The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.3 (Summer 2017)
Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown
Goodness, Weakness, and Evil in the Contemporary Community
John R. Harris
Basic moral reason will insist that no act has any moral value which is not freely chosen; yet evil agents in the contemporary community typically erode our freedom by arguing that certain “kinds” of person are incapable of surviving without paternal assistance.
The Moral Necessity of Freedom
Perhaps the most fundamental of moral truths, central to Stoicism and Eastern asceticism as well as Christianity, is that no moral action at all—good or bad—is possible without freedom. A free will is the pre-condition for choosing, regardless of the choice’s quality. If we are subjugated to material need or to dominating passions, then we cannot fairly be called the authors of our behavior.
Common sense acknowledges as much. None of us expects a child to display an adult’s level of moral responsibility, because the child lacks the adult’s degree of freedom. Having so little knowledge of practical consequences (e.g., of the hot stove’s effects upon touching fingers), children are largely at the mercy of an environment that they as yet scarcely understand. Even as their comprehension grows, they remain dependent upon adults to provide them with food, shelter, protection, and other necessities. They have too little understanding of their circumstances, then, and too little mastery over them to be considered morally accountable for many of their acts. They are not free to choose between Act A and Act B; they can only react impulsively to the present situation.
Sane adults of competent intelligence can also be reduced to a diminished moral capacity by being deprived of their independence. A sufferer whose medications induce sleep or confusion is not held to be a fully responsible moral agent. A deaf person cannot be faulted for ignoring a policeman’s shouted warning. People who have lost limbs yet train themselves to recover something akin to normal mobility earn our special admiration; and this is not properly a pity that we bestow upon them, but a genuine salute to their courage in working so hard to re-attain the whole person’s range of operations. Such extraordinary people have returned their scope of possible action—of moral behavior—to original levels when no one would begrudge their taking a pass, say, on helping an elderly woman carry her groceries.
Instructive, as well, is tracking the moral needle’s migration to the “culpable” polarity when an adult indisposition is somewhat voluntary. We do not view the drug addict’s servitude to a recreation-turned-nightmare with the same tolerance that we show to the person fighting a sleep disorder with various medications; and the idea that someone might choose to have an amputation just to enjoy the special treatment of an accident victim is so grotesque that it fills us with disgust and horror.
Our society (many of whose moral vectors are trending steadily downward) has increasingly countenanced membership in one of a select group of racial or ethnic minorities as a “moral qualifier”. That is, a member of some such minority might be viewed as lacking freedom of choice—as essentially occupying a child-like state—and hence excused from displaying adult levels of responsibility. A recently televised documentary revisiting the Rodney King outrage and the consequent riots in Los Angeles represented the homicidal behavior of certain black rioters as entirely permissible. The L.A. police having rendered these young men prisoners in a kind of concentration camp, they “had no choice” but to beat innocent bystanders and passing motorists in their rage.
One of this article’s primary targets is precisely the assumption that social or economic disadvantage can validly reduce one to the “pre-moral” status of a child or a slave. Selling this pernicious notion far and wide produces obvious benefits for those politicos who wish to subjugate a population; for a people that has accepted, and even embraced, its own subjugation will not resist the ascendency of a king to the throne, but will more likely bear him there on its amassed shoulders. Both for the state’s health and for that of their own souls, the people whose seduction is sought by such sophistry desperately need to understand the full consequences of resigning their moral independence. If a man cannot be held accountable for his acts because of his genetic code, then he must forever be incapable of virtue (manly or otherwise) and content himself, instead, with receiving the treatment of a stove-ignorant toddler or a crash victim who has suffered brain damage.
The Moral Injunction Against “Judgment”
At this point, let it stand that good behavior is the practical (i.e., observable) objective of virtue; and that, since freedom is required before any behavior whatever may be chosen, an adult’s expanding his or her range of choice to the maximum extent possible is a “good” abstracted from the quality any specific choice.
Of course, a paradoxical, perhaps somewhat perverse consequence of this “duty to prepare” is that the well-prepared are more culpable than the ill-prepared for committing the same fault. Spiritual leaders detected in extra-marital affairs are held in a contempt far surpassing what the average sinner draws for the same crime. Athletes who seem to have trained heroically to reach their peak of performance—and then are discovered to have supplemented their Spartan routine with forbidden drugs—are among the most reviled figures in popular culture. The member of a racial minority who has ignored society’s bigoted obstacles and made a success of himself, after the pattern of George Washington Carver, seems always to be derided (fairly or not) as an Uncle Tom whose laurels were bought and paid for by establishment propagandists. His accomplishments (claims the accusation) are a staged and highly promoted fraud.
And so for the rest of the “virtues”: no good deed, sayeth the wag, goes unpunished—except that, in these cases, the punishment follows upon a counterfeited good deed. The lesson seems to be, rather, that every human being whose behavior rises head and shoulders above the surrounding mass of sinners is himself walking upon concealed stilts of hypocrisy.
One might be forgiven, indeed, for opining like a Greek chorus that those who strive hardest to resist the snares of the flesh merely blunder into the more subtle snares of spiritual trespass: vanity, arrogance, delirious mysticism, and the rest.
And that point is well worth underscoring. It accounts for the injunction in the Gospels against judging, lest you be judged in return. Surely the idea here is that we all wage a constant war, from adolescence to the grave, against various kinds of dependency, and that none of us scores a decisive victory in this life. No two of us have the same fears, the same susceptibilities, and the same cognitive blind spots in just the same degree. None of us, therefore, can say of another that he isn’t fighting hard enough in the war. Rather, we must all exhort others around us to prevail in their close battles—as opposed to denouncing them for giving ground.
Again, our common obligation as human beings is to grow in will power—in our faculty of self-determination—and to diminish our dependency upon circumstance.
The Tree of Poisoned Fruit
Perhaps no principle of Christian practice has been more misconstrued—both innocently and with conscious desire to deceive—than the injunction against passing judgment upon others. Were one to suppose that this prohibition had been uttered in the most indiscriminate and facile manner, as it is so often interpreted, then Christ would flatly contradict himself at other points in the Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, for instance, the “Judge not lest ye be judged” passage is followed immediately by the warning, “Ye shall know the tree by its fruit.” Since the admonition’s obvious metaphor calls upon us to beware of desperate characters whose acts betray their perverse designs, the range of behavior which Christians are not to judge has suddenly shrunk by an indeterminate but sizable amount. How can it be that we are not to judge, and yet we are also not to let our guard down before the wicked?
To reiterate: what we should not judge is those among us who struggle with error and vice (a group eventually including us all) in a bid to liberate their behavior from powerful influences which their reflective mind—their moral reason—detests. We are to consider as a great ill any abject servitude of our will to impulsive forces that undermine its decisions, and to resist such servitude in all of its innumerable forms even though we cannot throw off every last chain in this life; and we are to encourage others in the struggle, and to take heart in our own struggle through their reciprocal encouragement.
It inescapably follows that those people among us (or in our midst, but not among us in any sense implying moral solidarity) who seek to wrap more chains around us by pandering to our carnal desires, our selfishness, our vanity, and our cowardice are the enemies of our growth as free beings willfully choosing service to a higher good. They are all too easy to spot, as “marketers” of an inferior option whose influence erodes our volition. They push mood-altering drugs. They peddle pornography and sex on demand. They offer us the ganglord’s feudal protection in relationships that often have a debased paternal quality to them (cf. the Spanish word patrón) implying our demotion to child status. In the contemporary political context, increasingly, they tempt some of us with free gifts pilfered from others of us on the basis of an ideology that presents recipients as needing or deserving to be supported because of their race or ethnicity: that is, they peddle a genetic determinism that “frees” us of having to labor by insisting that “our kind” will never be able to labor effectively.
Such are four of the poisoned fruits on trees that the person of judgment must avoid. Eating of any such apple will have much the same effect as the lotus did upon the crew of Odysseus: it will infuse the brain with an oblivious indifference to moral growth, to rationally directed purpose. Clearly, the last of these plants is the most toxic since its taste smacks of generosity and compassion. Is not the championing of injustice’s victims a moral act—and is not giving to the less fortunate, in any circumstances and for whatever reason, a worthy deed? If charity is a duty, then how can an uncharitable frame of mind be praised?
The Vital Distinction Between Charity and Enslavement
The testimonials collected in the Thirties (an initiative of FDR’s Works Progress Administration) from hundreds of black Americans born into slavery can be highly informative—a deeply disturbing—in this regard. More than a few of the octogenarian informants recalled that “things were better in slave days.” Obviously, these witnesses had been born into the households of relatively humane masters; but, in their personal experience, being supplied with free food, free clothing, free shelter, free medical care, and “free jobs” (in the sense that lay-off was never a concern) compared favorably with having to fight for a wage that might or might not have supplied an equal number and quality of necessities.
Charity is bestowed upon someone whom circumstances have so bullied, despite his or her best efforts, that basic needs cannot be met. It is a duty incumbent upon the more fortunate because refusing such generosity in a desire to keep more of one’s “loot” stashed away indicates an enslavement to loot—to material possessions. The charitable person recognizes that preserving another who shares in his humanity must claim his attention much more urgently than whatever regal new display he hopes to fund with his excess earnings. The charitable act does not seek bows of gratitude in return; on the contrary, it is a full flight from the humiliation that the giver would suffer in his own eyes if he were to surrender his feet to the shackles of acquisitive greed.
When does charity decay into a subjugation of the recipient? Answer: when it is awarded because the recipient is not a victim of temporary misfortune, but rather is identified as permanently needy because of the enduring circumstances of his physical nature. To dole out monthly payments to a dwarf, an Eskimo, a blind person, an albino, a redhead, and so forth would be to tell each recipient that he or she stands in permanent need of supplemental income because no amount of personal determination can overcome the destructive effects of being a dwarf or an Eskimo or a redhead. (And, in fact, people who can establish that their descent is one quarter Native American are eligible to receive monthly federal checks: the otherwise absurd list above is not entirely fanciful.)
At best, transmitting to people whose physique in somehow anomalous that they are doomed to incapacity in this world, no matter how hard they may fight against it, is thoughtless and demoralizing. Proponents of the “monthly check” approach often mean well; but their conduct tends to show too much of self-flattery and too little of genuine charity. Such falsely generous types, that is, are not so much fleeing the humiliation of being overly attached to worldly plunder as chasing the hollow glory of denouncing the world as less generous than they. Their hypocrisy is particularly evident when the checks draw upon public funds and not upon individual savings. It is always easy to play the generous benefactor with someone else’s money, as Machiavelli noted a long time ago.
The critical element missing in such conduct is the attention to the sufferer’s unique situation. A charitable act should help a struggling person through a hard time—not categorize the person as destined to struggle forever because of his DNA. In the latter case, even if the donor’s largesse proceeded from a private fortune, it would still be undermining the receiver’s sense of independence and competence to handle future challenges.
At worst (speaking of Machiavelli), “generous” donors who target certain minority groups for their “charity” are fully aware that they are creating a subservient population—and indeed are passing out their own (or someone else’s) wealth precisely to nourish that subservience. They are the politically ambitious who wish to buy a constituency in a democratic setting and then ride its shoulders to the highest levels of power, no doubt eager to dispense with periodic plebiscites if they should ever reach the summit. They represent the wickedest fruit of the wickedest tree: they are the Judases that subvert entire societies. Not to judge them, and to broadcast that judgment vocally, would be to remain a silent observer as an unsuspecting passer-by walks briskly toward a cobra.
The Contemporary Malaise: “Weaponized” Charity
Good people maximize the scope of their rational will over surrounding conditions, and they also assist others in doing so. They promote freedom, and they sound a responsible warning when someone’s free but misguided choice is likely to lead to subjugation (as when an acquaintance begins to dabble in an addictive drug). Weak people surrender their lives to forces that rule over them like tyrannical gods. Their acts are those of a marionette trapped in the strings of a puppeteer: no amount of individual will seems to be able to free them from the depersonalized caricature of being Asian or White Hispanic, Gay/Lesbian or Transgender, “emo/punk” or Geek, bipolar or ADHD, Trailer Trash or Caucasian Princess Identifying as Black Ho. (The sexual and psychological brackets have lately grown more popular, it seems, than the racial ones of the Seventies and Eighties.) They need permanent protection and special accommodation—sometimes equipped with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings”—because they just can’t seem to make it on their own. Though their strident and incessantly growing agendas always speak of progress, the horizon just as often recedes with every step: the golden tomorrow never comes, requiring more and ever more provision to be made for today—for they can scarcely exchange anyone’s casual glance without feeling threatened.
Wicked people turn good people to weaklings, and they exploit the weak shamelessly to secure more power. It is truly wicked to lead others, by design and with premeditation, to their own undoing—yet the political scene in the modern world (and we may probably extend “modern” even back beyond the end of World War II) is little more than a panorama of strategies for such subreption. No doubt, the Industrial Revolution rendered the infantilizing of the masses all but inevitable. The relative independence of agricultural existence was supplanted by the wage-dependency of urban life, where market fluctuations introduced further insecurity. (Even if you had a salary, you couldn’t be sure that it would buy apples next month… and there was no more apple tree growing beyond your window.) Protests over the so-called Enclosure, whose ills were well portrayed in Thomas More’s Utopia, have been audible for centuries.
What our own time has added of particular toxicity to the degeneration of freedom is not so much the public’s dependency on centralized authority for water distribution, police protection, and the rest (for such “public works” are at least as old as ancient Rome), but a high-tech co-opting of the mass mind into the collectivist project. Practically nobody alive in the Western world today (and indeed, the word “Western” might be reconsidered) has grown up without the content and tempo of his imaginative life’s having been dictated by television and the film industry. Now “social media” have accelerated the process exponentially. We depend upon a complex technological infrastructure, not just for our amusements, but for our most routine person-to-person communications. We cannot so much as think for ourselves, it seems, without the mediation of some impersonal service that churns out “thought options” on a kind of assembly line and the further mediation of other services that rush forward to provide delivery systems for expressing our “choice”.
In such a setting, I repeat, the emergence of unscrupulous political forces taking full advantage of the opportunities to manipulate seems inevitable. In the scramble for power, lines between Left and Right have blurred beyond recognition. Capitalism, promoted as rightwing, has sought to seduce ever more people into ever deeper dependencies upon ever more frivolous commodities. The resulting disparity of income and standard of living has inspired a leftwing courtship of the over-consuming, underpaid rank and file to permit Big Brother’s benign, high-minded intercession. Behind the scenes, the two wings invariably close the circle. A prime example is minimum wage laws, which force upstart businesses into bankruptcy to the delight of large corporations. Another is the collaboration of private energy companies in the immense “clean energy” boondoggle advertised as protecting the little guy from polluted water and nuclear meltdown. (An absurdly inefficient fleet of windmills continues to engulf our heartland, thanks to federal subsidies—and the “cancer villages” of China and the Third World are the source of the rare-earth elements covering our solar panels.)
The process of renewed tribalism and its multiplied dependencies even lures in those of conservative inclinations. Educated white males have for some time been seduced into self-identifying as Irish-Americans or Welsh-Americans or Polish-Americans (a temptation which drew this author into the study of Gaelic in his early twenties) rather than wear the universally loathed and plain-vanilla tag, “Anglo-Saxon”. Christians increasingly defend traditional positions on heterosexual marriage and abortion merely as part of their religion rather than as morally compelling stances, as if they adhered to an exotic cult needing access to X hundreds of black hens for sacrifice at every full moon. We all seem to be racing to embrace the circumstantial conditioning of our existence—to hem ourselves in with as many arbitrary strictures as possible. That way, we need not defend our actions with recourse to common sense and moral imperative: we need only say, “I can’t help myself—I’m bound by this peculiar demand of my heritage.”
Tribalism: The Delight of Evil Agents
Let us struggle to remember, then, that by sealing ourselves up hermetically within the arbitrary strictures of a group, we are doing the work of wicked people who wish us to think like slaves that we may be more easily exploited.
One critic says to us, “You bigot! Why would you refuse the sanction of marriage to people who wish to live a life slightly different from yours?” I believe we should avoid the shamefaced retreat of replying that our holy book locks us into a certain response. Rather, we should explain that marriage was not intended to celebrate pleasant sex: that friends may always be friends, and that marriage partners are ideally always friends—but that friends who have sex together do not automatically fulfill the conditions necessary for marriage; and that to expect the public to celebrate one’s personal choice in satisfying appetites rather than one’s resolution to confirm the community through creating a stable family indicates a disturbing degree of narcissism.
Another critic says, “Only a racist would deny needy people a chance at a better life just because they happen to have been born beyond our national border.” The proper answer is not that we, for our part, just happen to speak a different language and eat less spicy food, and that we therefore find the new ways uncomfortable. Rather, let us explain that admission to a new community must proceed with order so that deadly epidemics may not be ignited, deadly criminals may not be admitted along with the inoffensive, and the resources of the community may not be strained beyond the breaking point. (Translating all public documents, for instance, into another language turns out to involve enormous expense.)
It has always been a challenging duty for a civilized man to confine his sexual impulses within the context of marriage and family… but it remains a duty, and the heterosexually “active” must wage no fewer battles than the homosexually inclined. We can encourage each other to resist our dominating passions without being “bigots”. The wicked calculator, however, would have us represented as “homophobic” so that all sides in the controversy may be hazed farther from the forum of open, rational exchange and tighter within their circumstantially isolated circles. Once clustered into tribes, they—we—may readily be pitted against each other, and the devotion of one or another mass may easily be won by pandering concessions to an imaginary, stereotypical minority-member rather than by addressing perennial human concerns.
Human cultures have always clashed to some degree. They tend to enrich each other through artistic exchanges—but they tend also to resent and even war against each other when radically different religious practices (involving dress, marriage, child-rearing, hygiene, and so forth) collide. We are bound by moral duty to register a patient protest against cultures that, say, countenance human sacrifice, wife-beating, or the physical mutilation of children. This is not “ethnocentrism”. The wicked divider, however, would have us see all such resistance to utter relativism as cultural bigotry. We are “judging” others. He would have us not dare to voice any judgment whatever, knowing that we will truly either lose all sense of value and passively submit to a central authority’s moral prescriptions—or else that society will quietly shrink into balkanized pockets, where no public discussion takes place but where everyone observes particular “no-go areas” off limits to the wrong race or ethnicity. And this, too, will serve the divider’s purpose, since he will again have created the means of playing various tribal interests against each other.
He Who Would Be God
The good person does not judge, in the sense that he recognizes an obligation to view every individual as having potential access to growth—to God—through many invisible doors. The wicked person loves to see groups close doors around themselves, for he knows that they thereby become quite portable and manipulable; and his weapon of preference against others who appeal to their neighbors not to shut themselves in is “tolerance”. “How dare you criticize their unique ways? Don’t dare tell them that they cannot cut off hands… or marry their own daughters… or smoke a leaf that puts them in another world! Who are you to say? Thou hater! Thou bigot!”
For the divider—and here is the matter’s crux—would play God. He does not want us aspiring to higher ambitions that nestle within us as human beings moved by visions of fairness, mercy, courage, and sacrifice. He wants us accomplishing his own special designs. If we acknowledge as a human community no guiding set of general principles, then he may have his wish, sliding dependent constituencies about like pawns on a chessboard. He exudes the poison which paralyzes us from passing any judgment upon any human action or condition… and into that moral vacuum, he eagerly awaits the chance to impose his decrees from on high.
Dr. John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. He teaches English classes at the University of Texas at Tyler.