In the ‘seventies, when I was a welder, I didn’t see much overt racism, though no doubt there was much that I didn’t see. Of course there had been a great deal in the recent past, and various forms of discrimination continued. People were sensitive. Even so, blacks and whites worked together and had beers together. A few white guys kind of admired George Wallace, but what they liked about him wasn’t his old segregationist attitudes (which by then he was only a few years from repenting). Rather they laughed because he wanted to “throw the briefcases of the pointy headed intellectuals into the Potomac,” an attitude for which the black guys I knew had a good deal of sympathy. Whites and blacks where I worked talked about these things freely, with humor and without rancor. Perhaps, privately, some fellows might not have cared much for blacks, or cared much for whites, but most of them tried to be fair. They might not have wanted their sons to date each others’ daughters, and the reluctance was probably mutual. But at least on the surface, they treated each other pretty much the same.
Today, a half century later, my left wing academic colleagues are certain that working class people are racists, but would be shocked to be viewed as racists themselves. They are equally sure that the University is “systemically” racist, even though of course they, who run the system, couldn’t possibly be. By the way, they consider it racist to believe that persons of color are sufficiently talented and disciplined to succeed in school without special preferences. Very strange.
A reader responds:
I have read your latest blog post (“a conservative is someone who wants to censor obscenity but not opinion; a progressive is someone who wants to censor opinion but not obscenity”), and came to realize the following three things:
What profound truth is alleged to lie in obscenity, that it can transcend any type of censorship? If you have the time and the interest, could you please elaborate a bit?
Yes, it was something like a tweet! I don’t mind an aphorism now and then. It’s just that if tweeting is the dominant mode of discussion, it tends to coursen it.
With my own little aphorism I was merely making the point that although progressives claim to believe in liberty, actually they are opposed to liberty in the classical sense, because they are opposed to free discussion. Why then do they even think they believe in liberty? Because they have changed the meaning of liberty. For them, liberty no longer means self-government; rather it means something like the abandonment of any expectation that people will, or even can, govern themselves. Therefore they treat every sort of sexual behavior, depiction of sexual behavior, and sexual self-image to be – quoting Lawrence v. Texas -- of “transcendent dimensions.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, think that a republic (self-government in the political sense) and virtue (self-government in the personal sense) are both good, but that the former is impossible without the latter. We cannot collectively direct ourselves to the common good unless each of us tries to place his passions and appetites under the control of virtue.
A conservative is someone who wants to censor obscenity but not opinion. A progressive is someone who wants to censor opinion but not obscenity.
I overheard a bit of conversation last week.
One woman mentioned to another that a block from where she lived, on two consecutive days, a man was shot in the neck and a woman and child were taken hostage. “I’m very upset that the Austin city council voted to defund the police,” she said.
The other woman replied, “But we need to spend more on mental health!”
The second woman’s response contains at least seven fallacies.
1. That the only way to advance mental health is to cut the budget for police and police training. The alternatives are not mutually exclusive.
2. That one can, in fact, deal with mentally ill offenders without police support. Imagine an unarmed counselor trying to detain an armed and deranged person.
3. That most crime is due to poor mental health rather than vice. We have a curious reluctance these days to call vicious people wicked; instead we call them “sick.” But vice is a moral disorder, not a mental disorder, and most persons suffering from mental illness are not violent.
4. That violent persons who really are mentally deranged can be cured by hiring more counselors to talk with them on the fly. Although having more residential institutions might help, I don’t suppose the second woman was thinking of that, for in our day ideology dictates that disordered people must be “deinstitutionalized” and turned loose on the streets. If she was thinking of so-called halfway houses, I doubt that she knows much about how these dismal caves are run.
5. That what our governing classes mean by “mental health” actually has something to do with it. Bear in mind that in our generation, progressive political ideology brands faith as a mental disorder, but regards a variety of genuine derangements as personal choices or identities. A good case can be made that if government policy has any effect on mental health at all, it makes people crazier.
6. That the state should be the first-line defender of mental health. The second woman may have been thinking of subsidizing non-governmental institutions such as hospitals, but do we really want to compel them to follow the government’s conception of mental health? And please don’t suggest subsidizing churches.
7. And that public officials really are using the money that they cut from police budgets for authentic social services, rather than, say, an increase in funds to facilitate abortion, as in my own town. Never forget that the governing classes consider killing babies an element in social services.
You’ve heard the slogan: “Information wants to be free.” Not so long ago the internet was hailed as a way to break media monopolies, escape government censorship, and give total liberty to the expression of diverse ideas and arguments. In fact its results have been --
1. To trivialize communication (because complex arguments can’t be expressed briefly, as in tweets, and we lose the taste for serious thought);
2. To enrage it (because intense anger and contempt can be expressed briefly);
3. To degrade it (because whatever is honorable, pure, and lovely floats in a swamp of filth and sewage);
4. To radicalize it (because readers who encounter only items with which they already agree, rather than the mix presented by old-style media, are continually reinforced in their prejudgments);
5. To dominate and control it (because social media giants shut out or buy up competition, their search results strongly favor certain viewpoints over others, they censor posts by political criteria, they kowtow to authoritarian regimes to protect their market share, and they allow the systematic publication of the home addresses of those who hold unwoke views so that they and their families can be terrorized);
6. To excite it and direct the excitement (not so much because the internet facilitates the rapid spread of wild rumors, as it does, but because media czars crown themselves as sole arbiters and censors of what counts as wild rumor);
And finally, 7. to cripple the souls of the young, whose defenses against such dangers are very weak, whose character is increasingly shaped by the worst people rather than the best, and whose guides and elders, naïve about what is happening, are increasingly deprived of the means to protect them.
Consequently, the brave new technology that was supposed to let a hundred flowers bloom tramples the blossoms and threatens the green shoots with blight.
This is unlikely to go on just as it has.
On one hand, the moral character necessary to oppose it effectively is sapped and eroded by it. Which is part of the point. To make the population docile, the first step is not to spread fear, but to destroy virtue.
But on the other, the strong-arming of dissenting opinions has become so blatant that a great many people who previously didn’t know they were being manipulated know now. Not those who get all their information from NPR, of course. I mean people who still think.
If the attempt to trample the blossoms isn’t stopped, the trampled plants may soon discover that they can propagate themselves by exploding their seed pods. I take no pleasure in the thought.
"Why don't you call me?" The young have never communicated with their elders as much as their elders have wished that they would. Lately, though, the generational schism has widened. Oldsters who don’t keep up with the electronic fads of the young are excommunicated with a shrug.
“I keep up with my friends through Facebook, Ma."
"But son, I'm not on Facebook."
"Well, Ma, that's your decision."
Most of what passes for teaching professional ethics these days is really teaching about professional ethics. In other words, we don’t teach would-be professionals, say, that cheating is wrong; instead we teach theories about what makes wrong things wrong, supposing that there are any wrong things. This is called metaethics. Well, there is a place for metaethics too. But how is it usually taught?
Suppose we said that because in planning for the future, some people favor astrology, some throwing dice, and some the reading of entrails, we should therefore strike a “balance” among these three approaches. Foolish, you say? Maybe so, but that’s how metaethics courses are usually run. Dab-of-this, dab-of-that approaches are widely used in medical, business, and law schools, and sometimes even the military academies.
The way it typically works is that mutually irreconcilable concepts of ethics are mined for nice thoughts such as justice, beneficence, and autonomy. It would be one thing to say that justice, beneficence, and autonomy should always be observed, but instead they are supposed to be “balanced” against each other because they are interpreted as being in in conflict. We are told, for example, that beneficence may sometimes require injustice. “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” Oh, please. That is so last century.
This isn’t a theory, but a hodgepodge of theories. Because it doesn’t require consistency, it provides endless opportunity for evasion. If you don’t like what “value” A tells you to do about situation P, you can switch to “value” B. If you don’t like what “value” B tells you to do about situation Q, you can switch to “value” C. And if you don’t like what “value” C tells you to do about situation R – well, you can switch back to “value” A.
We used to call it being unprincipled. Now it’s a methodology.