Monday, May 09, 2005

Risk and Integrity

Moral theories make history more or less unintelligible if they explain the fate of nations as the consequence of whether individuals act well or badly as if their choices were ultimate causes in themselves and not susceptible of further explanation. Though we’re the only actors in this play and what occurs is our doing, the consequences of our actions and therefore the meaning of what we do are at the mercy of a social context that escapes our control. It’s not that we aren’t free. We can do whatever we like inside the narrow set of options created by our cultural and social setting. Escaping that agenda is a vastly more difficult performance.

I love to rail against the mass-market journalists, but my petit bourgeois indignation is largely beside the point because their lack of integrity and competence is a consequence rather than a cause of the viciousness of the institutions they staff. It is perfectly possible for individuals to opt out of the propaganda machine. Indeed, many people do opt out; but whether or not absenting yourself from the scene of the crime is good for the soul, it is utterly inconsequential because thousands of replacements wait to carry on the thankless but hardly unrewarding task of corrupting public discourse. Dissident journalists are in the same boat as corporate whistleblowers. They can chose to tell the truth, but their actions are more likely to result in professional self-destruction than to effect change. The moral act thus becomes a gesture, theater without an audience. Indeed, the ruling professional mentality positively discourages such actions as juvenile acting out. If moral behavior has bad consequences for the moral agent, it cannot be moral. The categorical imperative is not a suicide pact.

America’s general lack of integrity is a consequence of other changes in our social and political system and does not imply that people have suffered an inexplicable loss of virtue. As Pravda used to put things, none of this is an accident. In 1950, many Americans had stable jobs in a growing economy. The government and the unions protected the rights of working people, and the college-educated could always teach. Since then, while most of us have not become impoverished, almost everybody’s livelihood and health are at much greater perceived risk and a bachelor’s degree guarantees nothing. At the same time, the level of income required to maintain a middle-class status has steadily increased and wealth and celebrity have replaced a plethora of other values as the bases for self-definition. To be sure, there are still scholars, poets, and even saints (of a sort); but the notion of respectable poverty is a museum piece. Certain criminals aside, one simply cannot be famous and poor—even Maya Angelou is a millionaire. Under these circumstances, people do what they have to do to win because coming in second has become disastrous while to live in a merely decent fashion is barely decent. The increase in social risk guarantees that the nation will be full of trimmers and ass kissers.

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