LA Times editor Michael Kinsley tees off on values in Sunday’s Opinion section. “To Hell With Values,” he titles his column.
Boy, there is just so much wrong with this column that I hardly know where to begin. But since I’ve been dinking around with a piece on values, and he’s offered me a neat entree, I ought to be grateful.
But I’m not. I’m actually depressed, because I do believe that his attitudes are fairly mainstream within the group that shares my political values and goals, and that because of them, we’ll wind up both doing badly (as in getting our asses kicked) and doing bad (as in doing things that don’t meet our real goals).I’m going to cover ground in a blog post that ought to be covered in books by people more knowledgeable than me, so I’ll ask forgiveness in advance for providing a sketch rather than a full picture.
It’s been less than a month since the gods decreed that, due to the election results, American political life henceforth must be all about something called “values.” And I gave it my best. Honest. But I’m sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as “values.” News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now, the tale of Bill O’Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.
Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct just because it gets labeled as a “value”? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a “value,” while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones barely qualifies as an opinion.
To him, there is no difference between the positions that one side holds – and calls ‘values’ and the positions that the other side holds. In fact, they are both values. But what’s happened is that one side – mine, and ostensibly his – has lost the ability to articulate it’s positions in terms of American values. And, unsurprisingly, it finds the American electorate is relatively uninterested in those positions.
To me, the issue isn’t only the positions – the content of our policies, but the ways that we articulate them. And I’m not talking about corny linguistics games like Lakoff’s. I’m talking about the context in which policies are places, and the ways in which we try and adjudicate conflicting principles.
The civil-rights movement won in large part because it tied it’s policy goals – voter rights, school integration – to the broader context of American values which were widely accepted. Liberty. Fairness. Equality. Justice.
Looking at America in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s it was fairly obvious that the gross injustices faced by African-Americans fell outside the boundaries of the ‘norm’ of American values as they had come to exist at that point in history.
Today, the left can’t talk in terms of American values, because to significantly large portions of the left, those values are what must be rejected – wholesale – in order to establish a desirable society.
That’s the deliberate result of a long effort to cut ourselves adrift from our own American history – re-imagined by those who are doing the cutting loose as an endlessly sordid, corrupt, and brutal chain of exploitation, misery, and waste.
I detest those who make the political into the psychological. But somehow I find myself unavoidably drawn to this rejection of our heritage as a political version of the adolescent’s rejection of their parents. They are tragically uncool, embarrassing in almost every way, and – other than enjoying the material benefits of our relation to them – we didn’t possibly see what we might get from them.
Similarly, what could a bunch of ‘dead white men’ tell us about ourselves in our imagined post-modern, pansexual, multi-racial universal-value driven present? What does the past offer us? How do we deal with the comfort, freedom, and prosperity that we have been handed unearned?
I think the play ‘Jumpers’ is an excellent primer on the state of moral discourse in a society struggling with those questions. I earlier quoted a long monologue from it, and want to pull some more snippets out and pass them around.
The hero of the play, George Moore (yes, I know who the real George Moore is), is a professor of moral philosophy at a university in the UK. Archie, the head of his department, is a functionary in the Radical Liberal party, an analytic philosopher, and apparently the lover of George’s wife, Dotty.
Archie is the head of a group of gymnast-philosophers known as the ‘Jumpers,’ one of whom is shot in the opening of the play. But while that’s the plot hinge, it’s not the largest event in the play.
The largest event in the play happens offstage – or rather onstage in a television broadcast from the Moon – where the UK has landed it’s first spaceship.
TV VOICE: – in a tight spot. And so in the crippled space capsule, Captain Scott is on his way back to earth, the first Englishman to reach the moon, but his triumph will be overshadowed by the memory of Astronaut Oates, a tiny receding figure waving forlornly from the featureless wastes of the lunar landscape.
DOTTY changes the channel. The Moon Programme again.)
– which followed the discovery that the damage on impact had severely reduced the thrust of the rockets that are fired for take-off. Millions of viewers saw the astronauts struggling at the foot of the ladder until Oates was knocked to the ground by his commanding officer…Captain Scott has maintained radio silence since pulling up the ladder and closing the hatch with the remark, “I am going up now. I may be gone for some time.”
The neat inversion of the actions of the real Scott Party are funny, but extraordinarily painful if you let yourself dwell on it for a moment.
Commander Scott knocks his shipmate to the ground in the struggle to get onto the ladder, and leaves him behind to die. And the problem of course is, why shouldn’t he have?
Or, better, why in the world would someone sacrifice themselves, as Scott did? Or, to scale the issue to a more recognizable level, why should any of us sacrifice anything – comfort, pleasure, security – for anyone?
Why should anyone sacrifice or die for their country, their community, even their family?
Instead, why not feel as the Jefferson Airplane put it back when: “I’d rather have my country die for me.”
And the problem, of course is that membership in our community is conditioned, in come way, by one’s willingness to sacrifice for it.
In ‘Jumpers,’ it turns out that the dead philosopher/jumper was morose, and may have killed himself.
OFFICER CROUCH: Yes sir, it was a terrible thing, his death. Of course his whole life was going through a crisis, as he no doubt told you.
OFFICER CROUCH: It was the astronauts fighting on the Moon that finally turned him, sir. Henry, he said to me, Henry, I am giving philosophical respectability to a new pragmatism in public life, of which there have been many examples both here and on the moon. Duncan, I said, Duncan, don’t let it get you down, have another can of beer. But he kept harking back to the first Captain Oates, out there in the Antarctic wastes, sacrificing his life to give his companions a slim chance of survival…Henry, he said, what made him do it? – out of the tent and into the jaws of the blizzard…
To Kinsley again:
Values have a wonderful quality not shared by other political issues that are more reality-based, such as the war in Iraq or the growing national debt: They can be nearly cost-free. This is often true in the simple economic sense that practical problems cost money whereas spiritual problems, even if real, usually don’t. It’s also true in the political sense that value-based issues usually don’t require much of a trade-off on the part of voters. You can be as pro-family as you want, without concern that you’re giving up valuable anti-family values.
A country whose political dialogue is all about values is either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems. When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.
As long as Kinsley can only find his values there, he’s lost. I’m not prepared to lose, so in the next post I’ll try and talk about how to specifically tie progressive values to American values.