In 2004, George Bush was reelected. We can debate endlessly over whether or not he stole that election, but it’s beside the point for this rant. Besides, four million popular votes seems like a big wad to steal.
What we need to figure out if we want to have any possibility of turning this misdirected ship around is WHY SO MANY PEOPLE VOTED FOR THE REPUBLICAN RIGHT? Not even just Republicans–there are decent Republicans that I would support (Arlan Spector comes to mind, as does a pre-2004 John McCain)–but the rabid fundie far right wing of the party, the wing that is destroying it and trying to turn this country into something like a theocracy.
So what was it?
The factor listed by most exit polls in Middle America was–is–Moral Values. Not in California or the Northeast corridor, but in the Heartland.
I had thought for a long time that the issues driving Bush supporters floated between abortion, school prayer, and taxes. I’m now not so sure tax cuts are that important–these people have got to realize that if Bush continues his policies, at some point a huge bill is going to come due.
The furor over gay marriage in the last months of the campaign underscores the exit polls. Moral Values.
If I thought the votes were driven by the deep morality stemming from a Kantian apprehension of the nature of the right, the good, and the universalizable as determined by a focused application of the categorical imperative, I wouldn’t be so concerned. If I thought people had given due attention to a reasoned examination of a sound set of moral principles and voted accordingly, I wouldn’t be upset. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that to be the case.
Perhaps I’m being unfair–I’m sure there are individuals out there who did indeed make such a study and still voted for the Republican Right–but collectively, this whole Moral Values thing is a shuck. It’s more about appearances than anything truly moral.
Look what the sentiments are:
1: The anti-abortion movement is a powerful centerpiece for this voter block. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is core. They wish to outlaw abortion.
2: Prayer as a public function. Prayer in school, Christian associational material in government facilities, a national embrace of religion in public life. They do not like a secular state.
3: A clear aversion to homosexuality.
4: A strong censorship movement to ban or diminish the presence of what they deem pornographic. This extends to literature in schools that seems to promote a serious re-evaluation of “traditional” morays or deals in subjects which make them uncomfortable–adolescent sexuality, racism, anti-authoritarianism, and extends to secular subjects such as biology, history, and philosophy.
5: A rejection of biological science, specifically Evolution as the determined mechanism of the development of life–most especially a rejection of the evolutionary given that human beings are part and parcel of that life and have come about in the same way as all other life.
6: A promotion of so-called Family Values, which is a catch phrase for a desire to return–as they put it–to a traditional set of relational codes defining the roles of men and women and children in society. Monogamy, procreation, and a hierarchical family structure are part of this, with the male as head of household.
7: A rejection of so-called affirmative action principles. Along with this comes an aversion to a suite of programs they label socialist. Anti-socialism is the center of their fear of government systems.
8: A stated desire to eliminate entitlements. “People who do not work should not get money,” is a phrase I have heard in relation to this for several years now.
9: The desire for a strong military and, by extension, an aggressively patriotic international diplomatic posture.
Too bad I can’t come up with a tenth. The Ten Commandments of the Political Religious Right. There would be some symmetry to this, ironic symmetry. But I do not wish to get too ridiculous. I could find a tenth, but why bother? These nine do nicely to define the so-called Moral Values of Bush’s core supporters.
In as brief an argument as I can muster, the legitimacy of calling this program the product of moral values can be questioned easily enough by a simple test. Take the first principle–abortion. They claim they are Right To Life advocates–that life is sacred. Ask each their stand on the Death Penalty. As a group, the various factions that come together under this banner supports the Death Penalty. The basis of their aversion to abortion, then, is bogus. Life is life. It is sacred or it is not. A moral value must be consistent if anything, and this is not in this case. (Likely you will find support among them for Bush’s military policies–more killing. But that’s okay, in fact necessary, because They are the Enemy.)
Since the avowed dedication to the sanctity of life is undermined by a willingness to enact the death penalty, the claim that this is a moral principle is rendered untenable. The one should follow from the other–life in womb can be no more sacred than a twenty-year-old murderer. Sacred is sacred. You may not kill.
By extension, the rest of the list can fall. None of them stands as a solid moral value.
So what are they?
Behavioral restrictions. Class alignments. Sentiment. Prejudice disguised as morality. Expressions of fear, resentment, uncertainty.
These are people who do not like the way their country seems to be. It doesn’t look good to them. They don’t like the choices their children might make. They are uncomfortable with how things seem to be evolving. For them, a moral value is something that comforts and freezes in time a way of life they see threatened or vanishing.
But rather than just dismiss them for frightened people struggling to impose their view of what they think the world should look like on everyone, let’s go further and examine the grounding of each of these arguments. We need to understand these things if we are to get out from under the growing tyranny of what is not a Moral Values program but an Ideological Imposition program.
Let’s take the top issue. Abortion.
Since Roe v. Wade, we have watched a growing faction of sincere, highly religious people banding together to condemn what they regard as murder. The termination of a pregnancy to them is on par with the cold blooded killing of a person who can stand before us, talk, express ideas, laugh, cry, and have relationships. Biological science, no matter what it says, is not persuasive. These folks will not accept any definition of a fetus that denies its essential status as a human being.
The arguments that led to Roe v. Wade are equally unpersuasive–that a woman has a right to determine when or if she will bear children. The economic stranglehold men have traditionally had over women, especially in a marital relationship, does not seem to matter in this debate. That women have until the last half century little say over their role in life is inconsequential.
Why? Is it that they don’t believe these arguments? I think for many, this is true. They may hear the stories of what it used to be like and either judge those stories as myth or outright fabrication. They judge them according to the life they currently have, without the least idea that history was ever different. Partly, too, there is a lack of understanding about the mechanisms of dominance and oppression. If a woman is in a bad relationship, she should leave.
Or just be a good christian and put up with it. I’ve heard that echoed throughout society, from Loretta Lynn’s pathetic “Stand By Your Man” anthem to religious isolationists who flat out deny their women the possibility of either having a say in how they live or leaving when circumstances become intolerable. This is not the past. This is the present. These groups exist. But it doesn’t have to be a group–there are many people who simply live in circumstances so restricted that it might as well be 1890 all over again.
And the anchor that binds these women, the Damocletian Sword dangling over their heads, is their children. The ones they already have and the ones they will inevitably have because, along with everything else, they are denied contraception as well.
Not having sex for these women is not an option. This is hard to believe for people who either would never think of denying their mate sex or have simply never been in a situation where they could not say no. It is dangerous and politically irresponsible to regard ones personal circumstance as the universal condition in which everyone else lives–or should live.
It was not that long ago–a generation, and in some states it may still be the case–that denial of conjugal “rights” was solid grounds for a man to divorce his wife. He did not have to prove it. How could you? And the courts would favor him in the settlements. This is recent history! Yes, it has changed–one of the things so-called No Fault Divorce ushered in along with other reforms. But the sentiment has not gone away for many people.
Consider the practical for just a moment–if you want to get away from someone, you should be prepared to leave with as little as possible. The more you have tying you to a place and a circumstance, the less ability you have to change your life. Children are insurmountable obstacles to a woman leaving undesirable circumstances. It can be done, certainly, but they complicate the process tremendously.
Roe v. Wade took away the power of threat men had over women in these regards. At least in principle. It accorded to the woman the right to determine the use of her body in matters of procreation–which naturally lead directly to matters of recreation. It made a case for women “owning” their sexuality, something that has been the source of debate and divisiveness for centuries if not millennia.
Roe was based substantially on an earlier Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which was concerned with a woman’s right to avail herself of the means to control procreation. In Griswold the Court struck down state laws that dictated matters of private conduct. The basis of the law so challenged seems to have been that it is the man, not the woman, who has the say in if and when there will be more children. Needless to say, this implied responsible relationships-marital–and by extension denied that unmarried women had any rights in the matter whatsoever, since the law concerned the availability of contraception. The Court decided Griswold 7-2 to strike down the Connecticut law (in the words of Justice Potter Steward an “uncommonly silly law”) and thereby staked out an area of privacy and self-determination upon which women then based several arguments in the coming decade regarding their role in society as free agents and whole persons.
To my mind, what both Griswold and Roe established is a principle which states that a woman has the right to make determinations about procreation and the use of her body, exclusively unto herself as a free and responsible agent, i.e. a citizen. By definition, this means that she has a right not to be pregnant. It is absurd to argue a determination principle if the thing being determined is not also implicitly argued in the course of definition. A woman gets to say when or if she will bear children–pregnancy being the necessary pre-condition for childbearing, she gets to say when or if she will be pregnant.
You may not establish a principle that then disappears when context changes. In other words, if a woman has the right not to be pregnant, that right does not vanish because she becomes pregnant.
To make this as explicit as possible, this would mean that if we hold in principle that a person has a right not to be a slave, that right cannot disappear if someone binds that individual and makes him or her a slave. The principle holds, regardless. As free and responsible agent, the principle pertains even in changed contexts.
It might be argued that such a principle, when applied to parenthood, could be taken to mean that a person has a right not to be a parent, therefore that person has the right to kill any child that puts that person into that circumstance. That would be absurd, of course, since we do have such a right, and there are systems in place for removing the child into foster care or adoption by others. Besides, the child is in itself a recognized individual entity–a free agent, if you will–and all other protections that apply to the “parent” apply to the child. You can’t murder the child.
Of course, here is where the pro-life movement has made its most incisive critique of abortion rights. They argue simply that a fertilized egg is a person.
In practical terms this is moot. There is no person since there is no personality. But I’m not going to settle this debate here. We enter now into the realm of sentiment, and sentiment does not lend itself to logic or principle. The basic fact of the matter is, the issue to be resolved concerns pregnancy. You might well argue that an individual has a right to own a particular object, but such a right does not grant permission for that individual to steal it from someone else–the granting of a right by violation of another right is unsustainable and fundamentally corrupt.
But the movement to outlaw abortion lacks the cogency of a moral issue because of the corollary issues infusing it. We can see by examining the suite of demands of the pro-life movement that it is not abortion as such that offends them.
Europe–at least what we know as Western Europe–has less than one tenth the abortions as America. Why? Are they having less sex? Obviously not. The difference is in their approach to contraception education and availability and a certain nuance with regard to the entire question of sexuality. I make this point because clearly abortion can be reduced without a hegemonic legal revolution which would necessarily challenge what have become fundamental principles of free agency in this country, namely the right to mutual associations.
The overwhelming majority of pro-life movements refuse to discuss a rationalization of sex education and contraceptive access that would most likely drastically reduce the need and demand for abortion. Most of them include in their activist programs curtailments of such things. Their blunt and uncompromising advocacy of Abstinence Only sex education shows a clear agenda that is at least equally if not primarily concerned with the issue of Sexuality.
They do not, in the long run, wish to dictate abortion rights so much as they wish to dictate private behavior. To them, there are only a few acceptable circumstances for sexual activity, and they seem to think they can determine people’s proclivities by reducing their options.
Essentially, this is not a moral issue, since its presentation is misleading, and its goal is a fundamental denial of free agency.
This is a behavioral issue, or, if you will, an issue of taste, of sentiment, of intolerance. These are people who do not like certain behaviors and wish to mandate their elimination.
Moral Value number one–not.
What about the next one? The embrace–or, as some would phrase it, a return–of public religiosity.
The chief argument made by its proponents is that because god is absent from our public institutions, the country has slipped morally.
I will challenge this assertion by two arguments–first, one can reasonably assume that the majority of people who comprise our institutions are religious. Why this fact would vanish from their consciousness because they “clock in” at their jobs is difficult to understand. True, the format, the rules, the guidelines of a job apply certain restrictions on action, but with, as Kant would put it, a good will the uses to which the tools available may be put will be informed by the conscience of the person using them.
Secondly, let us look at the history of those institutions and see if this holds true.
The Supreme Court took up the modern argument over the Establishment Clause, as it is known, in 1947 in a small case involving public funding of school buses to parochial schools. A series of cases followed, culminating in 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman , a case involving public support of salaries of teachers who taught secular subjects in parochial schools. Laws in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were in question and court found such public funding a violation of the Establishment Clause because it engendered “undue entanglements” of public into private institutions. This resulted in what is known as The Lemon Test, an unfortunate name.
Under the Lemon Test, for a law to be constitutional it must pass three standards. 1: it must have a secular legislative purpose; 2: its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 3: it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.
Needless to say, this has engendered tremendous controversy and dissent on the Court itself. It is vague, but not incomprehensible, and requires that one set aside ambitions of agenda to apply it fairly.
However, it has not eliminated god from our public institutions entirely. Congress still opens session with a prayer. The president–many of them even up to the present–have had prayer breakfasts. Our courts still swear witnesses in with bible and oath to god.
Granted, the presence of christianity was greater in the nineteenth century. No argument was seriously leveled against the massive entanglement of religious sentiment in political matters because most people who had any voice whatsoever were on the same page. It was agreed among the actors in our national policy that we were a christian nation and that god was on our side.
So let’s look at the record.
Women did not get the vote till 1921. Legally, most women were regarded as “chattel” in the biblical sense–property, under command of their husbands. In matters of divorce, the man could throw them out of the house with nothing but the clothes they were wearing at the time, cutting them off from children, shelter, food, any kind of support, and this could be done legally. These were christian times.
We had to fight a horrific civil war to end slavery in 1865. Good christians all, the secessionists maintained that slavery was a responsibility handed them by god, for what would these poor souls do if they were freed? Thomas Jefferson worried over it and his argument was that the two races could not co-exist as political equals. Prejudices were so deeply rooted that “ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained–new provocations–the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race.” Andrew Jackson, in congress during the debates over the issue, suggested that perhaps northern Quakers approved of racial mixing and wouldn’t mind “giving their daughters to negro sons, and receiving negro daughters for their sons.” William Laughton Smith, a South Carolinian senator, put it this way: “If the blacks did not intermarry with the whites, they would remain black until the end of Time; for it was not contended that liberating them would whitewash them; if they did intermarry with the whites, then the white race would be extinct, and the American people would all be of the mulatto breed. In whatever light therefore the subject is viewed, the folly of emancipation is manifest.”
I quote these at length because this was during a time and these were men of America as a profoundly christian nation. God’s presence did not do much to enlighten them and cause them to do the right thing.
While all this was going on, the Marshall supreme court was fast demolishing the Jeffersonian republicanism that sought to guarantee some level of personal sinecure to families, in favor or a market driven embrace of capitalism which resulted in the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands and spurred the westward expansion which led to the decimation of the native American tribes. The principle of Manifest Destiny. “Our manifest destiny,” according to John Lewis O’Sullivan, in the pages of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review of 1845, “is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Never mind the people already living there, god had given this land to us–we just have to take it. Very christian. The death, disease, and penury the American Indian was reduced to in the course of a number of campaigns to wrest the land from them is a litany of abuse worthy of fascism, all conducted by god-fearing christian people who prayed daily and welcomed religion into our public institutions.
Those three alone should suffice to demonstrate that an active presence of religion did nothing to ameliorate the wrongs embraced by our leaders and supported by our forebears. God-directed imperialism, with concomitant missionary work, did massive damage in the Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands, the Sandwich Islands. Good christian legislators turned away ships laden with Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany, all based on the wrong-headed eugenics of Robert M. Yerkes–not that I think they understood his arguments so much as they welcomed something that looked like science to underpin their basic intolerance as christians.
Time and again you can look at segments of American history wherein self-proclaimed christians did immoral things in the name of the christian god. The KKK was obsessed with a protestant christianity that embraced the concept of an Elect. The various white supremacy groups sprinkled throughout the country today all espouse a christian orthodoxy that, they claim, mandates aggressive approaches to “problems” like race or other faiths or secularism.
So it can be seen clearly that a high profile and public inclusion of religion has not made us more moral in our political or cultural pursuits. The argument that we are less moral because we have shoved the two things apart–particularly in schools–holds no water. (As a personal anecdote, I attended a parochial grade school. The daily doses of Jesus did nothing to dissuade my school mates from indulging in racial bigotry, bullying, lying, cheating on tests, or any other form of childhood malfeasance. Not that they were worse, only that god’s presence did nothing to make them any better.) In fact, it could be argued that since an aggressive secularization of government and public discourse, we have been on a road to moral improvement, since we bring no such unquestioned preconceptions to problem solving.
So what drives this desire to see “god back in the classroom and in our public institutions”?
We do not see any discussion among the various fundamentalist groups for a more inclusive definition of god. We don’t see demands that in schools there are periods of meditation in honor of Buddha or inclusion during the day of the various rakats of Islam. No, what we see is a demand for an exclusively christian practice and observance.
Even if this were accomplished, what is the expected result? Enlightenment? Doubtful. If that were the case, those so devoutly arguing for this would already have found enlightenment and would cease the political struggle, realizing that it is founded on false assumptions. No, this too is a quest for behavioral control. The imposition of a standard of behavior on those with whom they disagree, not so much to change the minds of those who do not agree, but to prevent exposure of their children to alternative ideas. If there is no dissent, there is no problem, no disagreement. This is the conceit of despotism throughout history.
The motive for their desire is therefore selfish and without reflection for consequence. Prayer has never made us a better country. The acknowledgment of problems and their nature and the conscious decision to solve them has made us better.
But on a more fundamental level, it is this urgency to impose a christian aspect that reveals a basic insecurity and desire for a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to perceived problems. The idea that faith transforms infuses this movement with an evangelistic momentum that can allow no debate. And here we must look into the underpinnings of the movement to see what they actually want.
We have a pluralistic society. This means several ideologies, world views, faiths, aesthetics, customs–the building blocks of personal foundations–rub up against each other constantly. Dealing with all these things leads to a certain amount of confusion and, occasionally, frustration. Much simpler if we were all alike in some way. But in a country where you can have disagreement over a given issue between two supposedly similar sects–christians disagreeing over abortion or homosexuality–how can we possibly find a single solution?
We can’t. It’s that simple. As my father used to say, grow up and get over it. People are different. Even when they seem the same, dig deep enough you find differences.
The goal, therefore, as I stated above, of the more rabid christian sects is to eradicate all public expression of those differences. They ask how it can be expected of them to raise their children “properly” when the people around them, in the communities they must live, won’t raise their children according to the same standards. What they want is a guarantee of provenance, a contract with society that tells them they are right and no one will publicly differ with their choices. An examination of their institutions shows a marked tendency to establish nonporous ideological boundaries. Certain ideas, certain music, books, clothing, certain attitudes are kept out by restrictive codes in their schools and, when possible, in their communities. This fear of alternative ideas is an old American disease we have yet to deal with. We are a mongrel nation with no pedigree and a brief history (though getting less brief; one would think we should be getting over our insecurity) and we want to guarantee the rightness of our vision, our choices. Rather than deal with new ideas, learn about and from them, and put them in a perspective that benefits us, we keep them out. I repeat, this is nothing new. This is, in fact, a very christian way of dealing with strange ideas. Christian policy has always been to burn heretical writings and, occasionally, the heretics espousing them. Kill the message and the messenger and keep these crazy notions away from our kids so they don’t grow up asking uncomfortable questions.
While for some this may be a desirable condition, a goal worth fighting for, it does not constitute on any grounds a Moral Value, as it necessarily disenfranchises dissent and enshrines intolerance. It is a sanctification of ignorance, and one cannot be a sound moral agent without knowledge. You must understand the world and the way it is and what it throws at you, and you must understand yourself. Ignorance is a basic evil when it is enforced. Religion has a history, for better or worse, of defining good and evil as a practical matter and then issuing restrictions. Thomas Aquinas himself defined what he called “cultivated ignorance” which is a self-perpetuating condition useful for its perceived protective utility. But in the end, ignorance kills–it kills the spirit, the mind, and, eventually, the person.
As a Moral Value, public prayer is a mask for a desired goal of behavioral control and the expulsion of inconvenient acknowledgments of pluralism. Neither is realistic nor moral.
What about the issue of homosexuality? This is not a question of morality but of prejudice. Views held out of prejudice cannot be moral, since prejudice itself precludes any reasoned assessment or objective analysis. It is also a vendetta against people who are different who live according a set of principles which the bigot may well share. Rights and freedoms of association (for me, the bigot, not for you); a desire for companionship (only in certain ways and not in others, which is behavioral control); a desire/need for sex with a mutually consenting partner (the heterosexual may, with certain provisions, indulge, but not the homosexual since indulgence represents an offensive behavior to me).
If it is good and moral for a married couple (heterosexual) to have sexual relations for pleasure, then the only issue at hand in this debate is the gender. If we take as given that sex is not limited to procreation–and, in fact, for any given individual may be completely irrelevant to the issue–then to assert that recreational sex may only be conducted between individuals of opposite sex is absurd, since eroticism is not limited to either gender considerations, or numerical considerations. In fact, auto-eroticism extends the argument that a partner of the opposite sex or at all is not necessary for recreational sexual activity.
Of course, the stance of the fundamentalist will be that sex is for procreation and that it is god mandated as such. This is no more than the assertion of personal preference as moral law. It cannot be effectively–or even desirably–universalized, therefore it does not support itself as a Moral Value.
Marriage issues are another matter. But this is a legal matter, not a moral matter. There are many heterosexual couples who do not have children out of choice. Conversely, there are many couples who have children who are incompetent to horrific parents.
The question of censorship should be a non-starter. But it is there. In questions concerning children, it is argued by no one that the introduction of certain ideas, images, or theories requires care and timeliness. This, however, is not amenable to the one-size-fits-all standard of the religious fundamentalist. If you cannot universally apply a principle without stumbling over numerous and insurmountable objections or exceptions, it is not a Moral Value. This is a question of taste, sensitivity, and character, not morality in the public sense. (Half-facetiously, let me argue here that I might have some sympathy for the removal of bill boards advertising sex clubs, but only because I would argue for the removal of ALL bill boards, including those advertising JESUS or a particular church. In this case, it is the bill board concept itself I find offensive, regardless of the particular message. I would not go so far as to assert my position as a moral value, though.)
Censorship serves no good purpose. As a matter of practical policy, it is a fickle thing. If it is established as an accepted principle, then the object being censor can change with political whim. Those demanding censorship of pornography this year could, based on precedent, see their own message censored next year simply because a different faction is in power. The only defense against demagoguery and deceit is the absolute freedom of expression in public forums. The only defense against the demise of a vital civil discourse is the absolute discretion of the individual of what to see, hear, read, or think in private. Censorship promotes neither condition.
This is not a Moral Value, since as one of its consequences it would undermine moral discourse. (If you cannot talk about a subject because it is censored, you cannot determine the suitability of its use or censorship. You establish a doctrinal tautology that permits of no re-examination, which cannot even look to substantiating its own validity.)
The railing of the religious right against evolution is one of the saddest spectacles in history. Because they accept as a given that the truth of evolution would render all morality moot, they cannot accept any notion that morality is a human endeavor and can be both achieved and applied based on any standard other than divine grace. They de facto banish ethics as insufficient and bind us to a creation myth that privileges human beings over and above their environment and paradoxically emphasizes our powerlessness to affect our own affairs. It is, in fact, a plea for exemption from moral casuistry, since it relies on the principle of divine forgiveness as escape clause from immediate responsibilities. The war against evolution is no more than a tactical maneuver to evade a more functional code of moral responsiveness. As such it can claim no status as a Moral Value on any level.
Family Values has been the catch-all phrase for a suite of changes demanded by religious activists centered on the notion that all of the above-mentioned criteria must be dealt with or we risk seeing the family destroyed. One must ask the basic question–is this even possible? The Soviet Union made a concerted effort to do just that over three or four generations, and found it to be impossible. This is something so geared into what people are–thanks to the very evolution fundamentalists are opposed to–that we just do it. Constantly. We form families. We can’t help it.
So what is it the Moral Values/Family Values crowd really want?
They have adopted a Norman Rockwell model of what a family is and wish to ban anything that does not fit that formula. In particular, they want to reduce or eliminate single parent families; bar alternative arrangements like line families or group marriages; curtail divorce; and general see a conformity of family life with a stable community model that recalls an idyllic time in history when…
When such things never existed. Not in the way the model is presented. We had a brief period when the so-called nuclear family held sway, and even then it was probably not a majority reality, and that was the post-WWII generation that gave birth to the Baby Boom. Economic realities and the social conscience movements of the Sixties and Seventies have battered that model into unworkability except in rare instances. Two incomes are necessary for most families now, and even if not a requirement the idea of socially enforcing a stay-at-home mom is repugnant along ethical and political lines.
But the nuclear family is a modern manifestation of the patriarchal clan model of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, wherein the head of the house–male–was absolute ruler in a minor fiefdom. In the Fifties, we saw this as one of the proud claims–”a man’s home is his castle”–and there were “educational” films made enforcing the idea that the wife and kids were to be subservient to dad. This has all but vanished and justly so since such formulas disenfranchise individuality (the wife cannot make decisions, think, or challenge bad ideas because it is not her “place” and the children must suffer any abuse because they are not competent to challenge authority).
The lack of such central authority in the household has led to certain unpleasant consequences. But also to some very good ones. It’s a mixed bag and we’re still working through it. But to claim that the way things have transpired is due to a collapse of moral values is absurd. What is being demanded here is a return of privilege, and with it a subsequent “simplification” of living arrangements. Of course, this necessarily entails the surrender of certain personal rights on the part of certain members of the community within the privacy of the household.
An assertion of a principle cannot be called moral if in its application is violates other pre-existing moral principles. Surrender of autonomy as a principle is prima facie amoral at best, immoral in most general practice. In the course of political action or in the interests of the community, such surrender can be a practical matter in the interest of decision-making and necessary action for best interests of the community. But it must always be a temporary condition. In the instance of interpersonal relationships, a principle of deferment may be established, again as a matter of practicality, and certainly in instances where age, experience, or education trump willfulness–but again, this must be a temporary manifestation, to be alleviated as time and circumstance permit. As a permanent feature of any set of relationships, it is perhaps expedient, but never moral.
But a good deal of Family Value rhetoric concerns itself with the following ideas, which are number seven, eight, and nine in the listed platform demands of the religious right–the Moral Value Faction, if you will. And these are all social issues which on their face have dubious relations with anything that might be labeled a moral value.
Number seven and eight can be dealt with together, since they are based on the same issue–”people who do not work should not get money.”
This is a notion born from the transformation of American society in the 1820s through 1840s when all hope of Jeffersonian agrarianism was lost in the overwhelming surge of market capitalism. It is arguable, certainly, whether Jefferson’s vision would have worked. It seems, ultimately, utopian and unsustainable. Population growth alone spurred its demise, in favor of something more aggressively opportunistic.
But the ethical transformation that went along with the embrace of the market fostered a number of pernicious myths which were only bearable while they could be ignored. Poverty as symptom of moral corruption being chief among them, that a person’s misfortune, economically, was always and everywhere his fault. (I can say “his” in this context since this emerged at a time when women were kept out of the market economy by law and custom and were merely “victims”.) Before the advent of modern economic theories and the models they produced, it was assumed, ala Adam Smith, that a healthy growing market would absorb anyone willing to participate. Therefore, those who failed were somehow culpable.
It went further, though. Prior to this explosion of entrepreneurial muscularity, subsistence economies, while certain difficult and requiring hard work, spread the labor requirements out so that the work done by an entire family was what counted. Obsession was not required. But as the market displaced subsistence culture, a zealotry of enterprise arose requiring from each individual (male)–because this was the new model, it was all dependent on the Individual–a total commitment to “getting ahead” or, as they called it then, “betterment.” Communal methods fell by the wayside as individual entrepreneurial effort became the standard. (It is probably no coincidence that a sharp rise in mental illness accompanied this transformation and the first insane asylums were built at the same time Wall Street was becoming a power in the nation’s economy.)
One result was that those who could not, for whatever reason, successfully compete were relegated to the sidelines, poverty, and the derision and/or pity of society for being somehow unfit, morally or physically or psychically.
We now know that the Adam Smith model is a perpetual motion machine which cannot work at the efficiency level he assumed. We now know that no matter how efficient an economy becomes, there can never be 100% employment. (One thing that mitigates against this is that 100% employment would generate infinite upward pressure on wages, which would quickly spiral out of bounds and the entire system would collapse, burned up.)
Today, we also have the problem of increasing machine efficiency which is gradually displacing traditional labor requirements. People do not adapt as fast as machines can be built to displace them. There will inevitably be unemployables under such circumstances.
How this can be seen as the fault of the unemployed is inexplicable.
Yet the myth persists among the Right–people who do no work should not get money.
Which means they cannot live, they cannot support their families, they cannot survive.
“Then they should work harder.”
It becomes a tautology. A tautology cannot ever be deployed as a Moral Virtue, since its basis is a reliance on its own internal logic, divorced from any external checks. It’s absurd.
But what this really comes down to is a declaration of an unwillingness to be taxed for the benefit of those we do not see as “contributing” to the community. It is a money issue.
First and foremost, however, it is a systems issue, and we have seen in the traditional Rightwing view an intransigence toward accepting any description of the system in which we live that suggests it is inherently flawed and must be fixed. Capitalism–the Market–has taken its place next to the Church as a religious ideology unchallengeable by mortal effort. The religious fervor of Nineteenth Century capitalist reformation has become a sanctified precept of the modern age and while the mechanisms of the era that spawned it no longer pertain to modern circumstances, like all religious conviction the dogma persists. It is a way of separating the Elite from the Damned, a metric that says one group is better than another.
Membership in either group is largely chance, though. If you’re willing to accept things as they are on that basis and just admit that you aren’t willing to pay for public relief, fine. But you cannot define this position as moral in any way.
The war on entitlements, though, is based firmly on the wallet. When you get to the end of the debate, it’s a question of taxes. “Let private charity take care of the poor.” Which is a way of saying let someone else do it, leave me alone. And even if you contribute to those charities, charities by their nature are fickle and inconsistent and often reflect the prejudices of their institutional origins.
President Bush’s program to “reform” Social Security can be seen as part and parcel of this attitude–”it’s your money, you should be free to invest it.” This ignores the basic concept of Social Security and the reasons it was established as it was. But more, since payroll taxes fund it, there will automatically be a class disparity in retirement allotments. So the poor–even the working poor–because of their presumed moral failings will even in retirement be punished for not having wealth.
The strong military position is easy. We have a lot. We need to keep others from getting it. Sometimes, this may be the proper solution to a legitimate problem. Teasing apart when and where to use military force is a thorny issue, hard to parse in advance.
But it is also born out of an impatience among certain citizens with America being the most powerful nation in history and refusing to assert that power. I think there is a strong wish for an imperial state among the Right.
Still, it cannot be denied that the world is a dangerous and often malign place, and it would be stupidity to render ourselves impotent to deal with that reality. Can this be seen as a Moral Virtue?
I refer back to the argument against abortion, that life–supposedly–is sacred. Killing is wrong. Evil, in fact. If this is doctrinal, then being prepared to kill people cannot be consistent with a moral position along those lines. Necessity does not equal morality. In fact, necessity often forces us to set aside moral principle.
So if the Right is willing to embrace the necessity of dealing death through a powerful military, recognizing perhaps that while the method may be immoral but the need trumps it, then how is it they fail to see the same argument as applicable to a woman who is pregnant and does not wish to be? Necessity trumps morality in the first instance, but not the second?
Of course, as I have shown, that argument is not really about abortion.
What we are left with then is an amalgam of prejudices, traditions, and desires to make the world conform to an image of life. Nothing at base wrong with that–except when you persistently ignore the dichotomy between your stated motivations and the reality of what you are doing. To assert that this remaking is based on Moral Virtue is demonstrably bogus. It is based really on fear and greed and intolerance, all reworked to resemble something biblical, something dogmatically religious, and, as we have all heard growing up, god works in mysterious ways and it is not for Man to understand his purposes. Which is another way of saying, “shut up, I don’t have any answers for your unwelcome questions.”
So what is this Moral Virtue that topped the list of reasons people voted for Bush? As far as I can tell, it is purely one of appearance. Bush appears virtuous (even when he lies). He does not cheat on his wife (we assume); he admits he used drugs and had a drinking problem but since finding Jesus he doesn’t do that anymore (Clinton simply didn’t inhale, but he didn’t come out and condemn pot smoking); he prays in public; his wife does not appear to be an independent, doctrinaire feminist, but rather a more traditional, demure “stand by your man” Texas female; and Bush keeps talking about god and faith.
Appearances. Bill Clinton got a blow job while on the job. For this, he is condemned.
Moral Virtue, then, is only ever about what appears to be. It is also a set of standards (?) that are not amenable to examination by intellectual methods, which is the main reason Kerry came up short–he’s an intellectual, not a gut charismatic. The people who voted for Moral Virtue distrust intellectuals–profoundly–because by the process of intellectual examination their most cherished prejudices can be shown to be…well, not morals. Just a matter of taste.
Ambiguity is the nature of the world. Moral Virtue is supposed to be an antidote to ambiguity. It may well be, but that’s not what this is. This is a denial of ambiguity, a pretense that ambiguity only exists because we abandon certain principles. The logic is faulty. But the program that has resulted from it is just short of criminal. Criminal negligence.
So the reason so many people claimed they voted for Bush is nothing more than a statement of cognitive weariness, of a stated desire to be told what’s right, of a wish to have their private prejudices confirmed. “You are good and virtuous because you condemn sexuality, you dislike homosexuals, and you would prefer to pray than to think.”
Scary. Just when we need reason and understanding to meet the problems of the 21st Century, 58 million people in 2004 have said No. What we want is a denial that the world is that way.
Call it many things, but it cannot be called Moral Virtue.
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