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.

Kinsley opens:

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.

13 thoughts on “Values”

  1. “… to significantly large portions of the left, those values are what must be rejected – wholesale – in order to establish a desirable society.”

    That’s certainly true, but this analysis gives Kinsley too much credit. His understanding of “values” is too shallow to hold any such ambition. I found more profound stuff in the LA Times pop-up ads. But he does manage to summarize most of the Beltway Liberal fecklessness that has turned Democratic strategy into a kind of superstitious betting system, where you come up with elaborate ways to guess the Powerball number.

    He doesn’t understand values as anything but political issues, for starters. God forbid anything should transcend politics. God forbid Republicans and Democrats should have any values in common. Since Democrats like Kinsley can’t make political sense out of values, it follows that “values” are nothing but cheap propaganda ploys, at which Republicans naturally excel. (Assumptions: Republicans have God-like Orwellian abilities, or Americans are zipperheads, or both. Probably both.)

    He also displays the instinctive Belt-Lib tendency to look on values as having no positive function other than to serve as Republican political liabilities. Their only useful function is to fuel self-gratifying Democratic cries of “Hypocrisy!”

    By which the Belt-Lib advises the public that “values” are a joke, and that no intelligent person really believes in them – not even Republicans. The great advantage of Democrats (they believe) is that they don’t have to pretend that they have any values outside of politics. Kinsley doesn’t understand why the public isn’t getting this message; but in fact they are getting it, loud and clear.

  2. The problem for many is that values are “frameworks”, as opposed to policies. They are more like articles in the Constitution than they are like particular laws. But if you demand to be free of frameworks (one of the requirements of postmodern types), you are basically declaring that you are valueless. So, you end up going down the path of thinking this and that policy is a “value” because you feel it is “important”. The problem is that policies are derived from values – they aren’t values in and of themselves.

    When people say that “values” matter, they are looking at the core principles that politicians use to create policies (or other things like picking judges, etc), not questing about for who has the best laundry-list of policies to do.

  3. Bill Bennett distinguishes between values and virtues. If I have his notion accurately (a questionable assumption…) people may “value” things or ideas that are not “virtues” and may profess admiration for “virtues” that they do not establish as priorities in their life — that is, do not “value”. So we may admire marital fidelity as a virtue but neither demand nor expect it of our politicians, whom we value for their ability to triangulate or to empathize with our problems. And we may value and strive to win for our side the goal of political office, but we do not consider such effort particularly ennobling, honorable or virtuous.

  4. Kinsely reminds me of an interview between an American and an Israeli which I heard pre-9/11. The American kept asking what Yassir Araft could say to prove himself a reliable partner for peace. The Israeli kept saying he had to stop terrorist attacks.

    The American just could not understand that something more important than verbal PR tricks was involved.

    Kinsely is just another in a long, long line of left- and right-wing folks who are so deeply into shallow verbal tricks that they’ve lost sight of reality (e.g. real detonations, real values, etc.)

  5. I can’t speak for any other voter, but I have values. Some of them I might share with right wingers, some I don’t. Yet the only people who accuse me of having no values at all are the right wingers, usually when they’re declaring with a supercilious air that their values are universal.

  6. his attitudes are fairly mainstream within the group that _shares_ my political values and goals

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    I. Montoya

  7. Matt, you should read Glen’s blog! He is always uniformly excellent! Find him off the Blogkids sidebar.
    Now that I am back from my depraved, hedonistic ski-week in Steamboat, I plan to comment there every day! Heads up, Glen! ;P
    Unfortunately i cannot argue with him much, since we are isomorphic in our views. :(

  8. Not sure if I can get this across due to my limitations with the English language. So here goes my feeble attempt at explaining what I see the issue to be.

    At first I thought it was just me. Now I’m not so sure since a few people have really hit on the issue concerning values. Seems to me “Pouncer”: and “Richard Heddleson”: have hit the nail on the head.

    Sorry A.L. but your reference to “Jumpers” and the scene you portray denote morals and morality not values. To me at least this is where the misconceptions begin.

    Maybe it’s just me but for some reason I tend to think people have this conception that “morals”: equates to “values”: by the way they use these words when they write or speak. Although the two are generally intertwined they do not mean one and the same thing.

    For example the value of one’s word is only as good as one’s morals. Value is tangible in the sense that one may lie or even tell the truth for a specific gain. Morality is doing the right thing. When it is right to tell a lie and when it isn’t is based on a sense of morality. That moral being right versus wrong. The morality remains intangible. Another example would be I value a good reputation. It is my morality or morals that attains what I consider a good reputation.

    Is poverty a moral issue? Not in my book. Poverty is a state of existence. Is the elimination of poverty the moral thing to do? That all depends on how one views and defines poverty. I may look upon a monk as being impoverished but the monk certainly doesn’t view his life in that fashion.

  9. USMC has a point. Kinsley isnt actually saying screw values, he is saying screw _your_ values. I think there is a valuable point here. The far left has lost the meaning of the word values. Instead of ‘that which I hold to be important as a humanist’, the word has come to mean ‘that which my ideological opponents claim god has decreed and wish to inflict upon me’.
    Kinsley indicates that the things conservatives believe are mere ‘values’ while what he believes is simple common sense. That is, of course, both arrogant and absurd. Believing the environment is important and should be protected for its own sake is a value. Believing in redistributing wealth is a value. Believing everyone should be educated is a value. Whether passed down by God, Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, or just common sense, none of these things are universally proven to be anything but opinions on how society should be run, based on a particular desired outcome.
    Kinsley and his ilk sense this, but it is too much for them to accept that the majority of the country knows it also and simply rejects their worldview. The biggest problem with liberalism in America today isnt that they have a (barely) minority problem. Its that the more people learn and hear about their beliefs and reasoning, the smaller their party becomes with no end in sight. Republicans lie about all kinds of things, but rarely their actual beliefs. Liberals lie and obscure what they really believe and intend for America all the time (how many Dem politicians are openly advocating government run healthcare? or wealth transfers via tax?). That should tell them something.

  10. 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.

    Indeed? And how much ink has already been spilt by liberal pundits scorning Bush voters for choosing values over economic self-interest?

  11. _Republicans lie about all kinds of things, but rarely their actual beliefs._

    If lying is a value, the Liberal are truly confused.

    When confronted with actual lying in the Clinton Administration, it is downplayed as a minor event. When Bush was provided wrong intelligence data as the rationale for War Against Iraq, he was accused of lying and misleading the nation.

    Certainly the Liberal intellectuals would know a true lie, but they chose to slander.

    Liberals, in the end, value political power at the cost of political fair play, truth, and a good argument, which by the way was on the side of the Democrats. (Bush was clearly vulnerable.)

    Liberals lost the election because they lost the public on what they stood for, which was clearly nothing…. not morality, not values, not right and wrong.

    Besides, the Iraq War was the right moral thing to do, but the Democrats was bogged down in competence and the mechanics of war, which was contrary to the morality of supporting the troops and the Commander in Chief. Liberals could have won this issue by believing in the mission and offering more support of the troops. They appeared to embolden our enemies.

    Take a stand you cowards.

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