Saturday, April 18, 2015

A softening in the moral sphere

Image of Louise Brooks as Lulu in the G.W. Pabst film of Die Büchse der Pandora (1929), from a time of moral softening, when a narcissistic and relativistic generation replaced the modest and self-sacrificing folks who brought us World War I. Or was that the 14th century? Who knows, I have a deadline.
Shorter David Brooks, "When Cultures Shift", New York Times, April 17 2015:
In the course of my research for THIS BOOK I'VE BEEN WRITING NOT THAT I CARE IF YOU LOOK AT IT OR ANYTHING BUT IT JUST CAME OUT I learned, surprisingly, that the 1960s actually started in the 1940s. That's just the kind of remarkable contrarian stuff that you can find out if you stick with me.
So everybody (i.e., Gertrude Himmelfarb), thinks everything went bad when all those hippies and their incense and love beads took over the English departments, but no, it got started on V-J day among the rioters in Times Square! And the publication of Rabbi Liebman's Peace of Mind.

I can go back as far as the 5th century B.C.E., when Confucius complained about how modern music from Zheng state (in what is now Henan), with its irregular meters, was debauched and lascivious, in comparison with the morally uplifting music of the old days of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 to 771), but I'm sure people who know Homer or the Bible better than I do can take it further than that. I'll bet ten thousand years ago the old guys in the tribe lamented how women no longer stayed in the cave waiting for their man to bring home some meat and instead hung out together outdoors gardening and up to who knows what decadent mischief ("Fucking Neolithics is what I call them, expecting you to eat their fucking vegetables! Our whole society is getting feminized!").

Every once in a while there might be a period in some place like the Victorian era in Britain and North America of such transcendent hypocrisy that many prominent people actually believed they were morally superior to their ancestors, harder-working and more restrained in their pleasures, but it is well known that they were lying, and idiots like Himmelfarb and Brooks who take their pious boasts seriously are simply wrong. I refuse to get sucked into Brooks's "argument" here about when all that narcissism got started, because it really doesn't have any content.

What I will say is that if you want to make use of the concept of the Zeitgeist of a given historical-geographical moment, you need to treat it properly, not in syllogistic but in dialectical terms, not as a unitary set of propositions but as a debate, and not a one-dimensional debate between progressive and conservative, forward and backward, but between different notions of progress and different ways of going forward. (This is the point I'm always trying to make about the Revolutionary founders of the US, that the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian factions were both revolutionary, fully broken with the old order, but opposed in their visions for the next phase. The conservatives were the Tories who moved to Canada, or concentrated on squeezing the war veterans as they rebuilt their greed-gained fortunes.)

What was going on in the US between around 1945 and 1963 was not what Brooks suggests, a simple "softening in the moral sphere" or one-way uniform devolution from Rabbi Liebman to Reverend Peale to Mr. Rogers. Just as important as establishment pronouncements from pulpit and lectern were the activities of a burgeoning counterculture from bebop to beat, where people were often just as interested in guiltless pleasure as the positive thinkers were but developing a stringent morality of their own from a furious critique of the consumer society, in which the greatest sin was selling out. (Conservatives, backed by the money and influence of that generation of Buckleys and Hunts and Kochs, were often able to obstruct change, not to propose any idea of change of their own, because they never had one.)

The counterculture of the later 1960s was very aware of this history too, reading Kerouac and Ginsburg and the Frankfurt school (Marcuse and Fromm) along with their Vonnegut and Roth. Brooks's idea of the continuity from 1945 to 1969 is perfectly familiar to anybody who was alive part of the time, but his idea that it had something to do with Norman Vincent Peale (who spent 50 years as pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where Roosevelts and Rockefellers worshiped) is somewhat off base. One way to become a hippie was to realize that Playboy (definitely a product of the positive-thinking culture) was another business, and trying way too hard to ever qualify as cool.

Brooks has that old Catholic-conservative tic, perhaps he got it from Mr. Buckley, of using the word "relativist" as a cuss, based on the idea that if you allow the possibility that somebody else's philosophy might work just as well as your own then you don't believe anything at all, and you have no real moral code. In fact any relativism worth adhering to takes its starting point from an idea Brooks claims to respect, humility: from recognizing that others may know better than me.

Brooks's idea of moral absolutism is purely theoretical—I'm sure he's not as judgmental in life, of self or others, as he seems to be on the page. He uses it as a rhetorical device for the construction of an oversimplified picture of cultural change, operating on a pendulum swinging between moral and immoral tout court, where moral is "modest and self-sacrificing" and immoral is "narcissistic and relativistic" and distrustful of "external constraints". Sometimes you get too moral, and it's good to pull back a bit for the sake of the oppressed, but then you get too immoral, and have to be scolded:
This more positive view of human nature produced some very good social benefits. For centuries people in certain groups in society had been taught to think too poorly of themselves. Many feminists and civil rights activists seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.

But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken.
Hey, formerly oppressed groups, don't you think those sights and aspirations are pointing a little too high?

That invocation of the "culture of meritocracy" as if it were an obviously bad thing may be the key: he's afraid we're moving toward a society where a shallow, narcissistic blowhard doesn't get a chance.

Also, Driftglass, especially for his take on the Johnny Unitas vs. Joe Namath paragraph (which he shows was done a lot better on The Simpsons). 

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