Beliefs that Make Liberal America Weak: Barriers to the Source of Moral and Spiritual Passions

[This piece begins a discussion that is addressed especially to those who believe that there is no such thing — and can be no such thing — in the world as an “evil force.”]

Summary: Why does that the line from Yeats apply to America in our times? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”

One important reason is that the battle playing out in our politics is fundamentally a moral and spiritual battle, and while the right is connected to their moral and spiritual passions (even though that connection has been made on the basis of lies) Liberal America is not.

Much of that disconnection in Liberal America is due misguided beliefs, including: 1) that “value” is not really real, and 2) that there is nothing in the dynamics of the human world that warrants being called “evil,” an “evil force,” or “the battle between good and evil.”

These beliefs, I will argue, are not only a source of weakness, but also mistaken.

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The crucial battle in America today is being fought in the political arena, but the heart of it goes deeper than politics. It is at the moral and spiritual level. The issue in America today is this: will constructive or destructive, life-serving or life-degrading forces prevail in shaping this nation’s future?

The battle to decide this question has not been going well. The lamentable core dynamic of this battle is all too well captured by the line from Yeats: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”

I’ve written (here and “here”) about President Obama’s failure to match the force that has been attacking him relentlessly. But his failure is emblematic of the failure of Liberal America generally.

Why is there this mismatch between the people on the right, inflamed with an insistence on pressing the battle – an insistence that manifests itself, for example, in the repeal of Obamacare some fifty times – while their counterparts in Liberal America show little appetite for the battle?

The heart of the answer to this question about the mismatch lies in that place from which the “passionate intensity” must come in a battle of this sort. That place lies in the core of our humanity from which arise our moral and spiritual passions.

It was such passions that animated leaders in the rise of the Union against the over-reaching dominance of the Slave Power in the 1850s–leaders like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln. But so far, this time around, nothing has lit a fire in Liberal America like that lit by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Liberal America has not yet raised up a leader like Abraham Lincoln, with moral and spiritual passion deeply integrated into his humanity, fortifying his resolve that, to keep the peace, there was so far he would bend but no further.

In America nowadays, most of the moral and spiritual passion is found on the other side, among those who have been seduced by the “worst” of America’s spirits. Millions of people on the right have been set aflame with the determination to defend their sacred values. Unfortunately, their passionate intensity has been evoked and directed by lies. The picture of the world they have been sold is almost completely false, and the threats against which they have been mobilized to fight are bogus.

Nonetheless, the force on the right has recognized that power in our democracy can be gained through the “passionate intensity” of people who believe see themselves to be engaged in the battle of good against evil.

Much of Liberal America, by contrast, rejects the idea of there being any such thing as “the battle between good and evil.” Those concepts are regarded as the residue of ancient religious ideas that have been rendered obsolete by the advance of a more modern rational and empirical ways of knowing. Committed to the values of intellectual integrity, requiring that conclusions be reached by applying reason to solid evidence, much of Liberal America — certainly not all! — lacks beliefs that provide a solid framework for moral and spiritual passion.

Even the reality of “value” is doubted. What’s real is objective, some of our science-influenced philosophy has declared, and values are not to be found “out there” in our universe. Because values are “subjective,” according to this view, they are but matters of opinion. Nothing can therefore be really good or evil.

This erosion of a sense of the reality of values has been compounded, in the worldview of many, by the removal of the supernatural antagonists, God and Satan. Without such personifications of vast moral and spiritual forces, any notion of forces of “good and evil” embattled in the world seems to many an primitive superstition.

In other words, much of the secular part of Liberal America has cut itself off from the sources of moral and spiritual passion because that has seemed to be required by rationality and intellectual responsibility. Perhaps the false certainties provided by religion can inflame people, according to this point of view. But many of those who see themselves as having moved beyond such false certainties into a better-founded set of beliefs regard the loss of that flame as the cost of seeing things as they truly are.

Although I share the commitment to coming to our beliefs by applying rational processes to the available evidence, I reject all those conclusions.

The evidence at hand — though subtle and complex, but still discernible — can lead us, I will argue, to an understanding that 1) “value” (both positive and negative) is a fundamental part of our reality, and 2) a central dynamic operating in the human world has characteristics that warrant its being called “the battle between good and evil.”

In the upcoming piece “Ideas that Can Make Liberal America Stronger: Value is at the Heart of Our Humanity,” I will substantiate the first of those points.

Then, in “Ideas that Can Make Liberal America Stronger: What Would You Call This, if Not an “Evil Force”?” — and in much of the series to follow — I will show how rational and empirical thinking — in a purely naturalistic framework — can discover a dynamic appropriately called “the battle between good and evil.”

By seeing the deep reality of good and evil, and the battle between them — understood in entirely naturalistic terms — we can tap into a power within us, connect with those passions that empowered our movie heroes — like Luke and Sully and Frodo — to defeat the evil powers they confronted.

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9 Comments

  1. “First, with respect to value: the evolutionary process that has crafted us has imbued “value” into the very structure of our humanity. Value may not have been part of the lifeless universe originally. But it is a dimension of reality that has been “emergent,” just as life too emerged. ”

    Wow! Gramma amoeba never would have thunk it.

  2. Hmmm. 1625 words. You are working me here.

    I’m lost in your map again.

    This piece is designed to pair with the one with movie storylines. What ties them together? What in this piece is designed to lead me to protect or reclaim a world “well-ordered by human decency and the web of human relationships?”

    How can you have the one article speak of the fact that our entertainment culture is dominated by the battle of good vs evil and then accuse liberal America of not believing in it? I am not sure I agree that the problem (or the answer) lies in the belief in good forces and evil forces. Aren’t there plenty of pre-rational, myth believing faithful, that see through this evil, are unaffected by the attack ads, and are ready to stand up to this situation, yet are ambivalent due to the lack of being heard?

    I think people will allow you to proclaim a battle for “Truth for a change” to create a world “well-ordered by human decency and the web of human relationships?” I don’t think they need to understand the underlying causes of the loss of passion.

    From my vantage point this article falls into the same trap that is the cause of moral ambivalence of a more modern rational and empirical epistemology. It is complicated to discuss what is going on here!

    As I’ve said before, the right are not trying to explain the causes of their motivations, they are masterminding messaging techniques to sway voters. Short sentences that use quickly grok-able notions to create fear and mistrust and put attention on anything but the cause of the problem. I can find you millions of articles describing what is going on and how it is our biggest problem. They are just too long and complicated to get big media attention. Your mission (Jim) is to create short grok-able notions that create passion and conviction about the solution (fight back). Like that piece about Koch Brothers Capitalism.

    All that said, this needs to get shorter. I don’t think this piece should say anything about the right in it. I like the paragraph about how the right is being incited but deceived, but I recommend saving it for the future to reduce this. How can this focus solely on the ambivalence/weak voice on the left?

    I am still more enamored by the effectiveness of this sort of explanation than trying to understand the larger forces at work (8 minutes worth watching):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6ZsXrzF8Cc

    Forest

    • Your not being enthralled with this move, Forest, is something I register seriously. But I’m not sure whether I will be swayed by your reservations.

      You write: “I don’t think they need to understand the underlying causes of the loss of passion.” Here’s why I think they do.

      I believe the concept of evil is essential not only to understanding this crisis, but also to being able to respond to it appropriately. It is not for superficial reasons that Liberal America has been weak. It is for deep reasons, founded in a view of the world that has become cut off from the moral and spiritual core of things.

      Religious people have a map to get to that core. Sometimes, as when they see the world clearly, that path works very well.

      A large segment of Liberal America does not believe in that path. And for that reason they don’t get to the core. But I maintain that I’ve found a path to that core that can be arrived at by the epistemological rules — i.e. the means of coming to belief — that this liberal/intellectual/scientific component of Liberal America believes in.

      I am not just trying to talk politics here. I am trying to effect a shift in worldview. And here’s the thing: I believe that without the shift in worldview, the fire will not be lit to mobilize for the political battle.

      So, I feel that this message must be couched in terms of evil. And I need to deal with the fact that much of my audience believes that concept illegitimate. And that means challenging the resistance to that concept.

      That resistance is tied into the shackles that hold Liberal America down, while the fire on the right is consuming what’s best in America.

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      As for too many words, and not punchy enough sentences… Probably right. What I’m trying to do is somewhat overwhelming in its complexity. It does not admit to sound-bites. And that brevity/punchiness is not my forte.

      It would be good to have someone who can render my prose more like what you have in mind and/or help create additional iterations, besides these essays, to reach readers who won’t do the essays. All the way down to a tweet!

      You’ve done some excellent work along these lines, Forest, as with the previous piece, where you helped make the sentences simpler and clearer.

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      I know that “Koch Brothers Capitalism” works in ways that you like. I like them, too. But I am convinced that if this effort is going to have the necessary impact, it has to touch far deeper levels of people’s worldviews than slogans like that can begin to do.

  3. Also, you have used brokenness as shorthand for something in this article. This needs definition.

    As a student of mystics, I would use separateness where you have used brokenness. I would define it by its opposite wholeness or more correctly, but harder to grasp, interdependence.

    • You’re right, Forest, that I need to provide some meaning for the word “brokenness” that I use. I do want to stick with that word; the alternatives proposed don’t fill the bill.

      How would this be? The word is introduced here in this statement:

      •That consistent impact is the spreading of a pattern of brokenness, damaging and destroying those structures (at whatever level) that are good and life-serving.

      How about I substitute this:

      What this force consistently imparts is a pattern of “broknness,” meaning that it consistently degrades the life-serving structures of good order– e.g. replacing justice with injustice, integrity with duplicity, peace with strife, ecological health with ecological breakdown, etc.

      I think I’ll make that substitution now, pending further feedback from you and other readers.

  4. OK Andy,

    I’ll review it again and provide other feedback.

    David R, You need to say more to be understood.

  5. Re the revised bullet points near the end, I think they read better with the change to the “brokenness” bullet point.

    Two more typos. I’ll specify them below but this brings up a question. I’ve seen a few here and there and commented on them as I found them. My question is: should I stop doing so?

    We are discussing drafts here, presumably with the goal of making the messages more cogent, punchier, etc. Is it the case that after discussion and resolution of such meatier, more substantial features — in my opinion Forest’s responses typify that level of discussion much more than mine have — will you run the text through a spell checker or have a good copy editor check it? If so, my pointing out typos at this stage isn’t worth much in the long run.

    Typos:

    First bullet point: “c) appropriately consistency in its impact on whatever it touches” should be, maybe, “c) consistently damages whatever it touches”.

    Second bullet point: “pattern of ‘broknness,'” should be “pattern of brokenness,”.

  6. Yes, finding a good “tweetifier” would be a major win.

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