Ed Driscoll

The Great Virtue Shift

At the American Interest, Charles Hill writes, in the middle of a fascinating, lengthy, read the whole thing essay titled, “On Decadence:”

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior. This is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “moral man and immoral society” turned on its head, where hedonism takes cover beneath a superficial global moralism.

The virtue shift has been paralleled by a governmental shift. As gifted politicians have sensed the changing psychology and national character of the country, they have learned to constantly scan the political horizon to identify each special interest group, make the necessary promises and then move to satisfy each group’s claim on government largesse, or its demand for deeper government intervention to enforce adherence to each group’s behavioral choices. Throughout most of American history people were preoccupied with how to prevent government from becoming corrupt. In our time, governments have discovered how to corrupt the people. It then follows that the more corrupted the people become, the more numerous the laws must be, thus further aggrandizing government’s indispensability.


Or as Ayn Rand wrote a half century ago in Atlas Shrugged:

There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for me to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed or enforced nor objectively interpreted — and you create a nation of law-breakers — and then you cash in on guilt.

Does The Great Virtue Shift have limits? That’s a question that Victor Davis Hanson tacitly asks in his NRO column:

An older generation used to call the boredom of bad habits “reaching rock bottom”; the present variant perhaps is “jumping the shark” — that moment when the tiresome gimmicks no longer work, and the show is over.

In a moral sense, Miley Cyrus reached that tipping point for America, slapping us into admitting that most of our popular icons are crass, talentless bores, and that our own tastes, which created them, lead nowhere but to oblivion.

After all, what does an affluent and leisured culture do when it has nothing much to rebel against?

“Ugly sex is all that is left after revolutionary cool,” VDH concludes. Cool, for a time, really was once a genuine artistic revolution. But what comes after nihilism?


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Related: Neo-Neocon looks back at Allan Bloom’s thoughts on learning history and cultural relativism, which have led to both Black Armband History in academia, and its pop culture spinoff, “the genre of Now We Know Better,” as British critic Mark Greif aptly put it a few years ago in his review of the first season of TV’s Mad Men.

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