People of a conservative bent are apt to look back at the Clinton era with its lying, dissembling, and especially its sexual escapades and wonder, "How can he live with himself?" And when they see with astonishment all the people who supported him--and still support him--they say, "Our country is in moral decay! We have lost all standards!" This is reinforced for them by some of the reasons these people give: "Hey, it was only about sex. Well, so it involved lying about sex, so what? Everybody lies about sex; you're expected to lie about sex." Only people completely bereft of any moral sense, they think, can say such things.
But what traditionalists find really appalling is that the Clinton defenders do not simply excuse him; they positively admire him and to this day speak of him as if he were a good and noble person, who did what is best for our country, especially in trying to save it from the hypocrisy of the Religious Right. Only people who have absolutely no morals at all, they think, can hold someone like Bill Clinton up as a model of virtue, for heaven's sake. Yet to hear some of them talk, that's what they're doing.
But what this book is about is that the traditionalists have missed the point. There isn't a decline or decay of moral standards, with amorality taking its place; there's been, in our culture (and increasingly in the world culture, especially among the educated), a shift to a different set of moral standards--but a set of standards which is just as strict, just as absolute, and just as evangelically promoted as the traditional standards ever were. It was once called the New Morality; and I see no reason for not using the term, because it is new, and it is a real moral code.
The reason that it seems like no morality at all to the traditionalist is that things which in the tradition are forbidden are considered perfectly all right according to the new standards. But oh, yes, there are things that are forbidden in the New Morality; and forbidden absolutely for anyone. These are not called "immoral," however, and so there seem to be no morals at all among the elites of our society.
But think, for instance, about discrimination. Nobody--especially among the elite--really says that it is immoral to discriminate, because according to the New Morality's idea of "morality," that would make it a purely personal matter whether you discriminated or not, and therefore no one should try to impose anti-discrimination on the unwilling.
But they nevertheless believe with fully as much fervor as Billy Graham that you can't discriminate. You mustn't. You can't treat people as unequal, because they aren't unequal. It's just sick to do it.
Precisely. When the New Morality confronts what it considers immoral, it calls it "sick," not "immoral." And there's a reason for this. "Immoral" looks at the situation explicitly from the point of view of a moral code, and this automatically (according to the New Morality) makes it personal, not objective, while "sick" makes it something that people abhor because there's something objectively abhorrent about it.
Nevertheless, if you look at what anti-discriminators do, aren't they doing the same thing that they decry in the traditionalists who "want to impose their own personal moral standards on everyone?" Jimmy the Greek was actually fired for saying that black people were good athletes because their ancestors were bred for strength. Whether it was factually true or not was irrelevant; he had discriminated, and he must suffer for it. The authors of The Bell Curve found to their dismay that they were pariahs for publishing what they gave objective evidence for.
But when you say that someone must be punished for doing something that you don't agree with, aren't you making him suffer for not abiding by your standards of conduct? Especially in the case when he adduces facts to support his statements. Neither Jimmy the Greek nor the authors of the Bell Curve were trying to say that black people should be denied opportunities, or that they should be "put in their place and kept there"; they were simply uttering what the facts seemed to indicate were differences between the races. The intellectual response to this is to show where the reasoning was faulty, not to ostracize them for uttering their views, still less to impose some penalty on them. If this were an intellectual disagreement, what happened would have been a debate, not punishment.
But you see, the implications of this were detrimental to black people--and that's discrimination, and discrimination must not be allowed. Why? Because it's false. But these people say that the differences are there. They're wrong. But they say they have evidence that they're right. Well, they don't. How do you know? Because they're wrong, that's all; what they say is discriminatory, and so it's false and they shouldn't have said it! (When things get to this point, exclamation marks start popping up.)
What is this but an excellent example of a moral standard that everyone is supposed to conform to, irrespective of what he subjectively believes, and in this case irrespective of what the actual facts are? So there are moral absolutes in the New Morality--lots of them, even though the very proponents of these moral absolutes would be shocked if you accused them of holding moral absolutes, still less of trying to impose their own absolutes on others.
Now I hasten to say that I happen to think that invidious discrimination is wrong (though I also think that not all forms of discrimination are wrong, nor is discrimination wrong simply because it is discrimination). There are things in the New Morality, in other words, that I don't necessarily have a moral problem with. All I'm trying to say at this point is that it's objectively false to claim that the New Moralists don't have any moral standards at all, or even that they're not trying to impose their moral code on everyone else. And everyone who has run afoul of this code (which is currently dubbed "political correctness" rather than "morality") knows how fanatical and rigid and intolerant (and even violent) it can be.
And it turns out that Bill Clinton is a pretty good example of the New Morality; and one of the reasons he is admired, and "feels good about himself" is that he's been acting in conformity with its standards of conduct, and is recognized as doing so by those in the know.
And those in the know make up a huge segment of the news and entertainment media; it is dominated by exponents of the New Morality, who are using the means of communication to "teach" the unwashed masses the errors of their traditionalist ways, and show them the folly of what they used to be doing and how good it is to be living according to the new rules.
But because of the peculiar nature of the New Morality's idea of morality, the whole of what they are doing is removed from the sphere of morals; these people think that they're just trying to "tell it like it is," to get behind the hypocrisy of the Religious Right, and let people know that it's all right to be themselves.
Well, what's wrong with that? Nothing at all. But that's just what the traditionalists have always said they are trying to do. The Religious Right documents fully as many hypocrisies in the antics of the New Moralists as the media do in the behavior of the Religious Right. To take just one example, the women of the New Morality had enough cows to depress the price of beef when (as they allege) Clarence Thomas asked Anita Hill for a date by using sexually explicit language. And yet with Bill Clinton's shenanigans with an intern whom he explicitly declared he was using simply to service him, with no intent whatsoever to give her any sexual gratification in return, the feminists are hurt over how badly he was treated.
We will see later how the feminists could think this way. But the point here is to realize is that the so-called "culture war" is not a conflict between moral standards and amorality or permissiveness. It is a conflict between two different sets of moral standards, each of which is the logical consequence of the notion of what it means to "be yourself." Each of these codes, whether it explicitly realizes it or not, is considered by its adherents to be objectively true, even self-evidently true based on the real facts--subject to modification in detail, perhaps, but nonetheless true enough in its fundamental outlines to be worthy of making everyone subject to it whether they agree with it or not.
Each moral code permits some things and forbids others. It regards the other one as lax and evil insofar as the other permits what it forbids, and it regards the other as unenlightened and stupid insofar as the other forbids what it permits.
For instance, the New Morality regards the Religious Right as evil for allowing discrimination to go on for so many years and saying nothing about it, while it looks on the Religious Right as stupid and not "in tune with the twentieth century" in denouncing things like sex outside of marriage. It thinks of the Religious Right as both evil and stupid for declaring that homosexual sex is a sin, because that (according to the New Morality standards) is at once forbidding what is really perfectly okay, and discriminating against a whole class of people who are simply trying to not to be hypocrites and are acting consistently with what they really happen to be.
It is in one sense very difficult to write a book like this, because the New Morality has so entrenched itself that the reaction at this point is apt to be, "Okay, so people have deeply felt convictions, and they tend to impose those convictions on the people around them. So what else is new?"
I want to treat this attitude in detail later; New Moralists believe and teach that morality is really how you feel about things; that it doesn't have any factual basis. But here let me just point out that there's out something fishy about this. Are feminists really interested in how you feel about feminism? Whatever your views are, however you "feel," you had damn well better not step in the way of women's getting the opportunities they--what other word is there for it?--objectively deserve. And it is simply laughable to say that what Hitler did to the Jews "should" not have been done because it makes the rest of us "feel bad" about it. Those, in fact, like the Skinheads, who feel good about it (a) should not feel good about it because that feeling itself is objectively a perversion, and (b) insofar as it is so, they should be discriminated against, vilified, and if they act on their convictions, imprisoned.
So let me content myself this far in hoping that what I've said has planted a seed that what is going on in our country and our world is that there are two moral codes in mortal conflict with each other, each thinking that it is objectively correct, and each trying to see to it that the other one is stamped out, or at least rendered impotent to extend its views beyond a few harmless fanatics.
The Religious Right does not want secular morality imposed on it, or on anyone else; and the New Morality does not want its adherents, or anyone else, to be subject to the strictures of the Religious Right.
How we got this way.
The roots of the conflict go very far back, and I'll have to do some tracing of them; but I think a strong case can be made that the conflict in its present form sprouted out of Darwin's theory of evolution. Still, Darwinism has been around for well over a hundred years, and the New Morality didn't seem to germinate until the 'sixties of the twentieth century. Why? How come this seed so suddenly burgeoned?
What I want to explore in this section is what happened to make the Age of Aquarius (of which Bill Clinton is a product) a moral force which suddenly began taking over the best and brightest among us.
The explanation, actually, isn't all that complicated to trace. If we go back to my childhood, we find ourselves in the middle of the Second World War. We in the United States were convinced that we were the Good Guys and the "Japs" (Do you notice that you can't use that word any more? You have to say "the 'J-word.'") and Nazis (but it's okay to use the term "Nazi," because all Nazis should be discriminated against) were evil attackers of civilization. We had to win, at whatever cost, and everyone joined in to further the noble cause, even to rationing our food, practicing blackouts and air raids, and having us kids trot along the gutters and pick up the lead foil out of discarded cigarette packages to recycle for bullets for the War Effort.
And when President Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, we regretted the resulting destruction, perhaps (though we were proud we had such a weapon), but we bought into Truman's justification that the action actually prevented a greater loss of life even of the Japanese, if we had attacked their mainland. This, I personally think, is probably true, though I also think (now) that the end doesn't justify the means, and that the actual bombing was morally wrong.
In any case, any misgivings we Americans might have had at the time were dispelled by two things: (1) we heard about the atrocities on the other side, and our actions were nowhere near as bad as the ones we heard about, and (2) we proved that we were noble and righteous by helping build back the economies of our enemies. (I can hear the New Moralists screaming as I write this. I am simply reporting what our attitude was back then. We were convinced that we were a paragon of virtue in the messy business of conducting and concluding the war.)
What is significant about this, however, is not how we patted ourselves on the back. Add one more event, and I think I will be able to will show its significance for the sudden shift in morals that began not much more than a decade later: We were instrumental in founding the United Nations.
You see, with the Bomb and the United Nations, we had The Answer. The very horror of being able to blow up a whole city with a single bomb made any future war unthinkable, just as it stopped the most bloody conflict in history in its tracks. And the fact that, in the United Nations, we now had a forum in which differences between countries could be talked out instead of fought made war no longer necessary.
So we Americans looked forward to a future without wars, in which, under our benign guidance and modeled on our generous behavior toward our implacable foes, we would move into an era, as a song of the time said, of "One world/Built on a firm foundation...at peace forever more." Those of you who weren't alive at the time have no idea of the confident hope we had of the "postwar world," where everyone had conveniences undreamed-of, like superhighways and instant communications--even of broadcast movies!--and everyone finally found commonality and mutual love with all other peoples--and all the rest of a noble utopian dream.
What happened, then, to burst this bubble? The first thing was that some of our scientists who had worked on the bomb, motivated (I think) by their own idealism and a suspicion that perhaps we weren't quite as morally immaculate as we thought we were, got the idea that it would be more stabilizing if we weren't the only ones to have nuclear weapons, and gave the secret to the Soviet Union.
Once that occurred, The Answer suddenly became no answer at all. We learned to our sorrow in Korea that we didn't dare use the atomic bomb, because the Soviets had it, and if we used it our own cities would be in jeopardy. So we fought that agonizing conventional war, which resulted in the unsatisfactory division of Korea into Communist North and non-Communist South. And we simultaneously discovered that the United Nations had formed itself into two blocs, one of which, instead of looking to us for guidance, did everything in their power to stymie what we proposed, to question our motives, and in general to make trouble instead of peace.
But we still thought we were the Good Guys; it was just that now we realized, at the last minute, that the Bad Guys weren't the Nazis and the Japanese, but the godless Commies, together with their pinko followers here in the States who were trying to overthrow us. So we undertook a program to see to it that Communism wouldn't be allowed to spread any farther than it already had. The Cold War had begun.
But then, at the beginning of the 'sixties, three punches came at us all at once, and knocked the members of our generation out of our moral complacency, and finally made us give up altogether: The Civil Rights movement, the Pill, and Viet Nam. No one of them, perhaps not even two out of the three, would have been enough to give the New Morality a solid foothold; but all three together did us in.
Racial attitudes when I was a child were, on the part of the black people, that of leaders like Booker T. Washington, who saw that asserting rights and standing up against segregation and the status quo only brought on reprisals, and the last state was worse than the first--and so it was better not to rock the boat. On the part of whites, there was the carryover from the days of slavery, in which the black slaves, understandably enough, portrayed themselves to us as "nice," but stupid and incompetent, with no sense of time or responsibility (understandably, because a slave who shows himself bright and competent is going to be rewarded with more work and nothing else). So we honestly believed that black people were just too dumb to do anything but menial jobs, that they would be miserable, with rare exceptions, if they undertook anything intellectually challenging, and that they were happiest living by themselves among their own kind.
And then Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus (legally, by the way, since the back was full and there were empty seats up there), but refused to get up and give her seat to a young white man when the front filled up--on the grounds that she was a tired older woman, and he was a young man, and he was much more capable of standing than she was. That broke the rules--but it made eminent sense.
And then we found black people sitting in at "our" lunch counters, and realized, with John Howard Griffin, who dyed his skin black, that if you were black, you had to plan your day around your bodily functions, so that when you needed to relieve yourself, you didn't find yourself twenty blocks away from the nearest black rest room, and when you needed to eat, you were close enough to a black lunch counter that it didn't take you a half hour to get there.
And Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out to us that without realizing it, we had been treating human beings as if they were a lower form of life, and not really human at all--and we couldn't do that. And we agreed. It didn't really take very long to convince us, when you think about it; the moral attitude in the people as a whole toward race relations shifted drastically in four or five years.
We realized to our shock that we had made a great mistake, and had done something profoundly evil. But we assuaged our conscience, just as we had done with the Second World War (and with slavery itself), by saying that what made us Americans distinctive was that we were a practical people, and we would do something about it. So we abolished the "black only" facilities, and changed the voting laws, and desegregated the educational institutions and so on, and, just as we had at the end of the War, we envisioned a future along the lines of King's dream, where character and not the color of your skin counted.
I say "we," of course, as a white person, because the white people, as the vast majority, set the moral tone of the people as a whole. But the blacks, naturally, were suspicious of our noble intentions--which hurt us whites very much--just as foreign countries could not see that we were genuinely interested in their prosperity, not in using them for our own advantage. (I hear cries of outrage from the New Moralists again.)
So our sense of moral uprightness was able to ride with this second punch, and was only stung, not knocked out; and we had fought back and were in the process of righting the inadvertent wrong. But then came the Pill.
Contraceptives existed--condoms--when I was a child; but, say what you will, a condom puts a barrier between the man and the woman, doesn't feel as good, is messy, and all the rest of it that people are so familiar with nowadays. But at that time, when people had the attitude that sex had something to do with reproduction, it wasn't hard to think of this kind of thing as against nature, and masking what the act was mainly all about.
But people at that time took pills for colds, headaches, acid stomach, and so on, and nobody thought that there was anything unnatural about this. So when The Pill was introduced, the reproductive dimension of sex was suppressed beforehand, as it were, and the act itself was just the same as it always was. What was "against nature" about this? Just as it was silly to say that you should endure a splitting headache (because it was "natural") instead of taking the pill that suppressed it, why should it be any different to suppress reproductiveness by taking a pill? (I don't happen to buy this reasoning, by the way; I'm just reporting again.)
And if you take this a logical step further--and who didn't?--then it meant that the act of sexual intercourse was no longer in itself reproductive, so to speak, and it was a matter of choice whether to make it so by taking the Pill or not. And what this meant was that suddenly the whole moral code about sex had to be rethought, insofar as it connected the sex act with reproduction. Why, for instance, did sex have to take place only in the context of marriage, since marriage obviously was instituted to see to it that the children would have proper rearing? And if sex has "in itself" nothing to do with reproduction, then the feeling of repugnance against homosexual sex was now seen as a feeling without any basis in reality. And of course, the "sin" of masturbation turned into a healthy form of release from tension.
It was not just the Aquarians who made this sudden shift. Middle-aged people who at first wanted to limit the size of their families discovered what they had been missing, and began to follow the logic of the technological transformation of the nature of sexuality, and the sexual revolution was in full force, quickly spreading to the decay of marriage as a life-long commitment, and then the technological divorcing of reproduction itself from sex, first in artificial insemination and then in "test-tube babies," and all the rest of it.
Traditionalists all this time felt that there was something wrong here, but their vague unease was not enough to withstand the argument that if you couldn't use contraceptives, you'd have to give up aspirin too; and that if marriage had to be a lifetime commitment because of the children, what about a marriage where there were no children? And such marriages didn't have to be rare any more.
So this was a serious blow, especially to Christians, whose Bible seemed to proclaim that acts that now seemed perfectly natural were an abomination in God's sight. It worried many; especially when Christian theologians began saying that what the Bible said wasn't what the Bible really meant, and giving symbolic interpretations fully worthy of Bill Clinton at his slickest that the Bible was really telling us that we should join the sexual revolution--responsibly and lovingly, of course.
And on top of all this came Viet Nam.
We started the Viet Nam war, actually, because of our effort to contain Communism; and when it began, we felt that it was another exercise of our moral nobility, especially since we didn't have anything practical to gain if South Vietnam remained out of Communist hands. We were simply helping an ally who had asked for our help, and we had to honor our commitment.
But it was really another Korea, with China backing the North Vietnamese, except that this time the country was already divided, and so the solution in Korea was closed. If we actually tried to win the war, we ran the serious risk of starting World War III; so we fought it (whether we realized it or not) along the general lines of the Just War Principle: That you couldn't trample all over the attacking society, but must do no more than prevent them from winning.
The practical trouble with this is that, depending on the determination of the aggressors, this kind of war is going to take a long, long time, with no really satisfying solution in sight; and the American people, with their football mentality, were not capable of understanding why we would engage in a conflict we deliberately didn't intend to win.
Further, as the war dragged on, and as the young people, who had to go to a foreign country and put their lives on the line for an abstraction, made louder and louder protests, we began increasingly to realize that the government we were propping up was hardly a model of civic virtue, and the Press, full now of people who were imbued with the New Morality, began screaming how the news was "managed," and managed themselves to manage the news in such a way that the war was perceived more and more as an evil, imperialistic country sending its own youth to die for the preservation of a corrupt government in the face of a takeover from a political system which was far more just and humane.
And finally the nation as a whole bought this idea. We thought we had started the war from motives pure and sacrosanct, and now realized that what we had done was evil and pernicious. And then we reflected and saw that we had thought that we were doing the right thing when we kept the blacks under our thumb, and now realized that what we had done was evil and pernicious. And we looked at the sexual revolution, and what we had thought was self-restraint in the practice of virtue was, we now realized, repression of what was natural, and therefore evil and pernicious.
At this point, my generation simply threw up their hands. "All right!" we in effect said. "We were so sure we had all the answers. Now we know we weren't even asking the right questions. You young people have unmasked our hypocrisy, and so you must be wiser than we are. You take over, and see what you can do. We wash our hands of the whole mess!"
And now, as we consider what these confident youngsters, with Bill Clinton as the first President from among them, have brought the country to, we look back at the moral vacuum we left them to fill, and we hear in the back of our minds, "Whenever an unclean spirit is driven out of a man, it wanders around the desert looking for a place to stay, but does not find it. Then it says, 'I will go back to the house I left'; and when it returns, it finds the place empty, swept, and dusted. Then it goes out again and brings back seven other spirits worse than itself, and they all move in and make themselves at home--and the person's last state is worse than the first. This is what will happen with this evil generation."
Of course, there's hope. Not all the country has subscribed to the New Morality, by any means; and our leadership now is of the old school. But the New Moralists are still all around us, still pushing their agenda, and we have to be aware of what is going on, or we might well lose in the long run. And that would be terrible, because the New Morality is in fact based on illusion.Next