“Albert Einstein lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.” — Paul Johnson in “Modern Times,” 1991, HarperCollins.
Look, political idiocy is my friend. As an editorial writer, I have depended on its existence in one form or another for 50 years. I swim in the stuff. And if I’m worried, you should be worried.
Our concern should be with the quality of the public discussion rather than any particular ideological drift in one direction or another. Drift can be self-corrective. Ignorance is fatal.
David Mamet in his wonderful book “The Secret Knowledge” notes that America is not so much divided between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, as it is between those who think and those who merely talk in code.
There is no need to list those code words here. You know what they are. They are the adjectives that fill the headlines on the front page and on the evening news, that pepper every stump speech.
But let’s look at just one example, extreme. To say that someone is “extreme” is code today for a person who holds to absolutes, who refuses to concede that there are ideas, beliefs, people, places and things that are not relative.
As code it is powerful, albeit secret, damnation. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was caught on tape some years ago explaining to his fellow politicians why he recommended characterizing any spending cut proposed by any opposing politician as “extreme.”
“I always use the (code) word ‘extreme,’” the senator said unabashedly. “That’s what the caucus instructed me to do.”
Exposed or not, it is a tactic that apparently works. Just a few weeks ago I turned on the television to see the same senator successfully characterizing the National Rifle Association, a group that arguably has more active, paying members than either political party, as an “extreme fringe group.” So, is it now extreme to ask, Second Amendment aside, how the registration of firearms will reduce gun violence by those who do not register firearms?
Of course it is.
I’m Old Navy, so you can safely dismiss my opinion on the enlistment of women and gays. Heck, I don’t even like the all-volunteer service. But is it extreme to question in the context of national defense whether a great number of these new enlistments are motivated by a desire to “fight” for our country or are merely securing indoor work with early retirement and a reasonable pension?
Of course it is, but we are on a roll here: Is it extreme to ask law enforcement to protect us against individuals, even foreign nationals, if they happen to share physical characteristics, however vaguely, with a politically favored group? How about demanding a common language or prohibiting the illegal crossing of our borders? What about the concern that a government that abides the killing of innocents in the womb might not have any trouble sending your sons to be slaughtered on the battlefield? Are those extreme questions?
OK, I’m being silly.
When I first started writing editorials, it was not extreme to wonder aloud whether the various experimental alternatives to the biblical, nuclear family might fail, that they might produce an odd or even self-destructive society. Fifty years later, even as social researchers prove some of the worst-case scenarios, it is extreme to say so — that is, to note that intact families headed by a male breadwinner fare better on the whole than whatever other combination mankind can imagine. And that is true regardless of income level, social acceptance, legal privilege or even government assistance.
A friend considers this inability to discuss obvious societal dysfunction and disconnection openly and rationally as nothing less than a sin — a civic sin, a sort of intellectual sloth. And like all sins, he believes it began in the heart and has only gradually come to paralyze our daily thoughts and actions.
To be sure, this generation has developed the habit of denying the need to examine public policies that are heavy with good intentions but light on the promised results. Penalty for this denial has been buffered by the righteous achievements and heroic victories of past generations — achievements and victories now being diminished by historical fashion.
Now that we need to examine those failed policies — desperately so — we cannot bring ourselves to do it. Our epitaph will read, “They quit thinking.”