Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Moral Fervor of Young Americans

In the long history of the old complaining about the young, one refrain has been that young people are immoral. That have never really been my experience; I have always known many young people who suffer from what looks to me like excessive moral rigidity and inability to see that reality sometimes imposes a very high cost on abstractly correct moral choices.

I was one once.

David Brooks has spent the past year interviewing hundreds of people for a new book, and what strikes him about young people these days is their moral passion:
The big thing I encountered was the seismic generation gap. People my age rag on the younger generation for being entitled, and emotionally fragile, etc. But this generation is also seething with moral passion, and rebelling against the privatization of morality so prevalent in the Boomer and Gen-X generations.

They can be totally insufferable about it. In the upscale colleges on the coasts, Wokeness is a religious revival with its own conception of sin (privilege) and its own version of the Salem Witch Trials (online shaming). But the people in this movement have a sense of vocation, moral call, and a rage at injustice that is legitimate rejection of what came before. . . .

It’s often uncomfortable and over the top, but we’re lucky to have a rebellion against boomer quietism and moral miniaturization. The young zealots may burn us all in the flames of their auto-da-fe, but it’s better than living in a society marked by loneliness and quiet despair.
Right now the worldview of many young Americans is dominated by morality. Interest in Socialism is mainly driven by a sense that Capitalism is immoral. The "sure it's unfair but it works and nothing else does" position disgusts many young Americans. Historical figures are appreciated only for their morality: I have had two conversations with young people about George Washington recently that went like,
"He owned slaves."
"But he was a great first President."
"He owned slaves."
"He did free them in his will."
"He doesn't get points for that."
Colin Kaepernick's protest against the American flag of 1776 fits perfectly into this pattern: for him and millions of other people, America in the 18th century was just a place where white people owned slaves and killed Indians and they don't want to hear anything else about it.

From my jaded middle-aged perspective the problem with this passion is that in politics passion is of only limited use. Real political change is usually engineered by pragmatists willing to do deals with their enemies: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson. If you're so full of rage against racists that you can't imagine working with them, you're not likely to pass many bills. And when it comes to economics, it just seems to be true that greed motivates people to work harder than love of your community, so only systems that tap into greed work in the long run.

Politics, in my view, should be how we solve our common problems, not how we vent our indignation.


G. Verloren said...

Politics, in my view, should be how we solve our common problems, not how we vent our indignation.

Have you forgotten that this country was founded on moral indignation?

Yours is the argument of the Colonial Loyalist, calling upon his fellows to engage in "sensible", "moderate" reconciliation with Britain.

Others brim with moral indignation at the abuses they suffer at the hands of the crown, but you chide them to try to see both sides - to seek compromises with those who unjustly abuse them, because while "some people" might be suffering, surely they must concede the British Empire as a whole sees a net gain from their exploitation?

So what if the navy impresses a few American sailors here and there? So what if the crown levies extraordinary taxes upon the colonies, but not upon Britain proper, to pay for debts incurred fighting wars in Europe? So what if Americans are denied proper legislation and representation, both locally and in Britain proper? So what if Americans have to quarter troops in their own homes, at their own expense?

Are people seriously going to let a mere 27 grievances drive them to radicalism and revolt? How foolish and unproductive! Surely they need to stop venting their moral indignations, and instead focus on solving "our common problems"? There is too much partisan thinking in the Empire these days, despite the fact that overall, Britain is as strong as it has ever been! What we need now is unity and compromise!

"My good friends, look forward to the day when an American congressman returns from Britian bringing peace with honour. I believe it will be peace for our time. We will thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Then you may go home and get a nice quiet sleep."

G. Verloren said...

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

- That all men are created equal.

- That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

- That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


The moral indignation you so arrogantly dismiss is the outcry of those whose consent to be governed is being continually betrayed, and whose current form of government is destructive toward the end of securing them their inalienable rights.

They are disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, and they are not without prudence. But their causes for change are neither light nor transient.

The train of abuses and usurpations persued to reduce them under absolute Despotism has grown dangerously long, and their moral indignation is the cry of warning.

Fail to heed it at your peril.

Susi said...

These young folks were raised by the children of the Sixties Generation. My daughter's Father in Law regularly rants about the current injustices. I, of his generation, see injustice and inequality all around. And, yet, we prospered under these inequalities and turned blind eyes to them and the injustices. Pogo was right.

Anonymous said...

First, any column here that begins with David Brooks exegesis carries its own implicit warning: "CONTENTS MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH." Read another book this year, John, for God's sake. . . .

Secondly, the continual drone of your own rhetoric, to the effect that "the old days of inequity were so much better than progress" blah-blah remind me increasingly of Henry James' dismissal of Carlyle: "The same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in its own grease."

My old law profess or was so correct when he said, "People don't change their opinions. People die off."

Your prospective contribution to progress is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

For the gentle reader,a primer on writing "just like David Brooks":

John said...

"Have you forgotten that this country was founded on moral indignation?"

I disagree completely with this characterization of the Revolution. It is true that in 1776 plenty of people in the 13 colonies were angry, viz. Patrick Henry shouting "Give me liberty or give me death."

But the men who really led the Revolution: Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the like were publicly and philosophically committed to renouncing anger and hate. They were men of the Enlightenment. They strove to steer clear of strong emotion and act through Reason. Of course they often failed to live up to this standard, but they tried. For Franklin and Washington in particular NOT hating the British was something close to an obsession. Franklin strove for a decade to patch up some kind of deal with Britain, and Washington baffled many of his contemporaries by his insistence on fighting a gentlemanly war rather than a guerrilla insurgency. But for both of them independence was not worth winning if it meant giving up Reason.

Anonymous said...

Without moral indignation the Jeffrey Epsteins and Alex Acostas of the day have no difficulty arranging the affairs of the men to their liking; and you may be sure they have the private cell numbers of our contemporary Adams and Jefferson (especially Jefferson)to expedite matters.

Sweet Reason never got anyone through the winter at Valley Forge. . . .

G. Verloren said...


You could make a case that Washington and Hamilton in particular weren't driven quite so much by moral indignation, but the other three are key signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

This is a document whose entire existence is predicated on the airing of grievances that the authors deemed so severe as to justify open revolt and civil war. How anyone could possibly understand that as anything other than a work of pure moral indignation, I have no idea - unless you are suggesting that it was a wholly pragmatic document, drafted by it's signers purely as a cynical ploy to manipulate and exploit general public sentiment and moral indignation for nefarious reasons of personal gain?

To suggest that the Declartion of Independence is about anything other than moral indignation is to suggest that is wholly about simple greed and avarice - a sham assemablge of flowery but empty sentiments, meant solely to appeal to the outraged masses as a work of propaganda, promulgated for the sole benefit of its authors.

Either you argue that Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson are men who - however hesitant initially - ultimately came to filly embrace and support a supremrely risky and dangerous cause on firmly moral grounds, or you argue that they are the most cynically brilliant Capitalists and conmen ever to exist, and the entire Revolution was a sham concocted to convince common men to die in order to profit the rich.

David said...


Actually, it's not a question of either pure moral indignation OR simple greed and avarice--between those two are whole other worlds of possibility.

There was indignation there, perhaps more than John allows, but by summer 1776 and in the rooms where the Declaration was drafted, debated, and voted on, it wasn't emotional or hotheaded. It's worth remembering that most of those in the Congress were self-consciously "serious," "responsible" men, many of them (like Adams and Jefferson) lawyers, many also with experience of government, and all men of property (for them, an identity requiring dignity and stateliness).

Some of the issues on the list were fairly old, and a version of the list as a whole had already been drafted and sent to Parliament in October 1775. The list addressed to Parliament was essentially a petition for redress. Because Parliament didn't answer--being in their own spate of indignation and wanting to show who was boss--Congress determined on independence. The Declaration of Independence was then addressed to the king because the tie to Britain that the authors intended to sever went through the Crown. Addressing the king was a legal requirement.

All of the grievances in the Declaration were much hashed over, debated, redrafted, etc., etc. They were important enough that all the British reaction had to do with the grievances--the preamble the British ignored, as consisting of philosophical commonplaces that everyone agreed with, even if they didn't live by them.

After the revolution, the preamble got much more attention, including from American protest movements. But it was arguably Lincoln who really made it a kind of "American scripture" as one historian has called it.

It has been argued with some evidence that the real target of the Declaration was France, the point being to show that the rebels were, again, "serious" men who knew how to make their rebellion legally valid and who were thus worthy of serious consideration as a partner in an alliance.

None of this means that the authors were dishonest schemers and the Declaration a sham--it just means they weren't fools.