Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moral Collapse

The recent news about the attempt of Illinois Governor Blagojevic to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat inevitably brings to mind other moral failings by public figures in recent years, from Bill Clinton’s Oval Office blowjobs, to the corruption of Republican leaders like Tom DeLay and K-Street cronies of his like Jack Abramoff, to the rampant criminality of dominant members of the Bush Administration in “legalizing” torture, pre-emptively invading Iraq, and trashing the most basic legal constraints such as habeas corpus. These memories in turn immediately invite others: Robert Mugabe clinging to power in Zimbabwe while his people are ravaged by cholera; the generals in Burma jailing monks while floods kill thousands of their subjects; the U.S. president flying over flooded New Orleans while residents call for help from rooftops and receive only displacement and exile; and, of course, Middle East fanatics in commercial airplanes flying them into the Twin Towers to kill as many Americans as they can.

What is happening here? Whatever happened to moral restraint? to adherence to the moral codes that at one time seemed to control not only political figures, but most human beings and their actions? Are we witnessing, that is, not only the collapse of our economy and economies worldwide, but also a general collapse of morals and morality itself?

It often seems that way. Consider the actions of those we traditionally expect to follow basic moral precepts—the preachers and teachers who are supposed to guide us. What we find, instead, are fundamentalist zealots at every level. The events of 9/11 were perpetrated, we are told, by members of Al Qaeda, who apparently invoked the god of Muslims, Allah, as they were crashing their planes into buildings. Three thousand people died as a result of their, and their alleged leader’s perverted religiosity. The same holds for those who perpetrated the recent killings in Mumbai, India; all were allegedly goaded on by yet another Islamic fundamentalist organization out of Pakistan. Then there are the pronouncements of Christian fundamentalists in America. Fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson not long ago openly called for the assassination of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela; General Jerry Boykin, a born-again Christian who led a mission into Colombia some say was intended to assassinate drug lord Pablo Escobar (who was in fact assassinated), asserted in a 2006 speech that he was confident of victory in the War on Terror because his God, the Christian God, was real, while the god of his Muslim adversary was an “idol.” And when it comes to the main focus of Christian fundamentalism in America—the campaign against a woman’s right to abortion—the rabid nature of the argument leads, and has led, inevitably to zealots who have tried to kill, and in some cases succeeded in killing doctors suspected of performing abortions, all in the name of the “right to life.” The fundamental law of all religions—the prohibition on killing other humans—seems not only not to count, but is actually turned on its head, reversed, in the name of religion.

Nor is it just Christians and Muslims who have violated this basic precept in the name of their faiths. Israelis have been doing the same thing for nearly 70 years in Palestine. And the situation here seems, if anything, even more bizarre. For the moral calculus that seems to pertain in Israel is this: we Jews were subjected to a holocaust in Germany, by a leader who used Christianity to justify our extermination; therefore, that gives us the moral right to do the same to our enemies, the Palestinians. We can subjugate them, wall them into ghettos like the ones we were forced to endure, and slowly strangle them to the point where they will leave, whereupon we will have, finally, Eretz Israel, that greater Israel pledged to us by God in our holy book. And if this means that we must consider Palestinians “roaches” in order to justify our theft of their land, to rationalize our exile or murder of millions of that land’s original inhabitants, so be it. God and the holocaust we have suffered combine to justify and bless our cause.

It takes very little reflection to see that this ethic—or lack of an ethic—is reinforced everywhere in our world. Wall Street bankers serve themselves billions in bonuses as they scheme to create ever more complex and illegal ways to multiply their profits, leaving in their wake the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. CEOs of major U.S. corporations do the same, insisting that their obscene compensation plans come before all other considerations. In the process, they think nothing of firing thousands, moving their operations to foreign countries where laborers get a pittance, and devastating communities in the country they profess to love and serve. Major magazines then lionize these “geniuses of industry and finance,” as they have lionized Hollywood stars, who have for years been paid just as obscenely for their celluloid posturing, and star athletes who now follow suit with multi-million dollar contracts for their skill with balls. All the while, society in general rarely questions the right of high-status individuals to be compensated in such outlandish and disproportionate, not to say immoral ways.

The media almost uniformly reinforces all this immorality and amorality with the dramas they present in film and television. We are treated nightly to psychopathic killers who delight in torturing and tormenting women or children, the more helpless the better. TV shows like “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Minds” and the spate of Crime Scene Investigation spinoffs vie with each other to portray the most brutal, the most gruesome scenes of violence, taking delight in depicting the dismemberment and violation of human bodies in every way imaginable. Sitcoms take the opposite tack, proudly portraying puerile men and women whose announced intention is to get “laid” as often as possible, and/or to get even when they cannot get laid. Commercials reinforce the general selfishness by featuring lovers contriving ways to cheat their loved ones of an “invaluable” taste treat like chicken mcnuggets or an overstuffed hamburger. The general idea, both in fact and in fiction, seems to be: this is it, folks, the one life we’re all going to have, so get yours while you can, as often as you can; there is no other measure of success. As to morality, it usually enters the equation late, with a contrived triumph of “justice,” but with the true emotional impact having long since been delivered via the gratuitous violence, sexuality or greed.

What we are shown, daily, hourly, in sum, is the triumph of the most narrow conception of self and selfishness. Self-centered pricks rule the world, morality is for chumps, and we would all do well to satisfy ourselves and only, if we have riches to burn, those close to us or those who share our views. All else is hopeless, outdated romanticism. Waiting for a Godot who will never come.

Does this then mean that the traditional morality that is honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that apparently formed the bulwark against barbaric behavior for so long, is in its death throes? Perhaps. Perhaps traditional morality has been so discredited—by psychology and biology, by economics and history and physics and anthropology, by global overpopulation—that paying attention to the ten commandments or any other moral code seems not only passé but foolish. Aside from a few saints, the people with power, the people in the real world, have never adhered to such constraints. Morality has always applied, if it applied at all, only in families, to a lesser degree in neighborhoods, to a lesser degree among our co-religionists, to a still lesser degree within nations, and not at all beyond those bounds. The behavior we so much deplore, in short, actually describes what has been the rule, not the exception, for years, and will, must increasingly dominate human relations in the global, overpopulated, resource-depleted world we are facing.

Unless. Unless there’s an alternative view—one that sees the death throes of traditional morality as an indication of something more. What if the moral collapse we see around us were signaling not a complete curling inwards toward ever greater selfishness and cruelty, but rather a groping outwards, an attempt to find some greater morality more fitting to a global community? In other words, what if we are being prepared, haltingly, against our wills in most cases, for a morality that includes not just those who are our kin, one way or another, but those we have traditionally seen as NOT our kin, or even our kind? What if we are being asked to join not just the greater human family once described in a famous book as “the Family of Man,” the global family of all homo sapiens (and we are being asked to join that family by everything that has happened in recent years, by the floods, the famines, the wars, delivered so graphically to us on television that it is nearly impossible to ignore the suffering all around us) but the family of all beings--the family that includes the animals and even the plants that we now must realize are not foreign to us, not OTHER, but truly us, truly constructed not only of the same basic genetic code but the same star stuff the same chemicals and proteins and elements and electrons and quarks and strings and life-templates that shape and form each and every one of us? That we, in fact, are.

It could be. It could be that our growing revulsion over torture and war and starvation in the remotest corners of the earth is serving to force us in this direction. It could be that our growing realization about global warming is meant to drag us kicking and screaming into the understanding that we cannot survive on our own, we cannot survive in our little families or our little neighborhoods or our little countries or big countries no matter how big or powerful or armed with nuclear weapons. We cannot. Because the catastrophe our narrow, myopic morality has prepared for us will overwhelm all such small aggregations. Will demand that our concern grow ever larger, our compassion extend ever farther, because if it does not, we are all doomed. Our planet is doomed. The lungs of our planet which we have been so busy cutting down—the rain forests—are doomed. As is the air we have been so busy besmirching. As is the soil we have been so busy poisoning. As is the home we have been so busy befouling. As is life itself, the myriad beings we have been so busy distinguishing ourselves from in our ignorance and thereby destroying—doomed.

Moral collapse thus can be seen in at least two ways. We can choose to see it as the necessary precursor to something larger, something greater, some more universal morality which will have for its concern the care for all life, for life itself. Or it can be seen as the precursor to an even more catastrophic collapse, the collapse of functioning human groups, functioning societies, functioning governments, a functioning planet.

The choice is ours.

Lawrence DiStasi

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