Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our Moral Elite

There are no witches, zombies, giants or gods, despite what we read in the Bible. There were no pagan gods. Athena, Zeus, Ishtar, Mithras and all the rest are fictional. There are no demons or angels, no gods or goddesses. Satan does not exist and does not tempt good people do bad things. A miasma of evil does not stalk the land, entering the hearts of the unaware and ungodly. There is only us and our physical world, which holds more than enough mystery and wonder, beauty and terror, to satisfy even the most spiritual and metaphysical of people.

The Devil does not persuade us to make the wrong choice. We are responsible for our own actions (within limits) and we make our own choices (consciously or unconsciously). When we deliberately choose to harm another person or let them be harmed by our inaction, we are not under supernatural attack. We make a bad choice, usually for selfish reasons. That choice might be small or large, casual or deliberate, reluctant or eager--but it is a choice and we make millions of them in our lifetimes. Very often we don't know the consequence of our choices but the consequences occur nonetheless, so we can only try to make the right choice, trusting that doing the right thing for the right reason will do no harm. We are small creatures who live only for an instant, and sometimes we must just trust ourselves and leave the rest to fate.

A person who trusts himself and tries to be true to himself has been taught that the pain of others is just as real and important as his own pain and therefore he has developed empathy. He has been given unconditional love and therefore he believes he has worth and is a good person. He wants to keep those extremely gratifying feelings of self-worth so he makes choices that will ensure he does not lose them. He does good because it makes him feel good.

It's difficult to control someone with a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It is difficult to play on his fears and weaknesses because does not try to hide from them, he accepts responsibility for making the right decision despite his fears and failings. He does not looking to anyone else for approval or instruction and he does not dismiss his own judgement when it is questioned. If he makes the wrong decision he faces the consequences of his actions and does not blame anyone else for his own choices.

It's not easy being anti-authoritarian but since obedience to authority leads to a lifetime of guilt, fear and confusion, it sure beats the alternative.

Case in point: Mr. Ross Douthat, spiritual and political advisor to the erudite masses.

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man. I believe Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the brilliant sportswriter who is working on a Paterno biography, when he writes that Paterno has “lived a profoundly decent life” and “improved the lives of countless people” with his efforts and example.

I also believe that most of the clerics who covered up abuse in my own Catholic Church were in many ways good men. Of course there were wicked ones as well — bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service. But there were more who had given their lives to their fellow believers, sacrificing the possibility of family and fortune in order to say Mass and hear confessions, to steward hospitals and charities, to visit the sick and comfort the dying.

They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.

We are only as good as the decisions we make but Douthat has a very different point of view. He believes we are either good people or bad people and that bad people do bad things because they are weak and know that they are bad. But good people are virtuous and heroic, and if they do a bad thing it is only because they were trying to hard to do good things. "Somehow" they ignored their inner goodness to make the wrong choices.

Douthat does not explain how this strange thing happened because it is impossible to reconcile a person of empathy and goodness with someone who will pass around a pedophile priest like an appetizer at a cocktail party. Someone hard and cold enough to ignore child rape makes decisions based on self-interest. To make others act in your self-interest and not their own you need power, and to maintain power you need an authoritarian hierarchies. And you need flunkies who will tell the masses that they have no power, they are bad and helpless and must be controlled.

The loathsome David Brooks is less overtly religious than Douthat but bases his decisions on the same type of belief system.

People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do.

David Brooks is very fond of telling people that they are bad. He tells us that self-esteem leads to vanity which leads to immorality which leads to sin. It is vain to think that you are a good person; you are bad and must be told what to think and do, according to the value system you are given by your elite.

As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
And yet despite the fact that the elite gave us moral systems to tell right and what is wrong and punished us when we disobeyed, people still did bad things--often while enforcing those very moral systems. Since one of the ways the elite maintain their power over people is through the enforcement of moral systems, they certainly are not going to tell everyone that the elite are at fault. No, it's the fault of the little people, who are vain and think they are so wonderful when David Brooks knows for a fact they are not.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Brooks depends on our ability to evade responsibility for our actions, which authoritarian followers hand over to the elite, and deceive ourselves when the elite tell us to commit immoral acts. He would be powerless without it, and he would be a much, much poorer man. So would Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle and all the rest of their wretched lot, and that is why our elite is currently telling us that we would never, ever make the obvious, moral decision when its consequences would threaten an established power structure.

23 comments:

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

There are no witches, zombies, giants or gods, despite what we read in the Bible.

Hey now.

DocAmazing said...

Douthat's not much of a Catholic; the argument that salvation proceeds from faith alone and not from works is pretty much pure Martin Luther.

KWillow said...

It's difficult to control someone with a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

So our clergy & elites tell us were All Sinners!

The Media tell us we're too Fat, too Dumb, too Poor, etc.

Clever Pseudonym said...

Douthat is an idiot. He really believes that covering up the heinous acts of pedophiles was to protect the Church's good deeds? What a load of bull. It was done to protect their public image and nothing more. Besides, what use are any of those good deeds when they come at the price of traumatizing children and knowingly arranging for them to never find justice? I was raised Catholic, and that somehow has not made it impossible for me to offer no excuses, no justification, and nothing short of complete and utter condemnation of the way that scandal was dealt with.

atat said...

This bit of insane reasoning just stopped me in my tracks:

"I also believe that most of the clerics who covered up abuse in my own Catholic Church were in many ways good men. Of course there were wicked ones as well — bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service."

So the bishops and priests who were "wicked" weren't wicked for covering up sexual abuse, they were wicked for being vain?

Susan of Texas said...

I guess they were wicked because they were vain--that is, they thought well of themselves instead of abasing themselves humbly before God.

So the priests and bishops who were not vain ignored the rapes and molestation in a good way--with humility. A humble Catholic priest admits he's a sinner because he didn't put God first, goes to confession, is forgiven, and then evidently is passed around to some other parish.

Public display of obedience to authority. Private disobedience that is ignored.

brad said...

I can't even see what his argument is here, ultimately. Bad things happen (x), and there are good people (y) and bad people (z). x + y = mistakes were made, they're still good people at heart. x + z = there's eeee-eeevil in the world, we need good people to stop it (unless they fail to, in which case see previous). Conclusion, ummmmmmm?
If that were a paper for an ethics class it would only pass because of grade inflation and the use of proper grammar and punctuation in a post-literate age.

Anatole David said...

Elite sociopaths(and their publicists) project their vileness on "the masses". It's a built in justification for exploiting those they deem "less deserving". Makes it easy for them to "not care about wealth inequality". Read any ante-bellum defense of slavery. You'll see the same bullshit used to legitimize Slavery as an institution "despite bad masters".

The elite's Heaven requires a well populated Hell on Earth. Douthat, Brooks, and McArdle write the elect's gospel.

Randroid Calvinism.

DFS said...

DocAmazing: Yeah, I thought the exact same thing. This is a weirdly Calvinist attitude to see coming from an alleged Catholic.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Brad-

As I see it, he's arguing that if a man meets some arbitrary standard of 'goodness' based on public piety or football, than he should get a mulligan, or several if necessary, on child-rape. or other heinous acts, I guess. I don't know what the over/under on number of child rapes would be for one of the 'good', as Ross doesn't get into that level of detail. I presume it is more than however many children Sandusky raped.

Does explain the RCC's attitude towards Hitler, though. They thought he was basically good.

Mr. Wonderful said...

To sum up: We are talking about one of the most vile crimes that exists--the brutalizing of the innocent and the defenseless. Compared to pedophile rape (i.e., brutalizing a child *simply for your own physical pleasure*), crimes against property are misdemeanors and even murder itself seems a little less dire. And what do Brooks and McMegan do?

They criticize THE READER. They say either, you're as potentially evil as the rapist or those who cover for him (Brooks), or you're no better than those who didn't do enough in response to the crime, and you'd probably do just as little (MM).

Brooks does it because he's taken as his bailiwick conservative apologetics via pop sociology: No injustice is so heinous, that it can't be mitigated by draining the personal responsibility from it via the catheter of pop science generalizations.

McMegan does it because her vanity is such that she thinks her "libertarian" standpoint means she has insight into the human condition--and (hilariously) she fancies herself a truth-teller, as befits a writer for the Atlantic, with its knee-jerk, tedious contrarianism.

Both end up where Susan identifies them: in defense of authority. As for Douthat, he's a young, milk-fed amateur intellectual striving to imitate a seasoned, existentially mature sage. How else to keep that cushy, lucrative Times gig?

He's like Emmet Tyrell pretending to be Mencken. It's the grad student equivalent of girls dressing in mommy's clothes and daubing themselves with makeup. He has no idea of evil apart from what he's read about. As others here note, he's not even an accurate Catholic. He's just a young fart imitating his (literal) elders and betters.

Ken Houghton said...

I think DocAmazing has it backwards.

"There were no pagan gods. Athena, Zeus, Ishtar, Mithras and all the rest are fictional."

I was going to claim that Ishtar is not fictional, but Netflix agrees with you.

Susan of Texas said...

Oh, look--Douthat wrote a book on religion.

"As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for The New York Times and the author of the critically acclaimed books Privilege and Grand New Party, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. Now he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.

In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, Douthat brilliantly charts traditional Christianity's decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a "vital center" and the moral force behind the Civil Rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s down to the polarizing debates of the present day. He argues that Christianity's place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: Debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Eat Pray Love, Joel Osteen to The Da Vinci Code, Oprah Winfrey to Sarah Palin, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel's mantra of "pray and grow rich"; a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach; and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country's ability to confront our most pressing challenges, and accelerated American decline.

His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity is sure to generate controversy, and it will be vital reading for all those concerned about the imperiled American future."

God forbid we should have self-esteem. Literally.

atat said...

"I don't know what the over/under on number of child rapes would be for one of the 'good'"

According to Douthat, it doesn't really matter if the number is 8 or 80, because whether one is a child rapist or not never enters into the equation when judging who is "good" and who is "wicked." You can rape all the kids you want if you're a good little servant (to God or the Catholic Church or whatever).

Batocchio said...

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

The competition is stiff, but that may be the the most disingenuous thing David Brooks has ever written.

fish said...

His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity

I suppose Indulgences would be useful nowadays.

Blotz said...

I'll reiterate what I said at Driftgass' blog.

This fuckstick douthat couldn't lift Joe Poznanski's pen.

Susan of Texas said...

Speaking of driftglass, he has a link to an article on Andrew Sullivan, in which Our American Hero devotes himself to a life-long battle for gay rights. It's kind of like a woman devoting herself to helping battered women while praising husbands who beat their wives. The same insecure vanity that drives him to fight for gay acceptance also drives him to support the wealthy elite.

You can take the boy out of the power structure but you can't take the power structure out of the boy.

Tommykey said...

Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation.

Really?

Anonymous said...

"The same insecure vanity that drives him to fight for gay acceptance also drives him to support the wealthy elite."

I think you mean the successful.

(and it's not even an adjective, no, it's a noun.)

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Ranging from Glenn Beck to Eat Pray Love, Joel Osteen to The Da Vinci Code, Oprah Winfrey to Sarah Palin, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel's mantra of "pray and grow rich"; a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach;

Oddly, all those arguments could also be used in support of atheism.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Paraphrasing what someone else once said, I only believe in one less God than Douthat does.

Lurking Canadian said...

If Douthat wants to argue against the prosperity gospel and in favor of a moral obligation to make peace and care for the weak, that's OK. If, however, and as I expect, he argues only that governments are bad because they distract people from private charity, oh and wars are great as long as the people we're bombing are really, really bad, I'd rather he kept quiet.