What's Tony Thinking

It’s Not a Mystery Why We Are Where We Are


A little bit longer read for your Sunday . . .

David Brooks, in a recent article at the Atlantic, says that for ten years now he’s been obsessed by two questions, “Why are Americans so sad?” and “Why are Americans so mean?” In the article he focuses more on the second question of bad behavior, but the two queries are two sides of the same coin.

Why are Americans so often rude, mean and ill-behaved? Brooks’s answer: “we’re terrible at moral formation.”

“’The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration,’ Brooks writes. He argues that our current crisis can’t be explained away by technology, sociology, demographics, or even the economy: The cause lies in a profound lack of moral education. ‘In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another,’ he writes. ‘We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’”

I wonder, is there a correlation between becoming “terrible at moral formation,” and the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism, which began in the late 70’s and was super-charged during the Regan and Clinton years? The Market became our God. Economic globalization was an unmitigated (and inevitable) good. Human worth was equated with wealth.

I often hear people, at least some people, saying “capitalism is the problem.” To my mind, almost anything becomes a problem if unchecked and unbalanced by those things that temper its extremes. Panicked by international competition, the Japanese and TQI, capitalism and markets were given free rein in the U.S. Those things that couldn’t be easily summed up on a profit/ loss statement were overlooked or neglected.

In the midst of that epoch, 1985, the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah published his most important book, Habits of the Heart. His argument foreshadows Brooks’s today. Bellah said Americans had lost the two historic moral frameworks and languages that had formed and normed our lives, the language of the Bible and small “r” republican language (think Jefferson on democracy and citizenship). Both were replaced, according to Bellah, by therapeutic language and world-view.

Of course, moral formation isn’t needed — it is even a tool of the oppressor — if people are basically good, but only deformed or corrupted by institutions (family, school, church, government). That was the view of the 19th century Romantics, the philosophical descendants of Rousseau. In our own time this has morphed into “the ethics of authenticity,” which might be simplified to “you do you” or maybe moral life as a DIY project. Turns out that we humans are pretty much a mixed bag (i.e., not basically good) and maybe that the “free to be me” is not sufficient. Asking everyone to create their own meta-narrative and moral order is a tall order. Once more to Brooks.

Expecting people to build a satisfying moral and spiritual life on their own by looking within themselves is asking too much. A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. Social trust falls partly because more people are untrustworthy. That creates crowds of what psychologists call “vulnerable narcissists.” We all know grandiose narcissists — people who revere themselves as the center of the universe. Vulnerable narcissists are the more common figures in our day — people who are also addicted to thinking about themselves, but who often feel anxious, insecure, avoidant.”

There’s more; something will fill the vacuum. That, it appears, is politics. Putting all our eggs in the basket of candidates, electoral outcomes and partisan struggles for power. Brooks again:

If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.

“According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil. […]

“If you are asking politics to be the reigning source of meaning in your life, you are asking more of politics than it can bear. Seeking to escape sadness, loneliness, and anomie through politics serves only to drop you into a world marked by fear and rage, by a sadistic striving for domination. Sure, you’ve left the moral vacuum — but you’ve landed in the pulverizing destructiveness of moral war.”

In my preaching, I’ve noticed that I tend to steer clearer from political issues or commentary than was once the case.
That is because I see us as so over-invested in politics as “the reigning source of meaning in life.” Besides, the gospel is way more interesting than my political opinions. Left, right or center, we are asked to bend the knee to the god of politics, which like any idol will consume its worshippers.

So, yes, moral formation went out the window, especially among liberals. I remember when we set about creating a Confirmation program for the many young adolescents we were fortunate to have at Plymouth Church in the early 90’s. Parents reaction? Suspicion! We were accused us of “brainwashing.” So distrustful had we become of sources and schools of moral wisdom that we threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Basis, I’d say, for a generational class action suit.

Once you lose a comprehensive culture of moral formation, it’s not easy to reconstruct it. Perhaps the one we had was so compromised by racism, sexism and colonialism that tossing the whole thing was the only answer. But, I don’t buy that. Besides, there’s not much evidence that we of the current era are unique moral geniuses capable of re-inventing the wheel.




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