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.”

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar RiverC July 18, 2012 at 10:52 am

If only punk rock weren’t dead.

avatar JS July 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I think what you’re trying to say is, bring back virtue ethics and enough of the modern action based morality.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm

The culture Peters, is lost down a rathole of being open to anything yet inhabited by Blue shirts on one side who hate one thing and Red Shirts on the other side who hate the other.Welcome to the Chariot Races.

a retiring Stoicism would seem to be the best defense against the rampantly idiotic noise afoot.

avatar RiverT July 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Christopher Ferrara gets to the roots of the left-right “dichotomy” in his new book “Liberalism: the God that Failed.” Coleridge only needed to develop an alternative morality because his country had abandoned the original, true one a couple of centuries before he was born. No fault of his; Henry VIII could have saved him (and millions of other Englishmen) the trouble….

avatar RiverC July 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm

@RiverT: Too bad punk rock had yet to be born.

avatar Joe July 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm

I do not agree with your assessment of the right.

Choice is good when it’s what you want to eat, or wear, or how and where you want to school your children, not if you want to kill your child or not.

I am not tolerant of things that shouldn’t be tolerated. mass murder for instance. totally intolerant of that.

I’m a patriot because I love my country, not because I want to destroy others. I wish all countries were free.

Othello is a play by Shakespeare that deals with many issues. if 10 people were to view it, you could hear 10 different viewpoints of what it meant.

Some of history’s greatest scientists were Christians. to say we don’t believe in science is just another way the left discredits us instead of having a logical argument. because it’s much easier to discredit your opponent than to have a logical discussion.

it is government’s job to provide protection and infrastructure. otherwise, why pay taxes? but that’s where their job ends. they are not supposed to interfere with our everyday lives. it is not socialism to provide those things. it is in our constitution. problems arise when the government does things outside of their given duties and spends far more than they take in.

I am pro science and pro technology.

I am pro life for innocent babies, not for murderers. and even then, it is the government’s duty to punish, not the individual’s. the government also has the authority to declare war. the individual does not. there is a time and a place for everything

I believe in just wars. there is a time for war. I think right now, we are waging wars to get muslims into power. and this administration is doing it without consulting congress. congress has the authority to declare war. the president does not. I wonder where the peaceniks are now.

I think if more people looked at the truth of what the right and left really believes, instead of making stuff up, they’d be far more likely to join the right.

avatar Joe July 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I should add the believes murderers should go free but innocent babies should die.

avatar JimWilton July 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Joe, I am afraid that your post simply illustrates the argument that Mr. Peters makes.

Your position on abortion is a bumper sticker (“Abortion is Murder”) and gives no credence to any other view.

For me, it should not be controversial or even a matter that can be debated to say both that (i) a fetus is not simply “tissue”, and (ii) a fetus is not a “baby”. Not to accept this leads to distorted thinking and absurdities. It leads advocates of abortion rights to downplay the grieving process that a woman having an abortion goes through. And it leads abortion opponents to absurd metaphysical positions premised on whether a “morning after pill” acts by disrupting insemination or by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.

avatar Robert Heid July 25, 2012 at 3:42 pm

C. S. Lewis somewhere observed that every generation, every century even, had its characteristic viewpoint. His example, as I recall perhaps imperfectly, was that Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin would, in a future generation, be seen to have had much more in common, much more that united them in their thinking — I think the word might be “presuppositions,” or even “zeitgeist” — than they or their partisans would have been willing to acknowledge. (My words, not his.)

Mr. Peter’s article here points out the dangers of a “talking-points” or “bumper-sticker” form of morality. Mostly, I think, because these talking-points seem to require much more of others — always the evil “Others” — and little or nothing from ourselves.

The Lord Of All Worlds has warned us about removing the splinters that splinter the worldview of the worldlings, while refusing to remove the logs that logjam our own important, spiritual, and personal vision.

And all the while, there is an elephant in the room, or at large.

Who or what is the real, dangerous elephant here? Are we all, authors and critics alike, tiptoeing around him? Because we are afraid to acknowledge his existence, his threat? (And I haven’t figured out what to do about him, either, even though I see that he really exists. Maybe even more than one.)

It seems to me that the activist “secular” left, and the activist “religious” right, are slapping bumper-stickers on the ample left and right buttocks of the elephant in the room. And not in fact dealing effectively with the elephant himself.

I realize that I am providing no answers here. I apologize; I am not trying to be mysterious; only saying that I am seriously concerned.

Thank you, Mr. Peters, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

avatar Emmett July 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I agree with your comments. But the pro-life movement misses the point. It doesnt matter whether it’s life or a “baby”, it matters simply whether its right or wrong. And it is, in fact, abominably wrong.

And I can be both ardently pro-capital punishment and at the same time have a Sister Helen Prejean-level passion for ministering to death row inmates. Scriptures proscribe capital punishment for murder: “If a man commits murder, surely he must die”. That “surely” makes all the difference.

Great article by the way, Mr. Peters. Perhaps the best I’ve read anywhere all year.

avatar JonF August 5, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Re: Coleridge only needed to develop an alternative morality because his country had abandoned the original, true one a couple of centuries before he was born.

Henry VIII was an arrogant tyrant, and probably hellbound. But the Anglican Church did not differ significantly in its moral teachings from the Roman Church. And let’s not forget that the Roman Church in that era had some spectacular moral failings of its own.

avatar JonF August 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Re: If a man commits murder, surely he must die”.

The Old Testament Law in not incumbent on Gentiles. This has been the Teaching of the Church since New Testament times. And while capital punishment may have has the excuse of necessity for long ages, it does no longer, and Christians were always uneasy with it. The Kievan Rus even tried to eliminate it when they converted, a thousand years ago.
I am not a Roman Catholic, but this one area where I believe the recent pope have gotten it exactly right. And let’s remember Our Lord’s succinct words:” He who lives by the sword will dfie by the sword.” Christians have no excuse for bloodthirstiness.

avatar Emmett October 8, 2012 at 11:07 am

@JonF do you really think murder is a culturally relative thing? That its essentials have changed from the times of ancient Israel? I believe blood is still red, then as now . Being disemboweled by a sword still hurts, then as now. Evil exists, then as now.

This idea that our forefathers put murderers to justice only out of “necessity” and not out of the sense of justice, that this is what he truly deserved, is a modern self-deception.

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