Opinion writer Neal Gabler has this piece in the LA Times today that’s based on so many false premises it demands to be nearly fisked:
America The Stony-HeartedBy Neal Gabler
When the political history of the last 30 years is written, scholars will no doubt describe a rightward revolution that jolted this country out of its embrace of New Deal, big-government progressivism and into a love affair with small-government conservatism. But this change, significant as it is, has been undergirded by a less apparent but no less monumental revolution that has transformed the nation’s values, ideals and aspirations. Over those same 30 years, we have become a different country morally from what we were.
This is bunk.
The United States has always had a complex national moral system. On the one hand, there is the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow, God helps those who help themselves, and our highest obligation is to live righteously.
On the other hand, there is also an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility. In this America, salvation comes from good works, compassion is among the greatest of virtues, and our highest obligation is to help others.
These two moralities managed to coexist — often within the same person — because they were not seen as mutually exclusive, especially in the 20th century. Nor was either the province of one political party or the other. Conservatives could subscribe to the ideals of generosity and compassion, just as liberals could subscribe to hard work and individual responsibility.
See, the problem is that rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and also community, common cause and charity exist without big-government progressivism. Big government progressivism is a means to exercise force on the citizenry. “Collective responsibility” is a concept that exists only in totalitarian states. For those who don’t understand “collective responsibility”, see the following two morality plays of the collective:
That is how collective responsibility works. The collective is responsible for the sins of one, and pays for those sins. The collective also holds the one responsible.
When personal responsibility is paramount, the individual pays for the individual‘s mistakes. Big difference.
But over the last 30 years or so, something has happened to reshape the country’s moral geography. Everyone knows about the rise of Moral Majority-style Christian evangelicals as a potent force in right-wing politics. It injected a certain aggressive moralism into our political discourse and led to campaigns against abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual freedom and other issues perceived as and then framed as moral matters. As a result, our politics became “moralized”; they were transformed into a contest of one set of values pitted against another.
There was no reason for aggressive moralizing of a conservative/traditional nature of what was self-viewed as a moral nation before then. “Abortion rights” didn’t exist before 1973 – though it was favored by progressives who sought to exterminate the black race. Gays had equal protection under the law, regardless of how biased individuals may have mistreated and abused individual gay people, and how reprehensible bigots may have ignored that gays are also created equal. Gay rights, unfortunately, is not about acknowledging gay people as people, but is about gay priviledges, and is usually justified under the “pendulum swings one way, then the other” absurdity – equal doesn’t mean some are more equal, whether to make things “fair” or not. “Sexual freedom” wasn’t about freedom, it was about upsetting tradition. The pill wouldn’t have caused the same sexual revolution by itself – advocates for free love and hedonism were who was behind “sexual freedom”. For some also, sex sells, and consequence-reduced sex sells more – especially when driven to break down traditional morality. Oh, and there were people who did agitate and try to tear down the nation as well (there are plenty more, I just link to some usual suspects here). And some who were professionals did the same:
That moral upheaval led to the rise of the Moral Majority-style evangelicals. Well, that and TV allowing evangelists to spread their message and expand their pool of donations.
This was hardly the first time politics was overtaken by morality. One has only to think of abolition and Prohibition. The difference this time was that as politics were being moralized and polarized, our morals were also being politicized and polarized. The two moral systems that had so long coexisted suddenly became mutually exclusive, oppositional and finally inseparable from the two regnant political ideologies.
Abolition was the continuation of original founding principles. All men are created equal, not all white male landowner upper-class English-blooded men (and men here means mankind). The 3/5ths Compromise was made specifically to limit the power of slave states, while still allowing the new nation to form – and eventually phase out slavery entirely. Prohibition was introduced by a moralizing big-government progressives. Small government doesn’t want to interfere with one’s life.
There were never two moral systems. There was one – that of classical liberalism. It was a rejection of monarchy, a rejection of divine right of kings, and the prime acknowledgement that all men are created equal. Classical liberalism (conservatism, also libertarianism) comes from ideas like John Locke asserting that a just government exists at the consent of the governed, not as a tool for a monarch or dictator to rule over the land. Progressives used to call themselves progressives – they stole the word liberal from the classic liberals, who are now called conservatives – who are trying to conserve classic liberalism (though some called conservatives are traditionalists of their own stripes). Reading older books like Hayek’s Road To Serfdom results in confusion when you see liberal=free markets and liberal =/= central planning and big government progressivism.
One can see this division in something as simple as the denigration of the term “liberal,” the “L” word, with its attendant idea that to be compassionate, caring and tolerant — virtues that had been celebrated, if only via lip service, by most Americans — is really to be mush-minded, weak and, more concretely, willing to give taxpayer largesse to the undeserving and lazy.
That’s because the Modern Liberal is mush-minded, weak, and steals from productive citizens at the point of government’s gun to give to the undeserving and lazy, all the while congratulating themselves for embracing compassion, care, and tolerance – none of which are virtues they believe in. The do believe in it, of course, when they’re pandering to those they give other people’s money to, and when they’re accusing those they steal from of being heartless.
It is easy to miss how significant a change this is. It transforms compassion, a bulwark in practically any moral system, into a negative force that undermines the good of individual initiative. Indeed, conservative ideologue Marvin Olasky wrote a book to this effect, pungently titled “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” in which he called for the privatization of all charitable efforts. It rapidly became a conservative touchstone.
Compassion isn’t a bulwark in any moral system of government. If a government rules by compassion, it rules by emotion, which leads to “who is the greater victim?” and “how do we force someone to give to that victim?” This leads to society based on the whim of whomever holds power. Also, privatized charitable efforts result in people who give freely, so those who give aren’t harmed, and those who get realize that they are existing on the largesse of those who give – and thus may have some pride in wanting to improve their own status. The leftist/modern liberal is interested in the recipient maintaining his victim status and blames the well-to-do, or even just the slightly-better-off – thus exalting the caregiver leftist and justifying the leftist stealing from the productive citizens’ childrens’ mouths.
By the same token, liberals have come to see the emphasis on the individual and self-reliance as a form of civic irresponsibility and selfishness — a way to justify rogue economic behavior and enrichment at the expense of the community. It was, incidentally, a charge adherents of the novelist Ayn Rand gladly invited because they believe selfishness is a tough, exalted form of morality. Thus were the moral sides drawn: soft-headed versus tough-minded, big-hearted versus stony-hearted.
That’s because the modern leftist rejects any individuality as a rejection of the collective. Rand’s extreme version of selfishness as a virtue is functional, if cold. But the coldly calculating individual who thinks of nothing but self-interest will still have self-interest in maintaining good relations with the rest of humanity, and must acknowledge that what John Donne said is true: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.” Howard Roark can’t build his buildings without Mike Donnigan (who I’d argue is almost the more important character – as he is realistic, rather than a character who exists as an ideal).
Big-hearted versus stony-hearted is another absurdity.
Big-hearted liberals inflate grades for students based on feelings, and leave the students at a disadvantage in the real world. Big-hearted liberals give handouts to people who need to develop self-sufficiency. Big-hearted liberals are terminal enablers of drug addicts, permanent welfare families, child-rapists, and baby-killers. Stony-hearted conservatives reject making people dependent, and reject those who aid criminals, and reject the wholesale termination of the young.
Perhaps it is as simple a matter as self-interest always overpowering communal interest when there isn’t some countervailing force like religion or civic shame to contain it, but by seeking to conflate morality and politics and by discrediting such things as civil rights law, healthcare reform and financial regulation — all fueled by a sense of fairness and compassion — the right has succeeded in making the moral verities of the Protestant ethic seem more moral than the verities of the Social Gospel. In effect, morality is now the preserve of the right.
Communal interest doesn’t exist. That is the interest of the planner. A community is made up of individuals. When an individual doesn’t find their interest represented by the “community” goals, why should they support it? Communal interest exists for the recruits who don’t want to push for Pyle’s Jelly Donut – and the reason they push is because of GySgt Hartman’s planner tyranny that subjects every individual to his violent authority.
The Social Gospel was a scam. It is basically William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War” – a way to justify subjecting the individual to the collective for The Greater Good. Of course, The Greater Good is decided by the planners and the community and more importantly, by those who control government and can use its force on the citizenry. James hates war, but loves the idea of moving people with the same speed and intensity – of forcing them to be martial at home. The reason the military is not a free society is because its function is to preserve a free society. An individual who values other individuals’ freedom enough to willingly fight for it does so at the temporary expense of his own freedom – but make no mistake – he fights for his own freedom as well.
Scarcely a generation ago, you wouldn’t have found many conservatives who would have sneered at compassion or tolerance or fundamental fairness, even if they disagreed with liberals on how these concepts might operate in the real world. Today, open contempt for these values is conservative boilerplate for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and even for the Republican Party itself, whose idea of cutting government is always cutting programs that help the weakest and least fortunate Americans and whose idea of compassion is caring about the tax burden of the wealthiest Americans.
“Compassion” to a leftist means a social justice program designed to take from one and give to another. “Tolerance” to a leftist means giving special priviledges to one group in order to “even out the playing field”. “Fundamental fairness” means equality of results and stifling equality of opportunity.
That open contempt for Glenn Beck ignores what he’s done for charity, and promoting flash mobs to “demonstrate goodness”. Heck, Limbaugh raised $2.1 million for charity by auctioning off a letter that was critical of him. Hannity, well… he openly says he raises money for charity, but really doesn’t provide much.
Cutting programs that “help” the weakest are cutting the programs that make them dependent. Cutting taxes for everyone means the poor have more wealth for themselves that they’ve earned, and the rich have more money to hire more poor, who then can become more wealthy. Cutting government reduces the oppressive tax on everyone’s back, but it does reduce the power of the big government progressive planner.
But it is to say that this moral reconfiguration has not only changed our politics and our perception of morality; it has changed us. If compassion is seen as softness, tolerance as a kind of promiscuity, community as a leech on individuals and fairness as another word for scheming, we are a harder nation than we used to be, and arguably a less moral one as well. In undergoing a revolution for the nation’s soul, we may have found ourselves losing it.
The left changed compassion to enabling weakness. The left’s tolerance is to support things that offend others and tell others they must embrace it – and misunderstands what tolerance means. Community is individuals. Community in the leftist mindset is a society of crabs in the bucket, lorded over by the leftist, who decides just how well off the community should be. Is it “fair” that one is better than another, whether due to circumstance, luck, or effort? The leftist-progressive says no.