I WATCHED a passel a' Republican Reality Show last night, and, frankly, I'm not all that impressed with the field.
This was the first time I've (sorta) watched two of these things back-to-back (I mean ever, not just with this collection of oxygen bandits), and the striking feature, for me, was that none of these biting midges can sustain from one week to the next. Even Jon "The Normal One" Huntsman--and how disconcerting is it when the only two candidates who give the appearance, and probably only the appearance, of managing to keep one foot in or near the reality-based gravitational pull of the Earth are Mormons?--can't manage two straight episodes without turning up covered in cotton candy or fire ants; the Green Room must be fulla each. Romney? He gives a very good impression of a Second-Generation Legacy GM board member being forced to work two straight weeks without golf. He's been lying and pulling Jim Rockford 180ºs so long now he can barely keep anything straight, and the requirement that he express a robust opposition to whatever fucking insanity is popular with GOP voters (Executive orders? Germ theory of disease?) this week is beginning to tell on him. I'm sure he'll pull through, though; the man's a pro, and I mean that in the worst possible way.
Last week I almost wrote about how Huntsman and--surprise--Rick Fucking Santorum were the only two guys who belonged, marginally, in a House debate, let alone in a Presidential sweepstakes, but last night Santorum sounded like the guy reading Bible verses out loud while you're both waiting for the bus. There's Professor Gingrich, of course, whose early career was spent assessing just how transparent a liar and crook one could be without getting caught, provided one remained in Georgia ("Like Dan Burton, but 10% smarter and 20% more immoral," my friend Gary once said), and whose second act is designed to prove--probably unintentionally--that character does matter.
The performance of the front-runners last night was just depressing, and not the usual sort of God, This Is Gonna Hurt Republican depressing, either. How th' hell can a Republican of sensible mien sit through one of these things, or sit still just knowing they're out there? This is precisely what the Artificial Draft Mitch Daniels movement was all about, and we'll repeat: when you're reduced to tabbing Mitch Daniels as just the sort of man your party needs, you've taken a wrong turn somewhere, and it was at least a thousand miles ago.
Which brings us to David Brooks. Brooks has the built-in advantage that his vertiginous intellect allows him to merely allude to a certain dissatisfaction, a vague feeling that maybe a Republican or two has overstepped somewhere; this impresses the thinking classes no end, and grants him the freedom to go off on another of these Sociological experiments he enjoys having other people conduct for him. Turns out the durned Kids today are immoral and inarticulate:
During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.
Well, on the bright side, at least academics in the empirical, or "empirical", social sciences are finally beginning to pay attention to the college-age population.
Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.
In other words, it describes how people who aren't David Brooks fail to consider how David Brooks would have them act.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: 1) Do not operate toaster while it, or you, are immersed in water. 2) Bear in mind, whenever you're treated to the moral complaints of American "conservatives", that these same people thought 100,000 innocent Iraqis dying for the sin of being governed by Saddam Hussein, a man we helped them choose in the first place, was an acceptable moral calculus.
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
Or, put another way, it's the debauchery.
The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.
Okay, first, I'm guessing here that, despite the disclaimer, we're going to wind up blaming their moral sense, not their vocabulary. Second, isn't this pretty much then the finding of every similar study? Maybe the English department should be doing the research. Finally, we should urge caution here, if only because inarticulacy is the one trait young Americans share with the middle-aged and the elderly.
“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.
Confused, inarticulate and amoral young people! Things sure have changed since I was in school.
Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
Okay, so at this point could we ask for the precise date when Sociology solved this problem for all of Western civilization? Was it that day when every Protestant and Jew in Judeo-Christendom agreed that the Pope was infallible? I must've mislaid my notes.
Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Not to mention what it says about America's sociologists and punditasters. Our young people, it seems to me, have pretty well internalized the same unquestioning belief in the primacy of individual whim the Republican party touts as the solution to all our economic problems. But by all means, let's blame the schools for not eradicating the rabid consumerism every last non-comatose citizen is bombarded with forty-five times a minute.
Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them.
Resistance is Futile!
But their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture.
So does finding a hidden strength in the knowledge that Corporate America'll knock that immorality out of 'em soon enough. Or just re-channel it.
For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.
Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.
Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources.
Wow, thinkers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre and Allan Bloom, agreeing that America has failed to live up to the moral guidelines they'd set for it. And Gertrude Himmelfarb! Nearly spanning the complete spectrum of American "conservative" social moralist prescription.
In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.
Well, in fairness, a still-sizable portion of the population still comes by its morality the old fashioned way: from a talking tree, or the miraculous scorch pattern in a piece of toast.
Hey, Dave: Allan's no longer with us, but why don't you, and Bea, and Alasdair, and the rest, just get together this weekend and hash out the clear-cut moral code the rest of us are supposed to live by. And then why don't you all live by it for a week, and see who cries Uncle first?