I have to disagree with you here:
“There was a time when presidents of Harvard made statements about female intellectual capacity and nothing ever happened — but if a president of Harvard were found to be mistreating his actual wife by dumping her for an attractive younger woman he would be ridden out of town on a rail. Today it is more or less the opposite; you can dump the old bat for a young hottie and nobody will say boo, but if you hint that the female brain isn’t good at physics they will roast you alive. From the standpoint of morality something was gained and something lost.”
Non-discrimination (which is good) is not the same thing as insisting that there are no important intellectual differences between men and women, which may or may not be true as a matter of empirical fact.
If we hold our commitment to science hostage to our conceptions of what the facts “ought” to be regarding human differences we can end up doing damage both to science and morality.
This is a real problem in the Ivy League and a symptom of something seriously wrong in the way our intellectual and cultural elites value high intelligence in certain fields as if it were a measure of intrinsic human worth rather than a purely instrumental good.
We are in the process of moving from a democracy to a smartocracy in which the smartest slices of the population reward themselves (and in their own view rightly) at the expense of everyone else.
I would also disagree that the present generation of social lions are less likely to believe in the “supernatural” and more like to be rationalists and realists. Between astrology, Eastern belief systems, New Age philosophies, “deep ecology”, and the healing power of green tea, I would say that the present crop of the “enlightened elite'” have forsaken rationality completely, preferring mysticism as the answer to any and all questions.
It is the very rationalism of the Enlightenment, and Western civilization as a whole, which offends their higher and finer sensibilities. To them, “Western” thinking is cold, mechanistic, and “unfeeling”. It is the Eastern worldview, based on non-fact, non-logic, and ultimately non-reality, which they define as the irrefutable “truth of the world”.
This is probably why professors don’t bother to discuss ethics with their students. Under such a belief system, as long as what you are doing “feels good”, and your godhead doesn’t strike you dead, it must be right. (It always worked for Eastern potentates, after all, no matter how badly things turned out for the peasantry.)
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear our institutions of higher learning, and by extension our government, were being run by refugees from an ashram on Big Sur in 1970.
Maybe I don’t know better.
“We are not in a good place. It’s not hard to look around and see ways in which moral failure on for example Wall Street has had devastating consequences on our society. Unbridled greed is not unrelated to other failures of character development. The kind of mental outlook that makes it seem OK to shaft your customers to score a $150 million bonus grows from a failure to cultivate important moral habits: the willingness to live with limits, accepting that other things are more important than the gratification of personal impulse or desire, a sober sensibility that helps you remember the difference between enough and too much.” (Walter Russell Mead)
With all due respect, this is just silly. Pining for a time when people had better personal characters and lived in a more wholesome and ethical manner is to delude oneself.
This sentiment is actually the same as the sentiment that inspires the worst forms of religious fundamentalism; the desire to return to a past where religion was practiced in a more pure form and in a manner more closely sanctioned by the deity. The problem of course, is that the further you go back, the more you discover that there never really was a pure form of religious practice; in fact as you go back in time religious practice tends to become more eclectic not more orthodox.
Does Professor Mead think that the greed he bemoans about Wall Street in the 21st century was not recapitulated in the 20th century or even earlier? Does he think the cycles of booms and busts inspired by greed are a new phenomenon? Does he think that the depredations suffered by ordinary people because of financial manipulation don’t have numerous historical precedents?
Are the Bernie Ebbers or Jeffrey Skillings of today really any worse than the Henry Fords or John D. Rockefellers of yesterday?
Doesn’t the bible teach us that the type of behavior that Professor Mead bemoans is anything but a recent phenomenon? Doesn’t it go back to Cain and Abel?
Hey, I’d take Ford and Rockefeller any day over Ebbers and Skillings. What we are missing are people like William James and Matthew Arnold.
Some have called it the religious left, since prophets of the leftist canon seem to embrace hoary belief systems topped off with preening, self-proclaiming moralies, all much similar in substance or lack thereof to that of the lowest of stage-prowling, carnival-like tent evangelists.
At least conservatives have a religion, so have no need to invent an ad hoc lay spirituality as has the left. But this just is not the time in history to be reembracing the old religions and the old ways.
There was a book, briefly popular, that came out about 1976 called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by one Julian Jaynes. One of his contentions was that when earlier religious man ‘heard’ the voices of the gods, he was experiencing one side of the brain “speaking” to the other. Jaynes had a great line about how it was 2000 years ago when last we heard these magic, instructive voices that we still revere, but without them our spiritual quest is more like a Sunday afternoon drive in the country than it is an experience welded in the fires of conversion and belief. Jaynes wondered how we could continue to believe in our gods when we no longer hear their voices and haven’t now for millennia.
Born again religions have one great thing going. They require a passionate and committed emersion in the experience, unlike what is possible in the swept-clean canon of modern religion with nothing left but meatless bones, our new vegan spirituality with all the character of tofu. But baked bones is what we should want from our religions in 2010, to wit Islam’s need for reform. Reformed religions may be souless and ultimately designed for the garbage bins of history, but they don’t inspire holy wars, genocide, sin-swaps and other less than useless endeavors.
As for Thailand, two things: read Brit mystery writer John Burnett who has penned a terrific Thai detective series set in Bangkok, great on atmospherics and local color; and check out current Thai cinema. Just saw Ong Bak 2 over the weekend. A beautiful mess with a shredded narrative, placed in the 14th century with 1400 often unrelated subplots, but no matter: this is emergent cinema from an emergent country and it has the kind of manic energy and vision required of it.
Big budget for a Thai film, big ambitions, big performances, big everything. There’s a pattern common to all emergent cinema in evidence here. The better it is, the better it does, the more money it makes, the bigger chances it takes, and as it succeeds in these areas the more confident it gets. Through this process, the culture is energized, finds its voice and falls in love with it. Then it starts looking back in pride instead of shame and revising its own history as a positive. This process is a joy to watch transpiring on film, except when it is shot through with propaganda as is today’s Chinese cinema.
In other words, the state of a state’s cinema parallels and reflects that of its institutional progression. It would be a terrible shame to see Thai culture take a giant step backwards and especially to lose the momentum of its robust new cinema which still has much to teach us about the ways of the world from a wholly unique Thai POV.
“This is one reason why military service is so important in American politics, and why distorting or exaggerating a military service record is one of the worst things politicians can do.”
Are you out of your mind?!? How about breaking the law, for starters. Embezzling and bribery, maybe? Selling out constituents for campaign cash, perhaps? Abusing the franking privilege, for josh sakes? I mean, even getting a BJ in the WH is worse than exaggerating a military service record.
“the last three presidents have not had combat experience and in all three cases the absence of a combat record has been felt as a political weakness.”
Then we should try to show that the absence of combat is not a political weakness. No need to bow our heads to CW.
“successful soldiers may be the only people in American life who can be seasoned but feel fresh”
Do you honestly think being seasoned but feeling fresh is a presidential qualification?
“a deep understanding of and commitment to the values at the heart of our social compact”
Just what are the values at the heart of our social compact? How have they changed since our nation was born? Do we even have a compact anymore? Regardless, these values themselves are constantly being fought over – they are called elections. Don’t promulgate the saccharine “sea to shining sea” myth of national cohesion. Our founders knew politics was a real fight between different factions with opposing views. Don’t pretend otherwise.
“We talked about people like Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and other high profile figures whose careers and family lives were destroyed by serious lapses”
Always with the sex. Did you discuss Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff, (didn’t mean to single out the offs), Charlie Rangel, Rod Blago, Tom Delay, John Yoo, Scooter Libby, Judy Miller, et al.?
Got to cut this off, but your news hook of Richard Blumenthal isn’t very appropriate either. He’s a saint compared to half of the Senate right now.
For the last 15 years, it seems like the business model of large firms in the accounting, investment banking and (it pains me to admit) law professions could be summarized as liquidating the good will built up over 100 years. Far from being a mere balance sheet plug item, Good Will represents a very real asset for any professional firm: the credibility that allows a young broker to, say, sell clients a complex synthetic CDO. We have developed a culture that encourages the current generation to convert that accumulated good will into cash in the form of huge bonuses, regardless of the reputational damage. IBG/YBG (I Be Gone, You Be Gone) is the hard-charging answer to the overly conservative risk manager.
Comment by WigWag:
“Doesn’t the bible teach us that the type of behavior that Professor Mead bemoans is anything but a recent phenomenon? Doesn’t it go back to Cain and Abel?”
You are right, it does… but it does so to instruct us on the value of making good choices, not to instill in us a defeatest attitude which says “well this has always been like this, so I guess I can just do what I want and the world will go on as I have always known it” – which, forgive me if I am wrong, but it sounds as if this is what are basically suggesting.
Just as later in the Bible God told the Israelites that he would lay before them a series of blessings and curses – blessings if they followed his commandments, curses if they did not. I very much believe that society has a set of unwritten rules – if we choose to adopt and follow certain values, we improve as a society and obtain blessings. When we do not, we degenerate… or are “cursed”… not actively by some Deity saying “now I will curse you” but as an inevitable outcome of these unseen rules as they were written into the foundation of the world.
I agree with the majority of this article – not as a pining for the past… but as a call to action on who we need to become.
Those of you just complaining about what you disagree with in here… How about taking a different tact – what do you “agree” with? Outline for yourself what is a good path instead of just playing arm chair quarter back throwing stones.
Your fourth paragraph from the end echoes George Washington.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Our current President has declared point-blank that the United States is no longer a Christian nation. Since the United States was founded within the Judeo-Christian tradition and the President now rejects this tradition, or rejects any role of this tradition in secular, political life, it is hard to see how what deep cultural and religious heritage anyone is supposed to tap in to. We have suffered through years of secularization geared at denying the cultural roots of this country, so is it any surprise that we face a vacuum of morality? Obama and his cohorts would like to replace religion with some socialist state whose redistribution obviates the need for morality, since personal morality is a distant second to “social justice.” We can only hope that Americans begin, under the stress of the times, to remember their cultural heritage that led to the creation of this country. Socialism, I fear, as has been proven time and time again, is not sufficient for bringing forward people who have the qualities to courage and commitment to truth to lead in times of crisis.
Excellent insights by Prof. Meade. It is the excessive individualism embraced by both the libertines on the Left and the free-market enthusiasts on the Right that is squandering the social capital of the past. We no longer have a sense of moral and social solidarity with ALL people and make personal decisions based on such considerations. We have been told by the individualists that we must be “free” to make our own decisions and no moral code or obligation to the “other” has a claim to our freedom of choice. We are not made to live with such freedom and as Nietzche foresaw, it embrace would lead to madness and anarchy.
I really enjoyed this post. I think it’s hard for adults to imagine how easy it is to grow up valueless if you live on the fasttrack for elite college. For many of my classmates volunteerwork, classwork, sports, all revolved around getting into college. Luckily I was too lazy to fall for that trap.
Thank you Prof Mead. The erosion of our civic virtue is something that we must face and reverse, or our society will decline.
The old Geezer said “Those damn kids they are immoral, not like my generation”
I think it was Socrates that said it first.
Actually, it’s MY generation that I’m criticizing here.
Our nation is now in the hands of the worst of the worst. The arrogant radical secular Left Wing Elites who now rule us have total contempt for traditional morality and ethics. They believe that the end justifies the means as long as it furthers their secular left wing ideology. Thus its ok to claim to have served in Vietnam when you didn’t. Thus its ok to act indignant about being caught rather than ashamed! We do need someone like a Gen Petraeus whose faith in the goodness of our nation is undiminished to come forward. Someone who has chosen the life of service and sacrifice whom we know has not been corrupted.
Walter Russell Meade,
I have only recently discovered you and enjoy almost all of your postings.
Since you live in the belly of the beast, you may not be as aware of what is happening in physics today. There is a good possibility that the reductionist basis of science (since Darwin) may be challenged by recent discoveries in Cosmology and expected discoveries in particle physics (at the LHC).
A non-mathematical analysis of this potential radical change in scientific worldview is presented in my book, “The Atheist and the God Particle”. Based on reading dozens of your articles, I think you might find it very interesting.
“The pluralism of American society makes it harder for a school that aspires to serve society as a whole to require the study of or participation in a single religious tradition for all its students.”
When was the country less pluralistic with regards to religion? Maybe the theological breadth has gotten bigger, but do you really think Baptists and Congregationalists got on any better than Pentecostals and Methodists today?
But the larger point is the comparative religion paradigm in today’s universities and colleges surely serves society as a whole better than any single religious tradition does, no matter how broad you choose that religious tradition to be.
“And once religion moves from the center of the curriculum and mission, chaplaincies and religious studies programs have a tendency to fall to the margins of college life.” Isn’t a sign of the weakness of religious studies as a discipline? When it is no longer compulsory, it withers.
Are you actually arguing for a more “supernatural, salvationist faith” and less of “a rational and ethical approach to religion”? I wonder what your undergrads would say to that. BTW, what course are you teaching?
“the deep confusion in our society over sexual ethics” I agree. Repressing sexuality has never worked.
“the ideal of chastity before marriage” Who’s ideal is that? Certainly not those who are before marriage. Btw, when and where in history has the ideal ever been achieved? Okay, mostly achieved. Well, how about at least had a chance to be somewhat achieved.
“a fairly casual attitude toward sex is normal” I agree again, it is normal – and healthy!
“The saturation of our cultural space by sexually charged images and stories” Now wait just a second, mister. You’re an English major, so you’ve read Shakespeare, right? He wasn’t exactly a prude, was he? When has cultural space ever not been saturated with sex?
“the educational establishment is clear that sexual relations should be ‘non-exploitative’ and fully consensual; beyond that the fog sets in” Yes, they should be. What do you propose as a rule of sexual relations beyond this?
“much of the academic and cultural establishment is at a loss for words” about sex. I’ll be generous and grant that this is true – why is that bad? Do you want to be told what to think and enjoy about sex by any establishment, even less the academic and cultural establishment? Considering it is “a subject that is foundational to human happiness and well-being”, I would hope not.
“it was considered deeply disgraceful for an established businessman or politician to divorce the woman who had borne and raised his children in order to marry someone younger” But once divorce was readily available, did that ever stop him? And John McCain never paid any price for his contemptible behavior.
“But the liberal story that the moral history of the last fifty years is nothing more or less than social emancipation from the fetters of the past also seems flawed.”
Finally! The strawman. Please tell me the liberals peddling this story. I’ll skip the God talk and cut to the end:
“This almost never ends well;” Actually, this – the old worrying about the moral fiber of the young – never ends. Thankfully, it also never matters. Babies just keep being born.
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Weekly Standard had a piece this week titled, “don’t trust anyone over 50,” which is about what my wife and I (both 63) have been saying to each other the last several years.
Boomers, our generation, are the greatest disappointment of all generations, those who were given the most and made the least of it.
But then people always do better for themselves–morally speaking–in leaner times, don’t they?
I’d rather see the Paul Ryan’s of America holding court in D.C. from this point forward than even the best of the old guard. Let the kids make errors, at least they will be the honest errors of learning how to mediate the Great American Way.
It’s true that Obama isn’t statistically a boomer, or at the very least he’s on the cusp of being one, but for those of us who were once in the sociocultural vanguard of our generation (it was never truly about politics, but lifestyle choices and adaptations), we’ve long known there were many false prophets who came along, pretending to buy into “the scene”–because for a few years there, that was all that was happening. When ‘the scene’ abruptly ended, they went on with their previous plans to run Daddy’s factory, et al. The point being that latter day hippies/revolutionaries like Obama had a kind of unreal and unrealistic manic attachment to “the dream” of the 60s that never comported comfortably with the vision of those of us who were there. They, in fact, absounded with our dream and put their dreadful leftist/socialist Great Society mirage in its place. Like a changling.
Edmund Burke (1729–1797). Reflections on the French Revolution.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
I hear on all hands that a cabal, calling itself philosophic, receives the glory of many of the late proceedings; and that their opinions and systems are the true actuating spirit of the whole of them. I have heard of no party in England, literary or political, at any time, known by such a description. It is not with you composed of those men, is it? whom the vulgar, in their blunt, homely style, commonly call atheists and infidels? If it be, I admit that we too have had writers of that description, who made some noise in their day. At present they repose in lasting oblivion. Who, born within the last forty years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers? Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through? Ask the booksellers of London what is become of all these lights of the world. In as few years their few successors will go to the family vault of “all the Capulets.” But whatever they were, or are, with us, they were and are wholly unconnected individuals. With us they kept the common nature of their kind, and were not gregarious. They never acted in corps, or were known as a faction in the state, nor presumed to influence in that name or character, or for the purposes of such a faction, on any of our public concerns. Whether they ought so to exist, and so be permitted to act, is another question. As such cabals have not existed in England, so neither has the spirit of them had any influence in establishing the original frame of our constitution, or in any one of the several reparations and improvements it has undergone. The whole has been done under the auspices, and is confirmed by the sanctions, of religion and piety. The whole has emanated from the simplicity of our national character, and from a sort of native plainness and directness of understanding, which for a long time characterized those men who have successively obtained authority amongst us. This disposition still remains; at least in the great body of the people. 150
We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, etc., etc,, etc,
So you will engage your commenters when they have small misunderstandings, but will ignore larger and more substantive criticism. Nice.
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