Making Virtue Superfluous

Monday, 01-25-2021

 

The political theorist Leo Strauss considered it a principle of modern social order that the lower foundation is stronger than the higher one:  That the republic is better grounded on selfishness than on virtue.  Actually the principle has been around for much longer than that.  Be that as it may, we ought to consider whether it is true, for our own foundation is very low indeed.

I trust no one will be surprised by this statement.  There is no need to belabor the statistics on spousal betrayal, parental abandonment, pederastic seduction by ministers of religion, or the willingness of ordinary people to lie and cheat; we have read them.  It would be fatuous to relate copious anecdotes of private vice; we have heard them.  As should have been expected, our public life is no more edifying than our private.  Long strides have been taken toward criminalizing policy disagreements.  The use of private detectives, now even police and intelligence agencies, to dig up dirt on opponents no longer surprises us.  Defamatory lying is so much the norm that the sharp term “character assassination” has lost its sting, and one can only wonder how much time will pass before its place is taken by real assassination.  The idea that law might not be “whatever judges say” is no longer even considered intelligible enough to be ridiculous.  Although a few political science majors may have heard the expression “rule of law,” scarcely one in fifty has a clear idea what it means.

The jaded response to such dark murmurings is that although all times think that old times were better, old times were really just the same.  True, some old times were much worse, and perhaps all old times were worse in some ways.  Even so, we could give those times a run for their money.  Part of our difficulty in seeing ourselves clearly is that we have lost the sense of what good times might be.  How could the times be so bad when our vices are so gentle, so nice?  We do not herd children off to gas chambers or expose them (very often) on street corners; we only authorize their mothers to kill them in neighborhood clinics.  We do not force slaves to disembowel each other in gladiatorial contests; we only buy our young electronic games so that they can become habituated to the lust of bloodshed without actually committing it.  We do not have a caste system; we only have hospital ethics boards to decide which lives are not worthy of life.

Another conventional response to such dark murmurings is what Eliot’s dead-on expression calls “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” We cheerfully call out the social engineers and assign them the task of making virtue superfluous.  This response has three parts.

The first part is to say that what matters is not character, but conduct; it doesn’t matter how sordid you are inwardly, so long as you behave.  We may retain the word “virtue,” but we reinterpret it to mean mere compliance with the rules.

The second part is to change the rules themselves.  In some domains, especially business, finance, and now health, the rules are made more stringent and complicated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if they are closely monitored and know exactly what is expected of them.  Oddly, in other domains, especially marriage, family, and sexuality, the rules are relaxed or eliminated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if there is not much to comply with anyway.

The third part is to compensate for the inevitable social consequences of the new regime.  Do businessmen break the rules?  Then make still more rules and step up the monitoring.  Do people have children out of wedlock?  Don’t expect chastity; give them birth control pills.  Do pills alter behavior so that even more children are born out of wedlock than before?  Don’t reconsider the previous decision; allow parents to kill some of them.  Are fathers abandoning the ones who survive?  Don’t compel them to live up to their responsibilities; put the mothers on the dole.  Considering what kinds of fathers and husbands such men make, mothers may even prefer such arrangements.  After all, once you have infantilized men, matriarchy looks pretty good.  Unfortunately, under such a regime the mothers too are infantilized, so matriarchy doesn’t work either.

I am merely illustrating.  The general principle is that the effort to compensate for the consequences of a regime in which virtue isn’t expected inevitably begets consequences of its own.  Eventually the regime collapses under the weight of its own supposed perfections.  The lower foundation is not stronger than the higher after all.

Instead of dismissing the dark murmurings, then, let us consider what might be needed to become, not compliant, but actually good.  Let us set aside foolish thoughts of making virtue superfluous, either among the rulers or the followers, and ask:  As a people, what must we do to become less remote from virtue than we are?

Related:

The Lower Is Not the More Solid

Politics of Virtues, Government of Knaves

What to Do While Trying Not to Overload the Camel

From the Menagerie of Rare Beasts: The Politics of  Virtues

 

 

My Last Election Post

Friday, 01-22-2021

 

The media and political classes treat it as almost treasonous, if not demented, not to believe that the allegations of massive anomalies and fraud in the recent election are “baseless” and “groundless.”  I think that these allegations have been insufficiently investigated, that the attempts to explain them away are pretty thin, and that profound reform is urgently necessary in our electoral laws and monitoring procedures.  The constant baiting and gaslighting from the other side are wearisome, and not good for the country.

However.

The crucial point about Mr. Biden's election has been obscured both by those who think he is the president because there wasn’t any fraud, and those who think he isn’t the president because there was.  Whether his election was marred by systematic fraud is a deeply important question, to be discussed seriously, not mocked, shut up, and dismissed.  But it is not the same question as whether he was elected.

Congress has the sole authority to certify the vote, and the vote was certified by Congress.  Rule of law is not violated by haste, poor judgment, or insufficient debate, but by not following the law.

We do the republic no favors by imitating the behavior of those hysterical partisans who for the last four years called Mr. Trump’s presidency “illegitimate” and fancied themselves “the resistance.”  Doubts about the conduct of the election cast a pall over Mr. Biden's presidency, but they do not make him other than the president.

 

Where Will They Go?

Wednesday, 01-20-2021

 

Trump mobilized large numbers of people who thought they had been forgotten by our failed political classes, many of whom had never even voted before.  Unfortunately, he not only responded to their understandable grievances, but appealed too much to sheer anger, and he did not teach them the hard lessons about how a republic should work.  Now that he has failed them by destroying himself, thereby crowning the Left’s failed attempts to destroy him, where are all those people going to go?

The Left thinks that if only the resentment of these previously forgotten people is denied any outlet, they will disappear again.  I wonder.  People whose expectations have been aroused and then crushed do not easily go back to sleep.  The best hope for the republic is that calmer, more mature spokesmen for their legitimate concerns will emerge, statesmen who take them seriously instead of demonizing, patronizing, or placating them.  The alternative is unthinkable.

 

What Catholic Social Doctrine Isn’t

Monday, 01-18-2021

 

No, the Church is not opposed to capital punishment under all circumstances.  What it teaches is since today we have prisons, the instances in which capital punishment may be necessary are rare.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267).

No, the Church does not deny the possibility of a just war.  What it teaches is that countries should wage war reluctantly, and only for justice.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309)

No, the Church is not socialist.  What it teaches is that the institution of private property is justified because of its contribution to the common good.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2403.)

Here is a test for Catholic social activists:  How well do you know, and how seriously do you take, the principle of subsidiarity?  Most haven’t heard of it.

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.  For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”  (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno)

 

Impeaching Everyone

Tuesday, 01-12-2021

 

There have always been occasional demands for recount, but there has been a sea change.  Ever since Bush vs. Gore, it has been routine Democratic practice to challenge the legitimacy of every electoral defeat (and after Trump it may become routine for Republicans too).

Expect another sea change.  Future chroniclers will say that with Clinton vs. Trump, it became routine Democratic practice to attempt the impeachment of every victorious opponent (and before long Republicans will probably imitate this move too, if only in self-defense).

There may be a third.  We have already seen the perversion of the machinery of justice to attempt the legal assassination of political opponents.  Let’s see whether that becomes customary too.  And let’s hope it doesn’t ripen into physical assassination.

The danger of such changes can hardly be exaggerated.  Republics can survive a certain amount of fraud.  No republic can survive the widespread conviction of its own illegitimacy.

 

Defunding the Thought Police, One School at a Time

Monday, 01-11-2021

 

Backstory:

As part of the settlement of a case filed by the nonprofit group Speech First, the University of Texas has agreed to dismantle the oppressive “Campus Climate Response Team,” which, among other things, encouraged students to inform on teachers and on other students who expressed opinions that offended them.  Afterward, Texas Governor Greg Abbot tweeted that “Political correctness is being ended at the University of Texas at Austin.  UT agreed to disband its absurd PC police and end policies that suppress speech on campus.”  That’s a little too optimistic, but even so this is very good news.  Apparently it has gone international; read on.

From a highly informed reader in the People’s Republic of China:

Dear Professor, Happy New Year!  Greg Abbott said that political correctness was being ended at UT.  It reminds me that you ironized the PC placard in your blog post at spring 2018.  Could you permit me translate this article and post on my social media?  God bless you, God bless America.

My reply:

I would be very glad for you to translate the article and post it in your social media.  In my country, we have a saying:  “You like to live dangerously.”  God bless you, your family, and all the Chinese people.

+++++++  +  +++++++

Since it’s still relevant, here’s the blog post my reader translated:

Doubleplusgood Ducktalkers

In the Year of Our Lord nineteen-seventy, I graduated from high school and matriculated in paradise.

Or so it seemed for a while, because every second person at my university fancied himself a socialist, just like me.

Maybe not just like me.  It was confusing, because there seemed to be so many different kinds of socialists:  The SWP, the IS, the YPSL, the SDS, even a few sure-enough Maoists, peddling their newspapers and trying to look like industrial workers.

Each kind of radicalism had its own buttons.  That was confusing too.  One popular button demanded “Free Huey.”  What was Huey?  Was it slang for marijuana, like “Mary Jane”?  I’d met some people at an antiwar march who thought the government should provide free marijuana.  It took a long time to figure out that Huey was a who, not a what.

In fact it was difficult to get people to explain anything.  I tried asking a fellow in my dormitory who was sporting an IS button how the beliefs of his International Socialists were different from those of all the other organizations.  He didn’t understand me.  I rephrased the question.  He still didn’t.  I tried again.  A light came into his eyes.  Faster than I could take them in, he shot off three or four slogans, like bullets.

The only one I still remember is “All power to the people’s soviets.”

Never mind that there weren’t any people’s soviets.

It was heresy, I know, but I couldn’t help thinking of Party members using Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984.  Newspeak, you remember, was a compressed version of English, developed by the State to make critical thought impossible.  In the Orwellian world, people who could chatter it swiftly and proficiently were called “doubleplusgood ducktalkers” because they sounded like more like ducks than like people.

I thought of that fellow again the other day as I was talking a walk through my neighborhood.  Buttons are out among students, but yard signs are in among hipsters.  This one has been sprouting like mushrooms:

IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS

NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL

SCIENCE IS REAL

LOVE IS LOVE

KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING

Having matriculated, as I said, in the Newspeak world, I humbly attempt to translate these sentiments into English.

Black lives matter.  What this doesn’t mean:  That black lives matter.  Of course they do.  What it does mean:  That if you don’t think rioting is a good way to protect black lives, you’re a racist who thinks they don’t matter.

Women’s rights are human rights.  What this doesn’t mean:  That women are human.  Of course they are.  What it does mean:  That unborn children aren’t, and if you think they are, you must think women aren’t.

No human is illegal.  What this doesn’t mean:  That it should never be illegal to exist.  Of course it shouldn’t.  What it does mean:  That if you think any form of border control is allowable, your view is tantamount to genocide.

Science is real.  What this doesn’t mean:  That well-conducted science can discover some things about the real world.  Of course it can.  What it does mean:  That ideologically influenced science should be accepted without question, so if you ask for better evidence, you’re opposing science itself.

Love is love.  What this doesn’t mean:  That love should be respected.  Of course it should.  What it does mean:  Everything motivated by sex is good, and if you have any reservations about that, you’re against love.

Kindness is everything.  What this doesn’t mean:  That we ought to practice the virtue of kindness.  What it does mean:  That if you don’t agree with all of the preceding slogans, you must be full of hate.

 

There Are No Good Riots

Thursday, 01-07-2021

 

After six months promoting the Myth of the Good Riot, today the Left is scandalized that violence might be used to promote a political cause.

For half a year Progressives have praised, egged on, donated money to, and made excuses for far left hooligans, anarchists, and con men who trash businesses, destroy historical monuments, seize entire downtown districts, fight policemen, burn down police stations, threaten bystanders with automatic weapons, and even prevent the movement of ambulances to help the stricken.  All their harsh words have been saved for the other side – those racist bigots.  Now they are shocked that some of their far-right cousins have taken a page from the same bloodstained book.

What did they expect?

Yesterday’s violence in the Capitol appalls every decent person.  The violence in hundreds of cities over these months past also appalled every decent person.  Whoever was not appalled then, whoever is not appalled now, is not decent.  Harsh and unequivocal condemnation, swift and severe punishment, should be meted out to perpetrators of mayhem whatever their ideology, however they may wrap their rampages in the garments of justice.

There are no good riots.  There are no virtuous mobs.