Banking on Midterms may be a mistake for Democrats

Midterms are 18 months away. The Democratic talking heads think the Republicans are way more worried than the Republicans actually are. The House is relatively safe. Even in the middle of a scandal, the districts are rigged enough that you can count on them standing by their man. The Senate has 33 seats up for grabs and Democrats need to pick up only 3 seats to take back a slim majority. But Republicans are defending only nine states and Democrats are defending 25. Where exactly would the Democrats pick up these three seats? Texas? Tennessee? Alabama? The best shots I can see are in the western states, but picking up three Senate seats seems something of a stretch for the Democrats.

The Democrats, thus, have a very tough uphill climb. They imagine that the landscape would be reshaped in their favor if there were formal impeachment proceedings filled with lurid details of undeniable malfeasance heading into the elections. They have short memories. The Democrats gained (!) five House seats in the very midst Bill Clinton’s scandal. Elections were in November and impeachment proceedings were begun less than a month later. Republican Gingrich actually had to resign his position as Speaker after the midterms.

Conclusion: the Republicans are (rightly) less worried about their Midterm Exams than the Democrats hope they are. So where does that leave Trump?

My guess is that the calculus among Republican leaders is to get him though the midterms without initiating any formal proceedings while constantly working the “Great Left Wing conspiracy” angle that has become the (only) Rush Limbaugh and Fox news talking point. The sophisticated, in-the-know party leaders will continue to hint at “the president’s enemies” fomenting rumor (see Ryan’s most recent statements). This ambiguity is what they will ride through the midterms, and time is on their side. Recall that it took almost two years for the Watergate scandal to move toward certain impeachment. Granted, things move faster today, but most of the control of the throttle is in Republican hands. They can slow things if they wish.

After the midterms, Republican leadership will hold a meeting with Trump in which he will be told that he will withdraw from the 2020 Presidential race or he will be impeached and convicted. Trump will declare victory and go to that small dark room in his heart where he weaves his fictions about himself. And the Republicans will have to figure out how to shape their appeals to America for the 2020 election.

Now, unless they are paying you large sums of money to sit on a talk show (the equivalent of a 1920’s Freak Show job as far as I can tell), wild speculative prediction in the present climate is beyond foolish. This is why wild speculative prediction comes so easily to me, in case you are wondering.

Relativism is Relative

Moral relativism is not the same thing as linguistic subjectivism.  They are, admittedly, closely related and easy to confuse, however.

This confusion is what misleads Christian author Jonathon Merrit, I would argue, in last year’s Atlantic article on the death of moral relativism.  Merrit suggests that moral relativism has now become as passé as a flip phone because we have moved on from that view to a system of public shaming.  Public shaming presupposes a shared moral code.  Ergo, relativism must be dead.  This return to a moral code is not the moral code the Religious Right wanted to see, but it is a moral code, nevertheless.

David Brooks’ column from today  suggests similar themes, but more deeply considered.  Brooks points out that guilt is still very much with us.  We see what we see in the world, and we know how our sins of omission stare at us as gauntly as a fourteen month old in the Sudan.  We do something.  We write a check to Oxfam or Catholic Relief Services.  But it is never enough.  It cannot be.  That is no reason to stop the giving, but, as Brooks notes,  America no longer has any

…clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our 
quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt 
and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a 
loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and 
forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for 
redemption.

At one level, this accounts for that hideous American aberration called the “Prosperity Gospel.”  I have it because I deserve it; no need to feel guilty!  But that is a separate topic entirely.

In his column today, Brooks is relying heavily on Wilfred McClay’s essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” and of the three—Merrit, Brooks, and McClay—McClay’s is the deepest contribution to this conversation on Morals in America, and he deserves a careful read.

I think McClay’s is the deepest in part because he comes closest to understanding the root of the problem, which is, at least on one significant level, about words.  Brooks hints at this point in the opening of his column; McClay dances with it though he never confronts it direclty.

Here I want to very briefly lay out some reflections about the gods of moral relativism, and the Titans of linguistic subjectivism.

                  1.  Keep in mind there are two Moral Relativisms.

A.  Morality is relative to the individual. This first view is rooted in individual moral relativism.  This view assumes that morals are a matter of personal preference, like choosing either the Caesar Salad or the Greek Salad at Panera.  This is the view most Conservative Christians  seem to have in mind, so far as I am able to tell, when they talk about saving America from the evils of moral relativism.  It certainly seems that this is Merrit’s working definition.  The problem with the Christian view on this topic is that virtually no one actually believes the idea which the Christians are attempting to resist.

Almost no one believes in this view of individual moral relativity because, in the end, the view is more or less indefensible and everybody knows it.  It is always only two or three questions away, at most, from being revealed as ridiculous and unsustainable:

 Are morals relative to the individual?  

         Yes.

 So rape is OK?  

         No.

We’re done here.

A very, very few students in my classes will half-boldly attempt to defend the moral good of rape, observing that it might be

        …a good for others. Of course, not for me.  It 
        would be wrong for me, but if somebody else 
        thinks it’s right, then, you know, for them, 
        it’s right.  For them.  

 So a person who rapes isn’t doing anything wrong

         Well, I mean, for me it would be wrong.  But 
        not for them

That sort of intellect has such a feeble grasp of category mistakes that you could very likely sell them a backhoe as a pocket calculator.  While I occasionally have students who try to defend such a view, I can forward a couple of observations to calm my Christian friends who believe these students are a sure sign of the pending  apocalypse.

To begin, most of my students are arguing the position because it is a classroom, and that’s one way to see how well an idea holds up (and impress the professor): you argue for an extreme position whether you believe it or not.  But even  those few students who actually do claim to believe in this individual moral relativism should not worry us.  They tend to abandon their beliefs and become, in the real world, profound hypocrites.  And they do this at incredible speeds, in astonishing percentages, and with only the feeblest provocation.  Try cutting them off in traffic.

But in addition to their pervasive hypocrisy, these students have another character flaw that will likely keep us all safe.  A belief in individual moral relativism is, of course, flatly incompatible with civilization.  Yet every single student of mine who champions such a view is addicted to espresso and suffers physical withdrawal pains when they are without social media.  These are hardly brazen, radically self-sufficient, Übermenchen ready to burn everything to the ground and then forge a whole new world of Anarchistic Social Darwinism in the ashes.

In a nutshell: whatever they say they believe, it does not influence how they act.  And furthermore, their beliefs don’t appear to be attached to any outcome they actually want.  So, look, a worldview that nobody really follows is probably not going to destroy Western Civilization.  Relax, conservative Christians.

B.  Morality is negotiated by the group. Set against the individual moral relativist is something Merrit conflates with it, and this second view is social moral relativism. About which, more anon.  And then we will proceed to linguistic subjectivism.

America Part 2: Of Me I Sing

 

In the first view of America, I suggested that the Left is naïve about words.  Prevalent on the Left is a view of  language that allows–almost encourages–solipsistic equivocation around moral terms; such equivocation will eventually destroy the possibility of democratic discourse.  This view destroys discourse  by making language such a private affair that no communion between differing views is possible.  No debate, no dialgoue, no discussion.  Public discourse can always, of course, puddle around the lowest common denominators of physical pleasure (especially sex) and physical pain (especially violence).  But when we say, as so many on the Left are fond of saying, that (a) “language constructs our social reality” and (b) “the center of our common culture is that every individual is free to live life on their own terms,” then the logical conclusion is that words become incapable of expressing anything but private preference.  “I want x” and “x is good” mean the same thing.  “That is wrong” and “I don’t like that” are identical statements.  The very possibility of recognizing a good that you fear or a wrong that you desire is anesthetized at best; perhaps the experience is rendered impossible.

Within this realm, covenants are replaced by contracts of convenience as David Brooks suggests in this column.  The possibility of a genuine, generous, boundless love that rises above a business model, sentimentality, manipulation, or enlightened self-interest is no longer possible, as Plato explains in the Phaedrus.  Sex, friendship, religious faith, family, or—for that matter—owning a pet: all collapse into sentimentality, manipulation, or efficient self-interest.  The road to happiness lies within a cost-benefit analysis, as though all Others (even God) were objectified commodities answering to our subjective, private, personal feelings of happiness.

Thus, the Left is as responsible as the Right is for Donald Trump and the New Nativism.  You cannot spend 50 years talking about how social reality is rhetorically constructed and then be shocked when people decide on Alternative Facts to construct their social reality; their choices should look to those on the Left like a logical conclusion, not a bizarre aberration.  You cannot adopt theoretical positions that allow individuals to rhetorically craft their own identity rooted mostly in their own subjective experiences and then be angered when people craft their own identity rooted in their own subjective perspectives that you don’t want them to have.  That is not an option, unless you are ready to do away with the mask of tolerance and champion some red, white, and black flag of Liberal Totalitarianism.

The symbiotic idea intertwined within this shallow view of language is the celebration of diversity and the goal, as we saw in Part 1, of creating unity around diversity.  That concept too, we challenged earlier.  Ex pluribus unum when the unum is larger and more powerful than the pluribus, of course.  When there is a unity that both (a) goes beyond and (b) is ranked higher than what differentiates us, we leave the differences behind and become one.  This is not unlike the old idealized mid-20th century view of covenant marriage where each of us left our own family culture behind as the defining aspect of our identity, and we merged into something that was neither yours nor mine, but transcended both and was different from either.  Out of our many differences, we made one family.  Set against this view of one out of many, is the recently popular idea of circum pluribus unum—one around many.  This idea of building unity around—keeping and celebrating—diversity may, in the end, possess some redeemable particulars, but it can hardly be embraced prima facie as a perfectly clear and obviously reasonable idea.

I’ve so far suggested that the idea of America cannot function as a unified culture and country if it tries to define itself as a collection of sustained diversities.  A self-definition transcending our diversities and calling each of us beyond them is required.  That transcendent ideal, according to the Right, is exactly what America used to have.  That is what America used to be.

They are correct.  There was once a unifying dream, a sweeping set of cultural definitions and assumptions, that underwrote American Unity.  Not even the Civil War broke it.  The trouble is, that unifying vision of America was, essentially, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant vision.  WASPs dominated and defined being American, really.  There were other Americanish people around, but the normal, standard America was white, northern European, Protestant, and mostly male, to boot.  That was the assumption played out in sweeping aspects of culture, and one need look no further than the plays, magazines, movie pictures, novels and (later) advertisements from 1825 through the late 1900’s to see those assumptions on display.

In other words, there was a unifying cultural dream, but it was a particularly specific dream.  When they sang the glory of America, they were singing mostly of themselves.  They did not see a larger America, a different America.  Those who fell outside that far too narrow culture were simply not registering as an (important) aspect of America.  And that helps to explain the timing of the present moment.

If the Idea of America that was put forward in Part 1 ([a] liberty to pursue happiness on our own terms, [b] tolerance of those who pursue a different path, and [c] united in our willingness to defend the other’s right to their path) is as deeply flawed as I’ve suggested, why did it take so long for the problems to appear?  The answer is, it didn’t.  The Idea of America as a land of freedom and tolerance was simply not tested until 1964.  That is the moment we began to see whether or not the idea of liberty and tolerance would function for people who were really different from normal America.  Prior to the Civil Rights Act, Americans were generally tolerant of their differences, and allowed others to pursue their own way.  But of course, that generally meant that the Presbyterians were willing to grant liberty and tolerance to their neighbors.  Who went to the Methodist church.  Now, admittedly, Calvin and Wesley had their differences in theology, and those differences are significant, and moreso to someone who is a part of either church.  But to be honest, tolerance in this frame is a pretty low bar for the intellect and conscience to clear.  And their differences found other, common, ground to unite with: work, sports clubs and teams, the kid’s schools.  And the non WASP world was simply not on the radar.  It was largely segregated and invisible.

Challenges to the WASP view had come before 1964, of course.  The Spics and Wops and drunken Irish had arrived.  But these were in waves, assimilated fairly easily, and sometimes looked white-enough.  But it was only in 1964 that the systemic definition of WASP America began to be challenged.  And WASP America didn’t like it.

It is this background, so far as I can tell, that makes it so easy for those on the Left to typecast those on the Right as racist.  The Right appears (to the Left) to be clamoring for a return to an era that no good person wants to see again: one filled with segregation, Jim Crow, and invisible people without serious legal standing in the culture when they need it most: when their homes were threatened, their children terrorized, and their career and education options unjustly limited by those in power.  Of course, some on the Right want exactly that, just as some on the Right genuinely do hate gays.  And some on the Right really are prudes who cannot bear to think of a woman’s body apart from issues of use or control. But I find plenty who don’t fit these molds.

I find any number of those on the Right who rail against PC speech not because they hate Latinos or Blacks, but because they recognize the simple fact that nobody has a right to not be offended, as Dawkins reminds us.  I find many on the right who take traditional stands on sexuality not because they hate gays, but because human sexuality is sacred in Christian theology and it is not unreasonable to assert that requiring a person to accept a state sponsored definition of sex and gender is a violation of the free exercise clause of the Constitution.  I find many on the Right that neither want nor expect Christian Theocracy in America, but who recognize that if you shift the major metaphysical assumptions of a culture, then you change everything about it, and maybe that is worth a conversation?  I find many that are no more interested in controlling a woman’s body than they are in removing their own fingers with a bolt cutter.  But they have serious and powerful questions about when, exactly, that woman’s body became her own to do with as she saw fit.  When did she cease to be the property of Someone Else to do with as they saw fit?—that Someone Else being her own mother, of course.

These are generally examples that still matter, though they come from the more or less now defunct Culture Wars of traditional Conservatism; that said, they are still whipping boys for the Left and we will examine them in more depth down the line.  Perhaps Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option needs a conversation.

But at present, we can sum up two points.  First, American cultural unity seems unlikely to emerge from an attempt to maintain and celebrate infinite diversity.  But, second, there was once this American cultural unity and it did keep us together and, really, it kind of sucked.  Are there other options?

What is actually on the front pages these days is of course not Conservatism but a New Populism that flirts with a unique sort of Fuedal-talitarian vision.  Perhaps we’ll touch on that view, briefly, in America, Part 3: Sweet Home à la Bannon.

Tolerance as a Primary Virtue?

Primary virtues are those virtues which are pursued for their own sake: They possess inherent goodness.  Justice, self-control, fortitude, and wisdom are the usual candidates, though Plato considered piety and magnanimity as possible primary virtues, as well.  Secondary virtues are those virtues which are exceptionally good when in the service of a higher good, but they are not virtues when in the service of the base or wicked.  Efficiency, for example, is a secondary virtue.  It’s great when you’re building a hospital.  Less so when you’re building a forced labor camp.

 I saw this article moments after I posted “America Volume I” on the alienating affects of tolerance and diversity as a Primary Virtue.  Fascinating.

 

 

America Part 1: Sweet Land of Liberty.

Here’s one view of America:  America is an idea.  The idea of America is that, with a few obvious legal exceptions like stealing, I get to pursue happiness on my own terms, and you don’t get to stop me even if you don’t like my decisions.  Likewise, you get to pursue happiness on your own terms, and I don’t get to stop you, either.  But we both agree that we will defend to the death this very idea of liberty.  I will defend your freedom to make choices I disagree with, if you’ll do the same for me.  That compromise is, by one view, the very core of the American social contract.  It is one thing (maybe  the only thing) you and I have in common, and that is what makes America American; that is what we celebrate on the fourth of every July.

When the Left talks about diversity being our strength, this is often what they mean: this idea of allowing each individual to find their own path without  interference from another.

But there is a problem.  You can craft unity out of diversity, but it is not at all clear that there is any way to craft unity around diversity.  You can make one out of many of course: Ex pluribus unum.  You do this by having them all embrace some common identity that is larger and more important than the diversity that makes them different.  We sacrifice the difference to the unity, and out of the many, we become one.

But crafting a cultural identity around the idea of diversity is far more problematic.  It’s not at all clear that you can build a functioning  unity out of de facto diversity.   It would be rather like trying to build a brick wall out of water.  The idea of diversity is quite close to the idea of America we opened with. It is lovely as an idea, but the pragmatics of diversity seem to result in an ongoing process of ever more narrow niches of identity and ever wider fields of separation that are contrary to a union.

Language, under these circumstances, suffers a series of violent alterations that make it an increasingly private affair.  We are taught to use the words “good” and “right” to reference us and those who share our preferences—especially about diversity and individually chosen identity.  This mushy equivocation, which seems essential to “America as an Idea of Tolerant Diversity,” forces language into an increasingly private experience.  In the end, words can become so private that there is no reason to attempt to maintain any semblance of accuracy or truth-telling in public discourse.  What agrees with my view I accept; what does not is discarded.  Even the measurable, brute facts of natural phenomena bow to the identity ideology of “us and our sort.”  In short, it is not the Right that created Donald Trump; it is the Left.  But more on that idea later.

For now, it is enough to note that building unity around a celebration of diversity is more than problematic, it seems.  It may be as impossible as asking for a four-sided triangle.  Neither the Left’s ultraprivate Identity Ideology nor the Right’s New National Nativism is immune to this collapse of language that cuts us off from civic discourse.  Neither Left nor Right has circumvented the violence done to our words, and neither has the faintest hint of finding any path out of the conundrum.

There are, of course, options.  It may be that we are able to postpone disintegration through thorough distraction.  Popular culture has given us lots and lots of chances to practice doing this, and it might work.  In other words, if you subsume both Left and Right to a task, a project that can loom larger than either, you might paper over the problem for a while.  One simple and idealistic choice for such a task would be to say, “America is putting a team of human beings on Mars before 2030.”  With that, we can champion “Go to Mars” as our telos, our purpose, our very essence as a society.  That purpose subsumes and engulfs and sublimates all questions of identity to the Great National Task.  America becomes “Those People Going to Mars.”  And Americans can begin to say to one another:   “Who cares if you’re trans so long as you can write code for the Mars Team atmospheric monitors?”

But in the end, subjecting our diverse choices of identity to The One National Task That Defines Who We Are is only a temporary solution, at best.  It simply ignores the four-sided triangle that is not in the room.  But it might buy us some time as we try to figure something out.

On the other hand, there is a simpler and more time-tested path to unity.  We could have a war.  Not a war like Iraq or Afghanistan.  An all-out full-fledged war where our very existence as a nation hung in the balance.  China might do nicely, some have suggested.

If the diversity of the Left is dangerously naïve about words, and if it functions almost unconsciously to undermine the possibilities of civil civic discourse, what about the Right?  There was once a day in America where we did hold something in common.  Right?  Perhaps we’ll consider that question in part two.