Bankruptcy: Or, Morality Left and Right


Rock Island, IL

If you have the bad luck of working in higher education (or, as I like to call it, narrower education), you are probably well-acquainted with its regnant and permitted morality. And, if so, you are acquainted with it either out of sympathy (the more likely scenario) or out of repulsion (the less likely scenario), though a middle option is possible: about which, more later.

The reigning morality is, if I may speak generally, the morality of the political left: according to it you must despise some things and embrace others. You must, zum Beispiel (it’s a good idea to throw in foreign expressions and abbreviations—to make yourself look smart), despise racism, sexism, and classism, which is to say you must be intolerant of racists, sexists, and classists (not to be confused with classicists, though their day is coming, because they’re not producing forward-looking people). And, if you teach college or university courses, you do well, of course, to look at your subject (it is actually an object, but for now we needn’t worry ourselves about the meanings of words) through the lens of “race-gender-class.”

This means that Othello, z. B., although it may have something to say about the nature of treachery and the corrosive property of jealousy, is actually about power struggles among members of races, classes, and genders.

And, if you apply enough heat and swing a big enough hammer, it might even be about homosexuality, another pet concern in the easy morality of the left.

(If you are in the sciences, you must heat up and hammer all matters into a shape amicable to survival, because your interpretive net has the smallest of interstices.)

But even as you despise certain things, among them racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexualism (it follows that, in principle, you despise racists, sexists, classists, and heterosexualists, all of whom are easily identifiable, because they disagree with you), you must, as I said, embrace other things. For example—sorry, zum Beispiel—you must embrace tolerance. You must be tolerant of other people’s “viewpoints.” Agnostics must tolerate atheists; atheists must tolerate agnostics; both must tolerate gnostics, who must tolerate … well, they can’t tolerate their opposites, but they must tolerate Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Rastafarians, and card-carrying members of PETA. And so on.

And you must embrace the “environment.” You must love soil and air and water as you read about them on your lap-top in the local coffee shop, where the coffee beans shipped in from miles away are brewed locally.

Above all, you must embrace choice. Choice is the birthright par excellence. You should probably be against Late Capitalism, which, better than any ism, really puts choice on offer (think of your Netflix account), but opposing Late Capitalism is pretty damned hard to do in the coffee shop, where the wi-fi is free, the flat-screen is zeroed in on msnbc, and everything is a matter of choice—even the bagels and scones. (You couldn’t possibly live anywhere where you couldn’t get a good bagel.)

But otherwise you must celebrate choice. You must, zum Beispiel, be “pro-choice”—unless, of course, the choice on offer is to be against pro-choice. “Not Your Child, Not Your Choice,” as the bumper sticker says—next to the one that says “The Chair is Barbaric!”

(Leftist morality lends itself to bumper stickers.)

Now it is true that there are a few sad souls in narrower education, and many more decidedly outside it, who represent another viewpoint and who cling to an opposing but also (in their circles) permitted and regnant morality. Their morality is also marked by the requirement that you despise some things and embrace others.

Their morality is the morality of the political right. If you embrace it, you must, for example (I say “for example” because it’s not a good idea to throw in foreign terms: you might come off looking like an intellectual), despise those who despise racism, sexism, classism (not to be confused with classics, though its day is coming, because it doesn’t produce good consumers), and heterosexualism. These folks are easy to identify: they all disagree with you. And they all have their own theorists now.

You must scoff at tolerance, because tolerance is for sissies. The more tolerant you are, the less American you are. You must look at all subjects (they’re actually objects, but for now we needn’t worry ourselves about the meanings of words) through the lens of “patriotism,” which is a synonym for “unreflective militarism.”

Othello is about the inevitable complications of inter-racial marriage—and maybe the conflicted homo-erotic inclinations of Iago–or, if not, his pro-market and anti-environment disposition (three pet concerns in the easy morality of the right).

(If you are a scientist, you are evil, because you don’t believe in a literal six-day creation—or anything, for that matter, except global warming. Plus you support abortion and homosexuality, which, come voting time, are the only two moral issues there are.)

But even as you are against science, you must be pro-technology, which is to say that although you must hate science you must love applied science. You must love oil exploration, Round-Up, contraception, Detroit, and John Deere.

Above all, you must embrace choice: Choice is the birthright par excellence. You should probably be against social programs (also known as Socialism), which, better than any ism on offer, has put sidewalks, highways, fire and police departments, and especially Social Security at your disposal. But otherwise you must be pro-choice.

Besides, opposing Choice is pretty damned hard—especially at Wal-Mart, where prices are really really low on Cheese Doodles, hotdog buns, and flat-screen TVs. So you embrace choice. Plus you “choose life”—unless, of course, the life on offer belongs to those on death row or to those godless ragheads on the losing end of an aggressive and bellicose foreign policy, in which case you choose death. But at least you’ve got a choice, Choice being what it is (the birthright par excellence).

“Choose Life,” as the bumper sticker says—next to the one that says “Afghanigone!”

(Right-wing morality lends itself to bumper stickers.)

Which leaves us where?

It leaves us at the point at which two anemic and competing but very easy moralities converge and dissolve.

Where is the difficult morality that doesn’t lend itself to bumper stickers? Where is the full-blown morality?

On moral issues the left and right are pretty much no help at all. I won’t say neither has a leg to stand on, but I will say that neither has two legs to stand on. And I will also say that both lack charity and rigor. Neither can propose a mature morality that addresses the whole man in his civic, humane, familial, and given element. Neither can imagine an individual in his or her place, which means the individual who is somewhere where there are other people. Doing so would require the kind of careful thought that is alien to political discourse and inimical to the birthright par excellence. Doing so would mean making concessions to the opposition, and that would involve charity, and we can’t have any of that when it comes to morality.

Coleridge said:

Tolerance [is] a species of pretentiousness …. [A]s far as opinions, and not motives; principals and not men, are concerned; I am neither tolerant nor wish to be regarded as such. According to my judgment, it is a mere ostentation, or a poor trick that hypocrisy plays with the cards of nonsense, when a man makes protestation of being perfectly tolerant in respect of all principals, opinions and persuasions, those alone excepted which render the holders intolerant.

If this is a remark that seems to hit the left more directly than it hits the right (it doesn’t), it also issues from a thinker whom neither the right nor the left is clever enough to sharpen its dull intellect on. Coleridge worked pretty hard to develop a full-blown morality, a morality that extended from the bed chamber to the chambers of parliament.

Me, I’m sticking with an old middle-finger and middle-option adage: “a plague on both your houses.”

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