Bobo has delivered himself of another whine bemoaning the lost days of yore and that old time religion. In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” he wails that American life has secularized and grand political ideologies have fallen away, but moral conflict has only intensified. “Meredith” from NYC will have something to say. Prof. Krugman has a question in “Coal Country Is a State of Mind:” Will nostalgia for a much-shrunken industry destroy the planet? Here’s Bobo:
In 1981 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre opened his book “After Virtue” with a passage that is now famous. Imagine if we lost the theoretical coherence of science. Imagine if we still used scientific words like neutrino and atomic weight, but had no overall framework to explain how they fit together.
That’s the state of our moral discourse today, he suggested. We still use words describing virtue and vice, but without any overall metaphysics. Religious frameworks no longer organize public debate. Secular philosophies that grew out of the Enlightenment have fallen apart. We have words and emotional instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue and decide.
That diagnosis seemed accurate to many people, and it seemed to point toward a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental — sort of chill, pluralistic versions of Snoop Dogg: You do you and I’ll do me and we’ll all be cool about it. Whatever feels right.
But that’s not what’s happened. We haven’t entered the age of milquetoast bourgeois relativism. Instead, society has become a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation: the cold-eyed fanaticism of students at Middlebury College and other campuses nationwide; the rage of the alt-right; holy wars over transgender bathrooms; the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.
American life has secularized and grand political ideologies have fallen away, but moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least — like the members of the alt-right — who seem the most fervent moral crusaders.
We’re living in an age of great moral pressure, even if we lack the words to articulate it. In fact, as Wilfred McClay points out in a brilliant essay called “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” for The Hedgehog Review, religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.
Technology gives us power and power entails responsibility, and responsibility, McClay notes, leads to guilt: You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough.
“Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough. … Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.”
McClay is describing a world in which we’re still driven by an inextinguishable need to feel morally justified. Our thinking is still vestigially shaped by religious categories.
And yet we have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.
The only reliable way to feel morally justified in that culture is to assume the role of victim. As McClay puts it, “Claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.”
“If one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.”
I’d add that this move takes all moral striving and it politicizes it. Instead of seeing moral struggle as something between you and God (the religious version) or as something that happens between the good and evil within yourself (the classical version), moral struggle now happens primarily between groups.
We see events through the lens of moral Marxism, as a class or ethnic struggle between the evil oppressor and the supposedly innocent oppressed. The moral narrative of colonialism is applied to every situation. The concept of inherited sin is back in common currency, only these days we call it “privilege.”
As the political scientist Thomas U. Berger put it, “We live in an age of apology and recrimination.” The conflicts on campus take on a Salem witch trial intensity. In the Middle East, the Israelis and the Palestinians compete for the victimhood narrative. Even America’s heartland populists see themselves as the victims of the oppressive coastal elites. Steve Bannon is the Frantz Fanon of the whites.
Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution. Mainstream culture has no clear path upward from guilt, either for individuals or groups. So you get a buildup of scapegoating, shaming and Manichaean condemnation. “This is surely a moral crisis in the making,” McClay writes.
I notice some schools and prisons have restorative justice programs to welcome offenders back into the community. They tend to be more substantive than the cheap grace of instant forgiveness. I wonder if the wider society needs procedures like that, so the private guilt everybody feels isn’t transmuted into a public state of perpetual moral war.
And here’s what “Meredith” from NYC had to say about that:
“Metaphysics, virtue, vice? Oh, please. Spoken like a guy with great health insurance, salary, and retirement investments. And a secure gig also on the PBS Newshour.
Do NYT columnists who supported GOP right wing radicals for years have any moral conflicts now? Do they have the character and moral courage to admit how they helped prepare our poisoned political soil for Trump? How they rationalized the downward mobility and insecurity of millions due to Gop abuse of citizens?
Mr. Brook’s pious lectures on religion and guilt are symptoms of his own moral bubble that he lives in. It’s really laughable.”
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
West Virginia went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in November — in fact, he beat Hillary Clinton by almost a three-to-one majority. And it may seem obvious why: The state is the heart of coal country, and Mr. Trump promised to bring coal jobs back by eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations. So at first glance the 2016 election looks like a political realignment reflecting differences in regional interests.
But that simple story breaks down when you look at the realities of the situation — and not just because environmentalism is a minor factor in coal’s decline. For coal country isn’t really coal country anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.
Why does an industry that is no longer a major employer even in West Virginia retain such a hold on the region’s imagination, and lead its residents to vote overwhelmingly against their own interests?
Coal powered the Industrial Revolution, and once upon a time it did indeed employ a lot of people. But the number of miners began a steep decline after World War II, and especially after 1980, even though coal production continued to rise. This was mainly because modern extraction techniques — like blowing the tops off mountains — require far less labor than old-fashioned pick-and-shovel mining. The decline accelerated about a decade ago as the rise of fracking led to competition from cheap natural gas.
So coal-mining jobs have been disappearing for a long time. Even in West Virginia, the most coal-oriented state, it has been a quarter century since they accounted for as much as 5 percent of total employment.
What, then, do West Virginians actually do for a living these days? Well, many of them work in health care: Almost one in six workers is employed in the category “health care and social assistance.”
Oh, and where does the money for those health care jobs come from? Actually, a lot of it comes from Washington.
West Virginia has a relatively old population, so 22 percent of its residents are on Medicare, versus 16.7 percent for the nation as a whole. It’s also a state that has benefited hugely from Obamacare, with the percentage of the population lacking health insurance falling from 14 percent in 2013 to 6 percent in 2015; these gains came mainly from a big expansion of Medicaid.
It’s true that the nation as a whole pays for these health care programs with taxes. But an older, poorer state like West Virginia receives much more than it pays in — and it would have received virtually none of the tax cuts Trumpcare would have lavished on the wealthy.
Now think about what Trumpism means for a state like this. Killing environmental rules might bring back a few mining jobs, but not many, and mining isn’t really central to the economy in any case. Meanwhile, the Trump administration and its allies just tried to replace the Affordable Care Act. If they had succeeded, the effect would have been catastrophic for West Virginia, slashing Medicaid and sending insurance premiums for lower-income, older residents soaring.
Also, don’t forget that Paul Ryan has long pushed for the conversion of Medicare into an underfunded voucher scheme, which would be another body blow to retiree-heavy states.
And aside from the devastating effect on coverage, think about how the Republican assault on Obamacare would have affected the health sector that now employs so many West Virginians. It’s almost certain that the job losses from Trumpcare cuts would have greatly exceeded any possible gains in coal.
So West Virginia voted overwhelmingly against its own interests. And it wasn’t just because its citizens failed to understand the numbers, the reality of the trade-off between coal and health care jobs.
For the striking thing, as I said, is that coal isn’t even the state’s dominant industry these days. “Coal country” residents weren’t voting to preserve what they have, or had until recently; they were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.
Their Trump votes weren’t even about the region’s interests; they were about cultural symbolism.
Now, regional cultures that invoke a long-gone past are hardly unique to Appalachia; think of Texans wearing 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots as they stroll through air-conditioned malls. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
But when it comes to energy and environmental policy, we’re not talking about mere cultural affectations. Going backward on the environment will sicken and kill thousands in the near future; over the longer term, failing to act on climate change could, all too plausibly, lead to civilizational collapse.
So it’s incredible, and terrifying, to think that we may really be about to do all of that because Donald Trump successfully pandered to cultural nostalgia, to a longing for a vanished past when men were men and miners dug deep.