Comfortable and Furious



It’s difficult to say just what morality is, but it probably has something to do with the fact that a complex species that values the lives of its fellows will last longer than one that doesn’t. Whatever moral impulses are, most of us have them and people have tried to make sense of them and figure out how best to accommodate them for millennia. I’ve read a lot of moral theory, even multiple books by fucking Kant. If I’m an expert in anything, it’s telling other people how to live their lives.

Morality is in an unusual state in America. It seems to me that the aim of American morality, at least in public discourse, is to make people feel moral rather than actually be moral. Feelings like indignation have been divorced from their practical consequences. You listen to Dr. Laura for a couple hours, get all huffy about someone in Ohio fucking too much, then go back to ignoring the fact that your local school is in a shambles. Other moral feelings, like charity, are rarely discussed at all because they are more difficult to dispense with.

In short, moral feelings have been turned into tools of manipulation and consumer goods peddled by politicians and degenerate hypocrites. For most people, moral feelings are a way to channel aggression, anger and guilt without having to do much of anything else. It’s not just conservatives. Affirmative action is a good example of the liberal version. Some people, disproportionately minorities, are deprived of the kind of upbringing that fosters intelligence and academic success. The solution? Stick them in a good school anyway and have another latte! Blacks and Hispanics score lower on tests? The math questions must be culturally biased, more latte please! If the problems run deeper than that, remedying them might actually require some sort of sacrifice. We’re one step away from just having pills that stimulate and satiate our moral impulses so we can get back to buying more crap.

So here’s what’s being sold generally. People need to exercise their moral apparatus with a certain frequency. So indulge in your moral sentiments of choice, mostly indignation if you’re a conservative, mostly guilt and assuagement if you’re a liberal, without ever being asked to doing anything you don’t really want to do.

And here’s your salesman today: Bill Bennett, drug czar and all around reprobate. If ever you could judge a book by its cover, it is by looking at the picture of Bennett on this back flap. He looks like a cross between a rat, a pig and a Southern sheriff. He sets out to explain why America and GW can do whatever they want and anyone who disagrees deserves condemnation (everybody get indignant!). We are angry about being attacked and the proper response is to funnel that anger into the use of violence. And best of all, you don’t have to think too much abut things like why so many people in the world resent America. Just be angry, vote Republican, curse liberals and college kids and watch the bombs go off.

Where to begin? Well, for an expert on morality, Bennett could certainly stand to spend some time with an introductory ethics textbook. He thinks the pervasive moral view in America, especially in the educational system, is relativism, which he eventually defines as the view that any view is as good as any other view. This definition applies to what the textbook might call hard relativism, a view held by virtually no one in or out of academia. A real relativist would never talk about a woman’s “right to chose” and would be unlikely to protest military actions with much fervor, if at all, yet people who do these things are the ones Bennett wants to stick with the label.

In practice, Bennett uses the term ‘relativism’ in a haphazard fashion that, if he were consistent, would probably blanket both Hume and Aristotle. Benett’s operational definition of moral relativism seems to be something like “the belief that the answers to many moral questions are not clear cut and that allowances should be made for opposing views.” In other words, anything other than ironclad absolutism tied to some very bold epistemic claims, is relativism, according to Benett’s standards.

Relativism is foisted upon the public by elites; not elites as in the people who run the country, elites as in the people who influence our culture, including certain professors, college students, grammar school teachers and novelists. Bennett works mostly from anecdote: a student in New York said X, a professor in North Carolina said Z. Curiously, when he does cite supposed elites by name, they usually aren’t so elite. “Big” names, according to Bennett, are people like Katha Pollit and Jonathan Franzen – people whose words reach audiences of hundreds of thousands. I wish Katha Pollit was an elite.

One more point I simply have to touch upon is one of the great pseudo-conservative lies: that universities are run by radicals. I think the reason they beat this drum so loudly is that they know most of their readers haven’t been to a University in a while and therefore can be lied to more easily on the matter. Even so, an alert reader should be able to spot the signs of deception. “Conservative” commentators almost always draw their examples from a handful of disciplines: comparative literature, gender/race studies and occasionally, sociology. They also cite the same campuses in most of their examples, especially Yale and Brown.

I have just finished seven years at four different schools, earning degrees in political science, economics and philosophy. There are radicals on faculties, especially in certain disciplines, but other disciplines are predominantly rightist, including economics and international relations. I took international relations courses at two very liberal schools: UC Santa Cruz and Sonoma State. Let’s just say we weren’t exactly having Chomsky, or for that matter, Richard Faulk stuffed down out throats. As for economics, prominent, conservative economist Jagdish Bahgwati has expressed concern that too many people in the discipline share his views, eliminating the opportunity for a constructive dialog.

Of course, faculties are highly educated and generally accepting of rationalist principles (unlike, say, religious fundamentalists), which leads to a liberal viewpoint on certain issues. If you read the literature on the ethics of abortion, for example, you’ll find that there is very little ethical justification for outlawing abortion in a liberal democracy. Is this a result of bias within the discipline? Pretty clearly not. Journals in philosophy thrive on argument and are desperate for credible arguments that abortion is clearly immoral, let alone that it should be illegal. Based on the half-baked nature of some of the pro-life arguments I’ve come across in journals, it seems that it’s actually easier to get a pro-life article published than a pro-choice article. So the truth is that educational systems, predictably enough, have a rationalist bias, rather than a leftist or rightist one.

All the fussin; and fumin’ about relativist elites pertains to 9-11 and the war on terrorism in that the “relativists” and “elites” are too worried about what motivated the attacks, often blaming American foreign policy. This, of course, makes such people “anti-Americans” who “hate America.” Bennett mentions Chomsky at one point, a man who’s pointed out the bizarre nature of such language. How is it that opposing the policies of a government is tantamount to hating a country? We’re used to the phrase ‘anti-American’ but plug in another country and you get an idea of how ridiculous the phrase is: “Dieter is anti-German,” “Jose is anti-Costa Rican.”

Needless to say, Bennett doesn’t bother to address such points or provide a clear definition of ‘anti-Americanism,’ but we can assume that it’s tied to his extreme absolutism. There is a standard American position, determined by the American process and anyone who is not for it is against it and therefore against America. That’s the most sense I can make of the view, anyway. This interpretation is also consistent with Benett’s desire that school children be taught to assume that America is morally in the right on any given issue or conflict.

The problems are obvious. For one thing, Benett’s view seems to lead to a brand of cultural relativism. That’s the strangest thing about right wing, moral absolutists. They ultimately wind up embracing views along the lines of “what America does is what is morally right” or “what God commands is morally right,” rather than relying on an independent standard of morality based on reason or the nature of the human mind. The problem is that the views that they embrace to avoid “relativism” are strongly relativistic. If God is not operating on the basis of an independent morality, he could choose any moral standard and has no basis for favoring one over another. Same thing for America. So the end result is arbitrary, just as with relativism. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that people like Bennett can say with a straight face that the Contras were freedom fighters while Hezbollah are terrorists. Bennett offers the standard that freedom fighters do not deliberately target civilians, but this has to be a disingenuous cover-up on his part. He knows about the Contras, Dresden, Nagasaki, Pinochet and the rest of the list just as well as you and I do. Actually, as a former Bush Sr. cabinet member, he probably has knowledge about all sorts of nasty goings on that you and I will never be privy to.

In the process of building this rickety moral view, Bennett makes a host of false claims and bad arguments. For example, he claims that “Americans are a peaceful people, adverse to conflict.” Odd then, that they seem to strongly support every military effort that comes without heavy American casualties, including the invasion of Grenada and that of Panama, which cost the lives of thousands of Panamanians so that we could arrest someone. I don’t know if Americans are worse than other people in this respect. The Brits got all pumped up over invading the Falklands and there is no shortage of examples of warmongering in other countries, but it still seems to be the case that Americans love seeing our military in action. Bennett himself adds to his hit list those who have a “bias against the use of force by the United States of America in pursuit of its interests or its national honor.”* So Benett’s ideal American has an adversity to conflict and love of peace, but no bias against the use of military force? That’s a hell of a tension.

Bennett also offers a chapter of analysis on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians are 100% in the wrong and the Israeli’s 100% in the right. The chapter is 100% comedy.

I actually agree with Bennett about a thing or two. One of his little digressions is against identity politics, which is something I’m not much of a fan of either, although his criticisms care little or no weight. One of his big points is that this particular attack (9-11) and this particular band of nuts should be evaluated on their own, rather than in light of American foreign policy as a whole. There’s something to that and some people on the left have gotten so swept up in America’s misdeeds that they have lost site of what a bunch of dushebags bin Laden and his goons are. Also, Bennett argues that we should not ignore the fact that this conflict is partially the product of fanatical Islamism, which is itself a logical offshoot of Islam. I don’t know enough about Islam in particular to evaluate the latter claim, but the JCI religions seem to have a special capacity for begetting violence. Bennett tries to differentiate Islam’s capacity to spawn such ideologies from that of Christianity and fails. It’s an unfortunate fact that Christ’s teachings that non-Christians go to hell paves the way for all kinds of wackiness from colonialism, to witch burning, to most of the violence in British history to the crusades. We’d be better off without it.

The overall thesis, for all the digressions, is that moral indignation and anger are appropriate and that we should yield to them, particularly with respect to the present conflict. He even embraces notions like “retaliation,” which even hockey coaches recognize to be dangerous and often unproductive. Most of what has been covered above and most of the book, is an attack against views that we should focus on trying to understand the other side, what we may have done to provoke or motivate the attack and what changes we could make to prevent further attacks without resorting to violence, especially strikes that entail “collateral damage.” Bennett never really makes an argument for this view, he just keeps saying that anyone who opposes it is an elitist relativist.

Much of Benett’s argument is a straw man: the false charge of relativism. His thesis remains unproven. Benett’s warmongering, lying and (I have to assume, given that he has PhD in Political Philosophy) deliberate use of fallacies exposes him as a man with a level of moral authority somewhere between that of Charles Manson and David Duke. Well, maybe not. At least those guys are honest.

* Let’s give Bill some credit. This line is funnier than anything in Stupid White Men. It sounds like it was written by Jerry Bruckheimer for fuck’s sake!