Ed Driscoll

The Closing of the American Soul

Kathy Shaidle explains “why conservatives are doomed to fail:” 

Conservatives/traditionalists still believe that “man is depraved” — that we are born bad and will default to evil unless reigned in by fear of God, a well-developed sense of duty, honor and responsibility, and a horror of being publicly shamed/losing everything.

Liberals/progressives believe that man is born good/is at the very least a clean slate, and is made “bad” by his “environment. Participation trophies for all. Every day, the parents and friends of criminals insist that “he was a good person.” These criminals, interestingly, usually score very highly on tests of “self-esteem.”

As Kathy writes, that’s the “progressive” worldview that triumphed in America beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s. As an example, she links to David Brooks’ latest column, in which he spotlights a new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, written by social scientist Dan Ariely. As Brooks writes, “Nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little;” Brooks describes a few of the tests that Ariely used to measure his subjects, including this:

He had one blind colleague and one sighted colleague take taxi rides. The drivers cheated the sighted colleague by taking long routes much more often than they cheated the blind one, even though she would have been easier to mislead. They would have felt guilty cheating a blind woman.

Ariely points out that we are driven by morality much more than standard economic models allow. But I was struck by what you might call the Good Person Construct and the moral calculus it implies. For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

That last paragraph is very much reminiscent of one of the key moments in Allan Bloom’s epochal 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. I’ve already quoted, both on the blog, and in a recent Silicon Graffiti video, the passage from Bloom in which he explains how the worldview of the German Weimar Republic of the 1920s became the default mindset of Americans in the late ’60s and the 1970s. (Via the German intellectuals who emigrated to the US in the 1930s after the Nazis came to power and decamped to American universities.) But the paragraph that preceded that observation from Bloom dovetails perfectly with Brooks’ observation above:

A few years ago I chatted with a taxi driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily he had undergone “therapy.” I asked him what kind. He responded, “All kinds— depth-psychology, transactional analysis, but what I liked best was Gestalt.” Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-class talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with any original sin or devils in him. We have here the peculiarly American way digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.

Lurking just under the surface of all that happiness is something that Elizabeth Scalia, aka, “The Anchoress,” described last year as “The Hate That Feels Like Love:”

Regardless of whether one hates a Republican governor or a pro-abortion president or Hollywood or “fundamentalism” or “the system” or even a sports team, if one’s sense of belonging depends on hatred, then second-thoughts will flee and stagnation will follow. The only way to re-energize and to delay the inevitable endgame described by Enright as “destruction, discouragement, and hopelessness” is to find a new hate to love.

Hence, hating George W. Bush begat hating Sarah Palin, begat hating Christine O’ Donnell, begat hating Michele Bachman, begat hating Scott Wilson. Hating Bill Clinton begat hating Hillary Clinton begat hating Michael Moore, begat hating Bill Maher, begat hating Barack and Michelle Obama. In the hate-collective there must always be an Emmanuel Goldstein in order for love to feel fresh and new.

Now, some will say that these figures have earned a measure of distrust, which justifies the hate. But distrust is such a subjective and selective thing; if distrust is the acceptable impetus for hate, then anyone may claim justification for feeling and encouraging virulent (and eventually violent) hatred of others.

A racist can justify his racism by claiming a “reasonable distrust” against another race simply by pointing to history. A homophobe can rant at gays because he “distrusts” their proclivities; a Jew could hate a German because he doesn’t trust him not to regret Auschwitz. As we see in Great Britain, where a Pentecostal Christian couple has been excluded from the foster care system because they cannot affirm the homosexual lifestyle, the distrusting conventional wisdom—in this case distrusting a Christian’s ability to care well for children—can discriminate against whoever is not falling in line, and that discrimination can even be legislated into law.

The most insidious part of this Borg-like hate collective is how easily one can slip into its influence through the simple error of attaching real but disproportionate feelings of love onto things which are often illusory and ultimately temporary. I love my politics so much that I must hate you for your policies; I love my church so much that I must hate you for not loving it as intensely; I love the promise of my pension plan so much that I must hate you for pointing out that it is unsustainable; I love my opinions so much that I must not allow you to have opinions of your own.

In her latest post, where I found the passage quoted directly above, Elizabeth describes Maureen Dowd as having a particularly virulent strain of “The hate that feels like love,” particularly when it comes to Dowd’s vestigial relationship with the Catholic Church. But as Bloom’s book makes clear, she’s far from the only member of the Ruling Class that Brooks once dubbed “Bobos in Paradise” to suffer from it.

Related: “It takes a special person to tell you you’re not. . . and make you glad for it.”