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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The intersection of virtue and power, and the justifications of policies related to race.

by John MacBeath Watkins

For much of human history, we have been ruled by faith and force. It's easy to understand why force -- the king with his troops -- can rule, but why is faith so important?

Faith is about how we should live. And one of the functions of those who are in charge of faith is to decide who is virtuous, and what actions are virtuous. That is a powerful thing: It means those who interpret virtue can say who is acting rightly, and who is not.

We like to believe we live in a just world, in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. In a way, the arbiters of what is virtuous are there to reassure us that the world is unfolding as it should. But they are also meant to be a check on those who cheat.

It is therefore in the interest of those who succeed to influence the perception of virtue so that their gains are not regarded as ill-gotten. Kings would rather you believe they ruled by divine right -- the will of God -- than that they simply control a lot of soldiers. The rich of the Gilded Age liked to believe they were the product of social Darwinism, that their wealth was a sign that they were fitter than the poor, just as our modern-day rich like Objectivism, Ayn Rand's reboot of social Darwinism without the bogus biology.

Rand is an interesting case in the study of virtue. She did, after all, write the book on The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand admired the psychopathic killer Edward Wayne Hickman, because of his selfishness and unwillingness to be bound by social conventions such as not killing people.

Her ideas matured, of course. From the Ayn Rand website (original appearance was in an appendix to Atlas Shrugged:):
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
This is a nice philosophy for making a virtue of not helping others, which is fine if you have a nice life and don't wish to be bothered about those less fortunate. This is true not just between rich and poor, but between those advantaged by their race and those disadvantaged by it.

In reality, Rand's notions about morality make no sense in terms of the way people live their lives. Most parents would sacrifice a great deal for the sake of their children, a characteristic that is hardly unique to humans.

Rand's is a philosophy compatible with narcissism and psychopathy, and has no room for idealism, patriotism, or noble self-sacrifice of any sort. It does, however, fit perfectly with the age of the corporation as it now exists.

There was a time when corporations were managed as if they were a person, with shareholders, bondholders, customers and employees all considered as stakeholders. The switch to managing for shareholder value, which started in the 1970s, has remade corporations into a different kind of organization, closer to the Ayn Rand ideal of the selfish individual. And this new version of the right actions for a corporation appear to have seeped into the rest of the culture, with some surprising groups adopting its justifications and notions of what are right actions.

The rise of a libertarian right has given us an entire political movement built around this rather strange notion of virtue. This movement is the strange bedfellow of Christian conservatives who believe Christ dying for their sins is the essence of morality and paleoconservatives who believe in patriotism and the nobility of going to war and becoming a hero.

Our political divisions are as much moral as anything else, but there are deeper and darker emotions at work. To some extent, the morality of libertarians, Christian conservatives, and paleoconservatives are a sham and a justification for things less obviously related to virtue.

When Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 run for the presidency on the Republican ticket, opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds, he did something a large part of the country wanted, regardless of how it was justified: He took a stand against civil rights. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket, preaching segregation and taking 39 electoral college votes, became a Republican.

Richard Nixon, sometimes called "the last liberal" for his actual policies, pursued a Southern strategy for election, and continued a transition that made the Republican Party the party of the South.

Now, it's easy to see how paleoconservatives would be attracted to a party that opposed the Civil Rights Act (many northern Republicans had voted for it, but having Goldwater at the top of the ticket opposing it changed how the party was perceived.) But why would Christian Conservatives be attracted to such a party?

Well, one thing that happened after the Civil Rights Act passed was integration of public schools. And white parents who didn't want their kids in schools with blacks started sending them to a new crop of private schools, colloquially known as "white academies." And many of those were associated with white Evangelical churches. When the nonprofit status of those schools was threatened by a crackdown on those that existed entirely to segregate, those churches became interested in politics, and in limited government.

The libertarian/small government justification for fighting federal efforts to desegregate and put an end to Jim Crow was also attractive to rich people who wanted to pay lower taxes. It was easy enough to demonize government spending if such spending was thought to help Those People, and another group fastened onto the libertarian justification machine like remora on a shark.

Because this is what happens when virtue bestows power. You have to put forward a moral justification for your political movement, and "government is the problem, not the solution" sounded so much better than the 19th century justifications that were no longer acceptable.

Alexander Stephens
Consider an excerpt from the "cornerstone speech" of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in 1861:
 The prevailing ideas entertained by him (Thomas Jefferson) and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew." 
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind -- from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just -- but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail.
History can change suddenly, but culture changes slowly. Beliefs such as Stephens voiced did not die with him, they live on, and are part of what many people think of as "right." Those people are now aware that their language and justifications have to change, even as their attitudes remain the same.
Lee Atwater, a Republican political strategist who worked for Ronald Reagan, put it this way in 1981:You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The conversation changes, new arguments about what is right action, but the old motivation are behind the new justifications. This is the corruption of virtue in the pursuit of power: People who cannot any longer justify the policies they want in honest terms find dishonest ones to make their intentions seem virtuous. One might call it policy laundering; a policy that can no longer be justified by its original moral logic seeks new moral logic to make it seem acceptable.

This is a mask of virtue on the face of an ancient evil, an effort to make a carnival of matters of conscience. But in the end, can they war successfully against a principle of politics? Can the notion that some people aren't worth as much as others because of some feature they cannot control, such as the color of their skin, triumph over the principle that "all men are created equal"?

"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."-- Martin Luther King, Jr.


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