directed outward as well as upward. After all, we know that “faith without works is dead.” I have found the Boy Scouts to be a great place to reinforce those values and put them in action so I volunteer as an Assistant Scout Master and help mentor those boys and young men to respect themselves, God and others in thought, word, and deed. Like you, some of the resistance to the slide is planned and some is impromptu – living life open to the opportunities that God brings my way to talk with and pray with the hurting and lost people I encounter along the way. My family is active in local ministry through our church and to the homeless and poor in our area.

Thanks, Jordan.

avatar @kicktheball September 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm

So, I see many comments invoking God and scripture, does anyone think a theocracy is the answer?

It seems that our culture is built on a shaky foundation of moral relativism. The logical conclusion seems to be that if everyone is right then no one is right. We have arrived (again, for this is not the first time in human history) at that place where “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” and moral chaos ensues. How are we to turn the tide? Can the slide be stopped? Who decides what is the “right” and “just” way to live?

Honestly, I am not sure I have the answers. There is a part of me, a big part, that would love to simply leave.

avatar David September 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Everything is lawful, but not everything is profitable. I suggest @kicktheball start from there and work outwards.

Personally, I lean heavily on the Stoics and Christian ascetics, which need no theocracy. In fact, a corrupted theocracy can be far worse than a keener opposition to the world.

But then I think Antisthenes understood Socrates better than Plato (who was probably emotionally damaged by the death of his teacher and never properly reconciled it to himself). So you shouldn’t take my opinion to seriously.

avatar Jordan Smith September 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Theocracies are toxic and evil. When faith is combined with political control bad things happen. Man is simply too tempted to play God and succumbs to the spirit of control too easily. If the Enemy has one favoured tactic it is to convince believers into thinking that they can and should force their own morality on others by force. You cannot legislate morality. The distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of man is critical. When that line blurs trouble ensues.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”-John 18:36

avatar Jordan Smith September 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm

…and I would agree with David that 1 Corinthians 10:23 is the clearest verse supporting my above view.

avatar David September 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Jordan,

I assume you mean that political bodies cannot authorize executive force by law where harm cannot be objectively established across the diverse valuations of the citizenry’s ethical structures.

When you say that one “cannot legislate morality” (emphasis removed) I am curious as to what else you might mean. Perhaps you mean “should not”, or that they have no authority to, or that the side effects of such legislative action are worse than the moral ill opposed to the law? (Here I am curious if your thinking is pragmatic or even utilitarian in nature where you might find that much of FPR is more deontological in their approach.)

For example, the deontological position on drug use is that it is more important for the society to officially oppose harmful behavior than it is whether this opposition is effective in reducing that behavior. I could be wrong in this particular subject, but I have the sense that such an approach is favored in this forum.

I know that you are making a rhetorical point and trying to communicate your political position with the limited resources of this medium, but even within that context your reductionism is problematic.

I do agree with you that St Paul’s spiritual advice has a political implication that helps us manage our relationship to the polis and informs a noble civic life.

avatar Jordan Smith September 23, 2010 at 2:02 pm

You assume correctly.

What I mean by “one cannot legislate morality”, is that you cannot change what it is in a man’s heart by creating a law against it–which is, at times, seems what the Christian Right is trying to do. A deeply compromised and corroded Christianity is at the heart of the collapse of Western Civilization, and instead of trying to “eradicate” or control the aberrance of secular culture, Christianity needs to look inwards, repent, and get back to basics. Then it can again begin to function as salt and light in a dark and bitter world.

For the record, when you throw around terms like utilitarian, deontological, and reductionism I tune out. I think language (especially technical jargon) has become so disconnected from reality that I try to avoid using it to communicate at all. It is a sign of the times when language regresses like this, but if a regression is necessary in order to re-connect our words with our actions and reality, then so be it.

This is not to say that those words don’t have meaning for you… but they no longer do for me.

avatar David September 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Forgive me if I was proactive in my linguistic construction anticipating an accusation similar to my own.

In other words, if I accuse you of being ambiguous, I’d better take a moment and consider the precision of my words, lest you blast me with my own cannon.

I agree with you that there is a dysfunctional element largely observable in evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics that lends itself to America’s traditional of Puritanical moralism in law. This is almost exclusively on the Right (though we see a similar strain in some forms of radical environmentalism on the left).

However, I’m not convinced that it is such a fool’s errand as you suggest. Community standards (even dystopian nationalism) have a place in developing civic life. Law is not just enforcement. Law is a manifestation of political norms. We let other citizens know what’s expected of them by the polis. By making something a law and enforcing a set of norms, you will have an effect on hearts (though I admit, some hearts will burn with resentment against such force).

Men of goodwill appreciate a legal framework that reinforces their personal commitment to virtue. And we see the benefit in training our children. I make my son say that he is sorry, even when I know he is not.

On the point of my 25cent words, I admit a certain concern for my own indulgence when using them. Honestly, I don’t intend to indulge. Largely I use them as a means of managing the tight space in these posts. I only have so much space and have much content to pack into it. Particularly if I’m going to provide a reasonable effort at moving the conversation productively forward.

Please forgive me if by using these terms I seem to be backing away from the reality at hand. In fact, if you consider my comments as a whole, a theme of mine is the request that we deal with things as they are and how we understand that they are. I pull in some larger philosophical words not to weasel, but to enforce precision on both myself and others.

avatar Christopher Carr September 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I think “render unto Caesar” would be appropriate here.

avatar Jordan Smith September 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

David:

No need to apologize for your word choice. Your language didn’t obscure your point (I think you are a good communicator), but I used the opportunity to let you know where I am coming from. (Which then allowed me an opportunity to flog my strongly held views on the use of language.)

As per politics, Christopher’s verse is the succinct answer I am looking for. But to be more verbose:

I never suggested politics were a fool’s errand. I said the mixing of religion and politics is a folly. I am glad there are Christians who wrestle in the political arena, and while one’s faith may inform one’s politics, the two things should be kept distinct.

avatar @kicktheball October 4, 2010 at 10:28 am

Great discussion!

LOL “render unto Caesar” is more than appropriate!

re: legislating morality; is it possible that every law is an attempt to legislate morality? Doesn’t a law say, “this behavior is ‘right and this behavior is ‘wrong’”?

For that matter, can religion ever be separated from politics? Aren’t all laws based on a “religion” or world view? While Atheism may not have a “church” it is still a religious and moral ideology that shapes one’s behavior and sense of morality. That being said, religion can be separated in a formal sense, but in the broadest sense, informally, I think that all of politics is informed and influenced by religion – in the broadest sense of the word.

Interesting comments on evangelicals and charismatic Catholics legislating morality. I see those guys wanting to write less legislation. As a probably more causal observer than most of you, I see the political left limiting behavior a lot more these days than the political right.
The right seems to be moving so far to the right that they are becoming libertarian and very ‘liberal’ while the left has moved so far to the left their socialism is becoming nearly totalitarian. Ironically things are coming full circle and tyranny seems to be setting up camp, as it historically has, on the left.

I suppose that is a bit tangential. The editorial is about being #12 rather than #1 and esteeming values over profits, and maybe even knowledge.

Back to values…

The left is rallying in DC, the right has already done so.

Working out from “everything is lawful, but not everything is permissible” gets me at the same quandary – who decides what is not profitable? I have the data from decades of research that shows divorce, homosexuality, promiscuity, drug abuse, pornography, abortion, graft, assault, theft are all decidedly NOT profitable to a society. Yet the folks at the rally today seem to think that a number of those things aren’t so bad.

Last week the administration was wringing its hands and stumping for education reform. I never heard anyone say, “Probably the most effective thing we could do is help families stay together, because having a father is one of the best ways to help a kid succeed.” Good luck with that idea.

In a society that has embraced postmodernism and also forgotten that evolution is a theory, not a fact, agreeing on moral standards seems to be a naive wish. I am left with a deep sadness and Ecclesiastical mindset – “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

avatar Christopher Carr October 4, 2010 at 10:55 am

Empirical studies and comparisons of religions worldwide strongly suggest that the kinds of “moral” laws we have like no killing, no stealing, etc. are actually parasitized by religion instead of the other way around. As the Ancient Greeks and Romans show, it is more than possible to have a religion which is not at all interested in morality and still have a functioning, orderly society.

As far as mixing religion and politics I agree very much with the Founders that both are corrupted. And I agree with my high school biology teacher – who was a nun – that mixing religion with science corrupts both. Evolution is a “theory” in the sense that “gravity” is a theory. Although evolution is probably more firmly established.

avatar @kicktheball October 4, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I think C.S. Lewis and others would suggest that the same empirical studies might also suggest that there is a moral code that is written on the hearts of men. From that code, natural law, political laws are written. Do you think that is possible?

Regardless, I think we still end up asking the question “why is something right or wrong?” By what authority does a government establish it’s laws? In the case of this editorial, what values are we to teach and uphold and how do we go about seeing that through?

avatar Christopher Carr October 4, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Sure, that’s a good metaphor I think.

In terms of which values to promote, self-sacrifice, compassion for others, and hard work have always been winners, whether viewed from a deontological or consequentialist perspective.

avatar Jordan Smith October 4, 2010 at 10:26 pm

All I mean by “you can’t legislate morality” is that you can’t convince a homosexual that his or her inclinations are “wrong” by legislating against homosexual activities (for example). It just ain’t going to convince Sven Gali that Rupert doesn’t look fabulous in chaps.

avatar David October 4, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Jordan, isn’t the whole point of getting the stigmas around homosexuality purged from the public square that those stigmas were effective on some large portion of the population? That is, at the very least it inspired suppression and repression (along with the possible psychological trauma such coping mechanisms can cause)?

Heck, we made being Black illegal for the first 150 years of our history. Hitler made it illegal to be a Jew and Stalin by some estimates might have killed, starved or otherwise effectively murdered ten times as many as Hitler all with the consent of the ruling body in power. No matter how much we want to believe this was done largely by a disproportionately powerful minority, the minority wasn’t that minor.

Don’t think that totalitarians cannot wield power effectively to any ends over a population that it desires to do so. If conditions are right and the prevailing winds fill the sails of history, the force of law backed by guns can do astonishing things.

That is a different matter than whether it SHOULD do those things.

One of the reasons the stories of the martyrs are so overwhelming in their testimony is because almost anyone will say and do anything to avoid getting burned at the stake. I’m told it hurts quite a bit and is a rather gruesome way to go (particularly if you aren’t lucky enough to be over come by the fumes quickly).

avatar @kicktheball October 5, 2010 at 10:58 am

Thanks, Christopher.

Ah, homosexuality, now I think we have really stepped in it.

David, are you suggesting that it is wrong to discourage homosexuality? If so, on what basis? I believe this really takes us to the nut of things.

If someone thinks HS is wrong and you think it is right, who has the moral “high ground”?

No more time, gotta catch a flight. I shall return ;-)

avatar Jordan Smith October 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

David,

I don’t understand your point or question. Do you mean that it is a good thing to make something illegal so that it becomes stigmatized? (And that homosexuality causes psychological trauma?)

If so, your second paragraph becomes even more confusing. (Not great examples to cite in support of such legislation.) And your third paragraph is obviously true, however totalitarians can only wield power if the people (a not so minor minority) have allowed it to take root and do not resist it. I can hear Sabin growling and lashing his tail about an ignorant, lazy, superstitious population that only participates in the political process by voting for fear-mongering half-wits from either the Left or Right, who offer pie-in-the-sky solutions, and promise the impossible while continuing to allow a greedy oligarchy to control the country for its own good. (Sounds vaguely like pre-Revolutionary Russia to me.) Those are the kinds conditions that make soil ripe for totalitarianism.

Granted, resistance can be costly as you have pointed out.

Of course I may have completely misunderstood your comment, which renders my comment completely moot.

avatar Jordan Smith October 5, 2010 at 11:11 am

Apparently @kicktheball has interpreted David’s comments in the completely opposite manner. David: please clarify!

avatar David October 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Jordan,

Attempting a short summary (with no warranty of additional clarity):

1. You can use legal force to convince people of things and to punish, marginalize, even execute the unconvinced. Historical examples are cited above.

2. The ethical question as to whether or not you should use such legal force is reasonably debatable.

I agree with that I think you mean more of the time than you might believe, but you draw out the curmudgeon in me when you make your more hyperbolic remarks.

@kicktheball,

See #2

I am making no moral or ethical analysis of legislation or other official “discouragements” of homosexuality. In some frameworks these would be acceptable, even desirable; in other frameworks offensive or at least disruptive to peaceful social order. That’s a different topic than my reaction to Jordan’s hyperbole.

avatar @kicktheball October 9, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Gents, I am really loving this dialogue, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and what appears to be a spirit of dialogue, rather than brutish argumentation and bloviating.

David, I don’t think that legal force, “convinces” people of anything, but it can certainly control their behavior.

In bringing up homosexuality I think the point was to try to figure out how a society might decide what is beneficial or not. As it pertains to Mr. Deneen’s article I think it comes down to trying to make a case for how one determines what is “valued,” or even right vs. wrong.

I think ultimately we are in a quandary as to how to determine what constitutes good character/morals and why.

I would submit that every law written is an attempt to legislate morality. Doesn’t a law, at its most fundamental level say a certain behavior is “wrong”?

The question then becomes, how are we to decide what is right or wrong? An appeal to “natural law” would seem to suggest a law giver, dare I say a “god” or “God”.

To make an appeal to a more relativistic approach is to leave us on very shaky ground. In which case men are not born with inalienable rights. Rather it just so happened that a bunch of men decided they had inalienable rights. That was fun for a while but as our country and even our species seem hell-bent on self destruction it is time for a show of strength to restore order. As was noted earlier, that can be the breeding ground for totalitarianism.

It has been said, “You will be ruled by God, or by god you will be ruled!”

avatar David October 9, 2010 at 10:47 pm

@kicktheball,

Putting God into the mix is no help at all without it being the same God with very similar ideas about that God.

You see what you need to handle this problem no longer exists. You need real culture. A real living understood common stable way of life from which to draw the “obvious” conclusions of right and wrong.

We have none, therefore the moral calculus is rendered impossible. At this point it’s devolved in to a very complex game of distributed power. We all get just enough access and just enough levers to keep any large group of us from getting organized and knocking off the whole system.

For moderns, it’s actually a work of genius. I just wonder how long it will hold.

avatar Christopher Carr October 10, 2010 at 5:36 am

@David

“At this point it’s devolved in to a very complex game of distributed power. We all get just enough access and just enough levers to keep any large group of us from getting organized and knocking off the whole system.

For moderns, it’s actually a work of genius. I just wonder how long it will hold.”

Isn’t that kind of the whole point? Isn’t the point to keep politics messy and incapable of being dominated by one interest so that we are free to enjoy things like Hollywood Movies and posting in Internet forums and gardening and crossword puzzles, and whatever else we may be personally interested in without some other person forcing his idea of “the good life” on us?

avatar David October 10, 2010 at 11:17 am

Christopher,

Maybe. But just because the hydra doesn’t have a consensus doesn’t mean it does have a bite. In other words, sure the machine keeps us protected from a dictator, or other militant interest, but it still subjugates us. I’m not (I don’t think anyone is) truly capable of having the intellectual dispassion and clarity of position to decide if the alternative is superior.

However, I still tend to prefer dis-empowerment of those more removed operations of power and more willing to accept authority from those who are responsible to me for it’s operation.

avatar Christopher Carr October 10, 2010 at 10:43 pm

@David

I’ve toyed with the idea of a cold, distant King being the best kind of ruler, but when it all comes down to it, you’re right. There definitely needs to be more subsidiarity; the decisions which affect my life should be made my me and those in my immediate, properly entitled circle rather than some cold, distant bureaucrat or policy “expert” who sees citizens as statistics.

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