The Deification of Political Opinion

Monday, December 19, AD 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic is discussing the legacy of Christopher Hitchens and the reactions to his death by various commentators, including discussion of whether “not speaking ill of the dead” should apply to public figures. I was struck by this quote of a quote:

As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”

Is this someone being rather hard on Hitchen’s strident atheism, which went to extremes such as loudly mocking Mother Teresa and her work in the most excessive and vulgar terms? Is some health nut going after his heavy smoking and binge drinking? Is some woman upset by the way his literary bad boy persona spilled over into his relationships? No, the topic is Hitchen’s opinion on the Iraq War:

indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made…”

I could see someone arguing that the Iraq War was the “single most consequential decision” in President Bush’s life, or Dick Cheney’s life, or even that of some major military figure. But Hitchen’s was a literary and opinion journalist. That his thoughts on the Iraq War could somehow end up being the most “consequential” in his life suggests a view in which simply having a political opinion on some issue of the day is more important in one’s life than anything one actually does.

This seems like an increasingly common way of thinking. As people decide that they are “basically good people” and banish morality from the bedroom, the living room, and the board room, they come to see morality as being the alignment with larger groups on the big issues of the day. Only the scrupulous worry about the morality of the mundane. Instead, morality is determined by how one addresses the big capitalized phrases of the moment: the War on Terror, Poverty, Inequality, Gay Rights, the Environment, etc.

This, it seems to me, couldn’t be more backwards. Sure, what one thinks on various matters of the day is indicative of one’s moral and personal choices, but the most consequential decisions of our lives are those we make about how we treat those around us on a day in and day out basis — and whether we accept as the ruler and guide of those decisions our Maker.

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6 Responses to The Deification of Political Opinion

  • Can’t say I disagree with you. I would have thought the quote referenced his atheism. Seems that is of far more consequence to Hitchens (or just about anyone) on a personal level than most political opinions (abortion may be up there).

  • We are part of the human family. Attitudes and conduct toward others is rarely different from how we see others. Anyone who has no sense of the sacredness of the Human will have little or no “cruise control” on his thoughts, actions and speaking or writing about Mother Teresa or war. We have admitted and professed and militant atheists. More troublesome is we have politicians, journalists commentators and bishops who act as if they have absolutely no sense of the sacredness of human life, privacy, reputation. They may say the right things about human life’s sacredness but in practice show themselves as atheists.

  • I immediately knew the quote was about Iraq. It’s the single biggest issue on which he was decidedly not left-wing. We reserve our greatest condemnations for those who claim to be one of us. Pro-choice Catholics, RINOS, and self-described leftists who supported the Iraq war.

  • Let’s compare Hitchens’ position to Obama who was against it before he was for the Iraq War.

    Dave Carter: “Thanking the troops for a job well done at Ft. Bragg today, President Obama alternately praised a strategy he had previously assailed, thanked troops he had previously accused of killing civilians and air raiding villages, and took credit for an endeavor he had once called dumb. As far as these things go, it was vintage Obama.”

    The more (thankfully indirect) contact I have with them the less I wonder at how intellectual leftists were taken in by Obama: a nobody who is so dull and so illogical.

    I must conclude that intellectuals are no smarter than the rest of us. They only think they are.

  • Really insightful article.

  • Hollywood pioneered this type of “morality”. “Yeah, I may have five failed marriages, be a terror to work with, use copious drugs in my spare time, engage in some sex with minors and generally treat other people like garbage, but since I hold the right political opinions and hate all the right people, I am a good person!”

    Liberal comic Mort Sahl has been noting this for decades:

    “Asked about his infamous friendships with Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig and George H.W. Bush and whether such alliances compromised his reputation as a radical truth teller, he said, “I’ve written for a lot of politicians — the Republicans are the only ones who pay me!” He laughed hard. “It all comes down to whether or not you’re honest with yourself. A lot of people have no intellectual capacity and operate on this instinctual masculine fatalism. Right-wing guys are honest about who they are and liberals are honest about what they wish we all could be — that’s not being honest with yourself. If I talk to people today about John Wayne, for instance, and I mention The Sea Chase and James Warner Bellah or somebody they don’t like politically, they won’t acknowledge their art.

    Nowadays, you open up what’s supposed to be a left-wing newspaper and you get a cartoon of Dick Cheney with his fly open. Bush is supposed to be the bad guy and you’re supposed to be morally superior, and this is what you do? Come on! When all you do is label the opposition as the enemy, you run the risk of becoming sophomoric in your understanding of the world.”

Proxy Morality: Advocacy and 'Solidarity'

Thursday, August 26, AD 2010

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I’d like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.

Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality.

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9 Responses to Proxy Morality: Advocacy and 'Solidarity'

  • Bravo! I have always held political advocacy of the pro-life cause to be highly important. However, I have also thought such advocacy was never enough which is why I served as a Birthright Volunteer at the U of I and am in my tenth year as Chairman of the Board of the local Crisis Pregnancy Center. Political involvement is never a substitute for personal help to those needing our, not someone else’s, assistance. All of this is something not to take pride in however. Most of us could do so much more. Helping others is merely to meet our minimal demands as followers of Christ. In regard to abortion this is especially true. “I do not believe it should be legal to kill unborn children in the womb.” This should be akin to saying, “I do not believe that cannibalism is a proper food choice.” In our decadent times we celebrate aspects of morality that even hardened sinners in earlier periods of the Christian era would have been aghast at trespassing.

  • I am in solidarity with the sentiments of this post. ;-).

  • Good post, and one I shall need to think about. I would only add that while simply supporting cause x is nothing, actually praying for that cause is an action that goes beyond “proxy morality” (as you are sacrificing time on their behalf). I imagine prayer allows Christians to be more involved in many issues more than just proxy solidarity.

  • I’ll just add that sometimes there appears (to me) to be a tension between the type of mentality best suited for advancing social change and a mentality focused on the development of individual virtue. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. was a tremendously successful advocate for his cause; but his personal life was far from exemplary, and many of his tactics (e.g. successfully targeting and goading extremists like Bull Connor into acting violently towards school children) are open to criticism.

    In a media-driven culture that focuses on the sensational, a measured, nuanced, and fair critique often attracts little attention, while a ridiculous simplification can often advance (or set back) a cause a great deal. It seems to me in many cases that there is a tension between being a good person and getting things done; and that (in addition to cynicism and discouragement) is the perennial temptation for those who are committed to larger causes. “The children of this world are wiser…” and all that. Proxy morality can occasionally be effective, and still be the enemy of virtue.

  • I know what you mean. I volunteered at a food bank this summer, and was surrounded by nothing but “progressive Democrats.” Come on, righties! Get out there and DO stuff!

  • Dobie,

    How old are you, now?

    I used to watch you on TV when I was a kid, in the 1950’s?

    I am gratified they’re taking time out from assisting at abortion clinics to feed people that got past the abortion factories.

  • Excellent post. At the same time, I wouldn’t hold it against people for doing nothing more than stating their positions. We have other responsibilities and limited resources.

  • Good post.

    casting a ballot or publicly agreeing with a political stance is something that typically costs us very little at a personal level

    That is true for me and for many others, but we should remember the enormous pressures which some are under. Think about the blacks who voted for McCain. That vote took a lot of guts and they were punished “at a personal level.”

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Proxy Morality: Taking Sides in History

Tuesday, August 10, AD 2010

Generally speaking, I think we would say that moral behavior consists of choosing to do right in one’s actions. However, there are a number of instances in which we tend to think of ourselves as behaving virtuously despite not having actually undertaken any action. These are means by which we tell ourselves that we have demonstrated we are “good people” without the burden of actually doing good things.

There are several different ways we do this which I’d like to address under the description of “proxy morality”, by which I mean instances in which someone assigns virtue to himself through no more action than identifying himself with some good which is performed by someone else. The first of these, one which I think people of all ideological persuasions fall into at times, is that of taking sides in history.

It is by now an old saw that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I think there is a good deal of truth in this. Further, it can be of some moral benefit for us to look to history for people and actions to admire. The moment in which we find ourselves suddenly faced with some difficult moral decision is typically not the moment at which are most un-biased or deliberative, and so having clear examples to follow, if they are well chosen, can be a significant benefit.

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3 Responses to Proxy Morality: Taking Sides in History