Tag Archives: morality

Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:

http://davidsimon.com/commencement-address-georgetown-university/

Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.

David Brooks and the Search for Character

25 Apr

David Brooks is one of those talented people who has managed to get himself disliked in many circles. As a resident conservative at the New York Times, he has the unenviable task of defending a political outlook that few of his readers agree with, and makes such an effort to speak to them that he’s pretty easily labeled a Republican In Name Only by the right. Sometimes he pursues balance for its own sake to the extent that seems like one of those annoying kids yelling “yeah, but” on the playground, and his willingness to dabble in anything can lead him to be painfully wrong about some things, most notably foreign policy.

Such is life as a syndicated columnist, as he must churn out new ideas twice a week, every week. Much of his longer work is a far better sample of what his real interests and concerns are, from the acute diagnosis of upper middle class America in Bobos in Paradise to the social science-heavy study of life in The Social Animal. Brooks has been on a steady turn inward as his career has gone along, a process that culminated in his most recent book, The Road to Character. He’s long been capable of profound reflections on the costs of a lack of reflection on one’s own self—see the classic “Organization Kid” essay, which should be required reading for anyone entering an “elite” college—but only recently has he taken the step from detached takedowns of people who don’t do this to exploring what it means to actually do so. (His own recent divorce probably spurred this all along, too.)

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Brooks when he was in the early stages of conceiving The Road to Character, a 2011 talk called “The Era of Self-Expansion” put on by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum. In it, he recalled a column he’d written earlier that year, an especially memorable piece for a soon-to-be college graduate in which he talked about how people find their callings. When I asked him about it in the receiving line, he admitted he’d somewhat made it up, but was impressed with how well it had resonated.

In the column, he blasts the tiresome myopia of the follow-your-own-dreams rhetoric so common in life advice today. However noble in its desire to tell us to be ourselves, these words foment a worldview that places the self and its ambition at the center of it all. The universe revolves around me, even as I purport to go forth and do “good” in the world, following the passions I have deemed worthwhile, in my infinite wisdom. And when I do try to do this, life inevitably gets in the way, whether in the form of my own limitations or the failures of other people or forces beyond my control. Suddenly, I’m powerless, and I’m pretty angry about it. Before long, I’m defeated, or perhaps more mundanely, I’ve discovered that the dreams of my younger self are no longer the dreams of my older self, and I’ve spent however many years chasing the wrong thing. The world refuses to cooperate and revolve around me.

The fruits of Brooks’ search don’t come in this takedown of selfishness, though. This is easy, and not terribly original. He needs an alternative, something else to aspire to. He now champions excellence over happiness, and the pursuit of something a bit more complete than just the self-expression celebrated in some of his earlier work. This drive doesn’t come from within, but from something that happens to people: one’s circumstances leave one with passions, and mark people by the things that jar them into awareness, whether as witnesses or the things they endure. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is essential. The turning points in life are rarely moments of great happiness or accomplishment, but instead in suffering and failure, and a desire to overcome it, perhaps even build off of it. This, and not the blind whims of dreams, defines who we become.

It is now fairly easy to go through childhood, and even much further into life, without ever coming face-to-face with this sort of adversity. It’s a triumph of affluence, I suppose, of good health, suburban living, wealthy schools (public or private), and other comforts that allow us to live out that pursuit of happiness extolled in Brooks’ early work. It’s not a bad life, clearly, and I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone for pursuit it.

The trouble comes in pursuing it alone, and nothing else. Deep within this comfort there is a moral poverty: everyone plays out the string as they see fit. Forget complaints about moral relativism; there is no moral dimension at all, as the whole language necessary to even make these distinctions falls away. People become lost and have no means to figure out why. Even the humanities, designed with this express purpose, often fails, aiming instead for aesthetic, utilitarian, or political arguments to justify its existence. It’s no wonder these departments are collapsing left and right. But there are encouraging signs, Brooks’ latest book among them, that people are starting to realize something is missing. Hopefully the new book offers some models, and some ways to cultivate that character necessary to pursue the truly good life. If Brooks can do that for people, it would amount to a legacy far greater than his scattered collection of brief columns.

Sometimes, though, one of the sparks that helps a jaded kid make sense of the disparate threads of life, one that plays off those turning points and fuses them with ongoing interests, comes from an unexpected place. In that lecture I attended four years ago, Brooks dropped in a book recommendation: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I jotted it down at the time, picked it up a year or two later, and the rest is history.

Legality as Morality

29 Jul

A few weeks ago, while writing some less-than-kind words about local businessman Jim Carlson, I used the epithet that he “is the sort of man for whom legality defines morality.” I’ve used that line before in places other than this blog, and I think it deserves a deeper explanation.

At the time, Mr. Carlson was trying to justify his shop’s sales of synthetic marijuana, and claimed that the city of Duluth’s plan to regulate his product amounted to an admission that he hadn’t been doing anything wrong. It isn’t a totally implausible stance, at least to the extent that one considers the law the arbiter of whether something is right or not. Mr. Carlson also has some defenders who don’t necessarily like his product, but fear the city government is being too heavy-handed in its attack on the Last Place on Earth (LPOE); I respect that concern, and the wrongness of Mr. Carlson’s actions does not give his opponents free reign to bring him down by any means they choose.

However, far too often, people such as Mr. Carlson use the law as a shelter from the need to exercise any moral reckoning. If something is legal, the theory goes, then who is anyone to judge them? I suppose it is possible for him to uphold a libertarian form of morality that claims he simply sells what people demand, and that it’s up to them to reap the consequences. And, in a legal sense, this is true: we cannot rob the agency from the people who line up outside of his store to buy his incredibly harmful product. (This isn’t regular marijuana we’re talking about here: it involves countless chemical additives that can be as damaging as cocaine.)

Lost in that worldview, however, is any notion of interconnectivity. Synthetic drug use doesn’t just affect the users. It is a burden for the community on a number of levels, from increasing crime and the need for added police to public health issues to driving away the clientele of neighboring businesses. Drug abuse tears apart families, and it’s not uncommon to see people standing in line at the LPOE with toting children in strollers with them. (Childhood never really jells well with strict libertine arguments.) And with drug manufacturers doing everything in their power to stay ahead of the law by constantly changing the chemical compounds in their product, it is rather obvious that the motive here is the maintenance of legality at all costs. It is a cynical scheme whose only defense appears to be an attack on those who oppose them instead of an attempt to articulate why they do what they do.

Partisans will throw the blame for this loss of moral language in any number of directions. The left will attack the market, and the profit motive that pushes people to forget their morals in the pursuit of cash flow. (Mr. Carlson has made untold millions off his synthetic drugs.) The right will attack individual moral failings and, on a more intellectual plane, the overuse of the language of “rights” in political discourse. We see it around us every day: people religiously defend their right to bear arms, their right to free speech, their right to marry whomever they would like. Many of these rights are hard-won, and emerged out of historical cases of oppression that would seem to justify a legal reaction. Still, the possession of a right does not make it right to exercise it. Amidst our pushes for liberation, it seems that some people have lost track of any sense of prudence. (How often does one even hear words like “prudence” anymore?)

It isn’t surprising, really. Rights have the convenience of being black-or-white: either you have a right or you don’t, and it is spelled out in law. Prudence, on the other hand, requires near-constant discernment, and while other people can influence it, at the end of the day, that burden falls on each individual. Moral agency is a legitimate burden that can—and, really, should—be very difficult to manage. Thankfully, there are some guideposts to fall back on. Maybe this means a religious or communal or familial code; maybe this means a sort of liberal humanism whose precepts you don’t feel the need to question. If you don’t have one of those you feel comfortable with, maybe it means spending your waking hours trying to write through it all in fiction or on a blog when you should be out doing things with your life. (Guilty, your honor.) There’s no guarantee of easy answers, but one can find some measure of peace without too much pain.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against government action—in fact, the LPOE case is a perfect example of one in which a coherent response requires at least some measure of a response from an authority. Clearly, there are cases in which oppression is so overwhelming that it would be naïve to tell people to forget about the laws and get on with living virtuously, and there are many rights worth fighting for. It only becomes a problem when the rights become ends to themselves, instead of means to a broader end; unfortunately, this way of thinking has leached so deeply into contemporary American thought processes that it sometimes seems like people sacrifice their moral agency to the state. This is especially curious given the general wariness of state intervention in so many other spheres of life. Legalism, we might say, emerges from the bizarre civic religion of American freedom: in some circles, the mystique of the Constitution or some other interpretation of the nation’s founding principles seem to have replaced the exercise of moral inquiry.

Assuming legality defines morality isn’t the worst sin on earth. I’d rather live in a society where most people accept legal definitions of morality than one in which there is no morality at all. But forming one’s worldview with respect to what is legal is an impoverished view. On a fundamental level, no one’s moral reason for not doing something should be “because it’s illegal.” (I emphasize the word “moral” here because there are, obviously, practical reasons to do or not do things that have little to do with morality.) In many cases laws are based on perfectly rational precepts that practically no one would dispute, and it’s not worth expending much thought on them. But laws do not bear any moral weight in and of themselves; they simply convey the moral judgment of the governing body that produced them. They can be a starting point for moral thought, but never the end. That task lies with each of us, including Mr. Carlson.