A Subtle Moral Reworking

Liberals and Conservatives Converge in a New Struggle

They say opposites attract, but no one expected the unlikely love affair between Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel and Visiting Lecturer George F. Will which has captivated students in Government 1091. Lovers and students alike should take note: this is not merely the reasonable result of bringing together two famous thinkers whose philosophies have evolved past their now outmoded political reputations.

There is a far greater significance to the surprising leftist-rightist handshake which has lingered and become a slow dance, even as Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53 looks on in silent disapproval like a curmudgeon civics teacher drafted to chaperone the junior prom. It is a portent of the future. And anyone who is frightened by the religious right had better pay attention to it.

It is not uncommon for students of history, as all thinking persons are to some extent, to forget that it won't be too long before our today is also history. And since history is a continuously unfolding process, it follows that what will be identified as the causes of tomorrow's effects are already in motion around us.

I would like to suggest that America is now in a period of dramatic transition, for there is overwhelming evidence that our present era is exhausted. This era has been characterized by the partially successful attempt at a liberal, amoral society where government strives to be neutral to specific virtues; in which pop psychology has advocated I'm Okay, You're Okay with its emphasis on tolerance and individual expression instead of virtue and responsibility.

The downside to this shedding of specific values is concisely identified by Andrew Delbanco in his new book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil: "Americans once believed in God and in Satan; they were known to be obsessed with sin, and they pictured their own history as an epic struggle with evil. Today, however, while the repertoire of evil seems never to have been richer, as we daily encounter (and even relish) images of unimaginable horror, our grasp on the reality of evil nonetheless seems week and uncertain, our responses to it flustered and sometimes indifferent."


The positive energies of our liberal era are spent, and the problems resulting from this will lead directly to the politics of tomorrow. What is coming, wedded to the birth of the next millenium, is a moral revolution.

This rebirth in morality will replace the politics of this century, which are already winding down around us. The great ideological struggle between individual freedom and communism is over. Paralleling this domestically, the great social movements of the century are equally worn out: notably the great civil rights and feminist movements, which lost much of their moral force as a result of their own successes in the 1960s.

After equal rights legislation, the movements' raisons d'ltre were spent and, for reasons of power instead of justice, they have turned their focus onto their current, far more cynical agenda. Subsequently, their moral authority has mostly disintegrated. And dominating every facet of '90s-style American politics is an across-the-boards cynicism about government exhibited by citizens regardless of party affiliation.

It is not surprising that this evidence of our period's effeteness is also pervasive in the world of art, since art and politics are both but facets on the same cultural jewel. 1990s-style art finds its most visible example in the overexposed Pulp Fiction. This highly successful film is appropriate here not just because of its thematic moral nihilism, but even more importantly for its subtle display of the bankruptcy of our era. It is simply this: Pulp Fiction, entertaining as it is, contains very little that is actually new. In fact, one of the most important reasons that the movie is considered so avant-garde is because it embraces "borrowing" from previous films in such an overt way. The image of Quentin Tarantino working in a video rental store, watching countless movies and storing up scenes to be replayed in his own movies some day has enchanted pop consciousness. Tarantino even plagiarises himself in one scene--a car trunk shot lifted directly from Reservoir Dogs.

This is the artistic spirit in which we are living creativity is impossible, everything that could be newly thought of has been already, so all that is left is to re-arrange existing pieces in new ways.

This post-creativity view dominates nearly everything: film; music (from rap, with its "samples," to modern "serious" music--now lacking melody, harmony and any recognizable patterns, each composer racing to "create" a new sound before everything possible was exhausted); poetry (stripped of all structure now for the same reason); literature (deconstructed and politicized until no aesthetic life of any value remains); and so on. Our age is truly impotent; such a weak state of affairs cannot hold.

Well, art can take care of itself. Three thousand years ago Solomon wrote: "What has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been, in the ages before us." And thus he established a long and distinguished line of wrong, End of History-type pescimists who end up looking rather silly. One can safely assume that the doomsayers who make excuses for their own lack of creative genius by declaring an end to newness will be swept aside before long without our help. The effeteness of politics, however, is quite another issue.

Will and Sandel, perhaps America's foremost conservative and liberal philosophers, stand hand-in-hand in the belief that America must head into a time of a new republicanism, in which the government will abandon its value-neutral pretenses and actively seek to mold citizens to embody certain virtues so that they will be better equipped to share in self-government. Their contention is that confining politics solely to the economic distribution debate between libertarians and egalitarians is no longer appropriate. The new "statescraft as soulcraft" (to use Will's term) may well be inevitable, and it is not the purpose of this essay to debate the pros and cons of such a return to formative politics (it's taking a whole term to even frame the debate in Government 1091 and would be impossible here). The real question is whose morality will be instilled into us, should such a moral revolution come to pass?

The seeds of tomorrow's harvest are already planted. Groups with foresight which position themselves today to take advantage of the coming changes are the ones who will win the moral battles, should they come to be fought. And the most powerful of those groups is, of course, the right, religious and otherwise. Dan Quayle may have been ridiculed for bringing family values into the forum just a few years ago, but today he has been vindicated ("Dan Quayle Was Right" read the famous Atlantic Monthly cover).

Newt Gingrich, perhaps the most visionary of all prominent politicians (a truism no matter how one might feel about his particular politics), makes headlines by bashing TV talk shows for destroying the moral fabric of America while Bob Dole cashes in with a calculated and highly successful attack on Hollywood. Bill Bennet, the conservative author of The Book of Virtues recently observed that Colin Powell would be a good president for America, not because his views coincide with Bennett's (they don't), but because he more than any other candidate would be able to make use of the bully pulpit of the presidency in order to foster a renewel of American morality. It's truly not the economy anymore, stupid.

But old-time political liberals and the rapidly shrinking ranks of prominent Democrats are, for the most part, refusing to acknowlege this growing shift. They have assumed the role of reactionaries, taking pot shots at what right-wingers are saying but offering little comparable contributions to the new moral forum.

If Harvard's most-gossiped about couple is right and change is coming in the form of a new moralism in this nation, the leadership of half of the American political spectrum is surrendering the fight to define those morals before it has barely begun. This should be an unnerving thought to those of us who fear the intentions of the religious right should these troubled years indeed give way to a formative revolution.