March 13, 2007
fighting ancient virtues with Islamic values -- to stop Hillary's homos!
Sorry, folks. I know that's a mouthful, but these things just get crazier and crazier -- to the point where analysis becomes an exercise in satire.
Anyway, this report (purporting to be about a culture war survey by Robert Knight's outfit), intitially struck me as a plug for the survey, which among other things, has an interesting definition of "progressive":
About 31 percent of Americans, regardless of political stripe, are "orthodox" -- faithful Bible-believers who strive to live by "God's teachings and principles," see "a clear set of right and wrong behaviors" in every issue and believe government should be allowed to follow religious principles.Whether I dismiss this entirely, attack the logic, or ridicule it, no matter what I say, the undeniable fact is that people believe it.
Does that mean I have to take it seriously? I guess so. For starters, the survey attempts to conflate failure to be "orthodox" with situational ethics. Nothing could be more outrageous, for situational ethics is the negation of character -- of virtue -- and has nothing to do with the presence or absence of particular religious beliefs. This is not to say that there aren't people who have this regrettable tendency and that many of them are not anti-religious, but conflating them in this manner is not only disingenuous and divisive, but I think it only serves to encourage those about whom I have warned would "throw the baby out with the bathwater."
Aside from lumping together people with little in common, this conflation is accomplished by asking unanswerable questions.
I also noticed that the three categories -- 46%, 31%, and 17% -- equal 94% of the country. In a more detailed discussion of the survey (which is called the "Cultural Values Survey"), Knight claims that 8% decribed themselves as atheist or agnostic, but they're lumped in with a larger group -- 53% of which which does believe in God. What makes this survey impossible to analyze is the built-in assumption that God's authority can be defined with references to text:
The real story is whether people place God's authority above their own moral compass. Although 52 percent of Americans say they believe that the Bible is God's authoritative Word, only 36 percent (including 92 percent of the Orthodox) believe that people should live by God's principles. Another 45 percent say they combine God's principles with their own, and 15 percent (including 77 percent of Progressives) say they will ignore God's principles if they conflict with their own. Since we don't know whether Madonna was in our survey group, we can only guess that she fits into one of the latter two categories, in which, when push comes to shove, people devise their own moral system to accommodate their behavior.I don't know why Madonna is so important to Knight, but he punctuates his remarks with references to her (the title is "Madonna's Dilemma: Survey Shows America in Cultural, Spiritual Confusion"), and I'm not especially interested in what Madonna's daughter wears.
The survey (here in pdf) asks questions which reference "God's Principles" -- without defining what they are:
I believe in God, but there is no way to know the unknowable. Religious texts having been written by men, I consider it a bit arrogant to assert that what they mean and all the nuances have been defined and universally agreed upon, but that is presupposed by the phrase "God's teaching and principles." Therefore, I have to question the survey's methodology.
Not only are God's opinions being spoken for and assumed by this self proclaimed "Cultural Values" survey, but so, it would seem, are the Classical Virtues. No really. There is actually a category called "Commitment to Classical Virtues by Values Group." Here's what the entire category looks like:
It gets a little confusing to see the words values and virtues so freely exchanged, and I have to admit, it hits a little close to home, because one of the reasons for this blog name is that I grew annoyed with the relentless scolding about values by people who seemed so historically unaware.
While I don't agree with Gertrude Himmelfarb on a lot of things, I think the authors of this survey would have done well to read her discussion of the distinction between virtues and values before engaging in their word polemics.
For starters, the classical virtues go well beyond the ones the survey lists, and it isn't my purpose here to get into them all. (The Roman virtues are listed here.) That would require a serious and comprehensive discussion of ancient thought -- several essays worth at least. And I'm not so arrogant as to assert that I'm enough of a scholar to do it. Without endorsing her opinions about modern America or Victorian England, I will say that she understands that the classical virtues are no simple matter:
The cardinal virtues celebrated by Aristotle--wisdom, justice, temperance, courage--do not appear in the litany of Lady Thatcher's grandmother. Nor were her virtues Aristotle's (although some of them might be subsumed under his categories). "Family values" (an expression Margaret Thatcher also used) do not figure among the classical virtues. Plato, of course, would have utterly rejected them, as he rejected the very idea of the family. And even Aristotle, who gave the family the distinction of being "the first community," did not go so far as to elevate what we would regard as family values to the rank of virtues (except, perhaps, household management, which was largely a matter of finances and property).The classical virtues are serious and complicated stuff -- and I don't think they lend themselves to the reductionist approach taken by the Knight organization's survey.
For the best single one-liner on what happened to the classical virtues, I'd have to give credit to Leo Strauss:
The mystery of Western thought is how a term that originally meant the manliness of a man came to mean the chastity of a woman.Let me be blunt for a moment. What I think is really going on with this "values" business is that the so-called traditionalists really don't really want to talk about ancient virtues, because they're trying to sell people who don't understand their history on the idea that the Romans and the Greeks were immoral, and that's why their civilizations fell. Morality, in their view, is not possible without their deity. And any honest discussion of classical virtues will reveal that morality did not always (and thus does not always) have to come from the Christian deity. They cannot handle the implications, and (at least so they believe), neither can their followers.
But hey, let's forget being serious, and get serious with some serious sophistry! (After all, I do run a satire blog, and what they're doing right now resembles the kind of sophistry which fuels me.)
Regular readers will (I hope) understand why the buffoon in me is wholly unable to ignore nuggets like this (a closeup of the paragraph immediately preceding the "Commitment to Classical Virtues by Values Group"):
"Commitment to classical values?"
How dare they analyze the commitment of my blog or its readership!
How dare they!!
Should I sue for DMCA infringement?
Nah, because not only is this not infringement, but so paramount is my belief in robust free speech that just as I would allow Ann Coulter to call people names, I would have no problem with DMCA violations.
Hell, for all I care, if they don't like this can buy me out!
Yes, I'll sell my values! (For a measly million bucks, you can't go wrong!)
Speaking of satire, what really stood out when I first read about the survey in the Washington Times, was not the survey or its conclusions, though, but the following rehash from Dinish D'Souza:
"What angers religious Muslims is not the American Constitution but the scandalous sexual mores they see on American movies and television," he writes. "What disgusts them are not free elections but the sights of hundreds of homosexuals kissing each other and taking marriage vows. The person that horrifies them the most is not [free market philosopher] John Locke but Hillary Clinton."Wow. Hillary and the homos?
I should probably reiterate my conclusion about D'Souza:
Triangulating with Islamists is a great way to split the GOP as never before, and guarantee a Clinton victory in '08.I might be willing to sell my values, but you couldn't pay me enough to vote for Hillary. But Dinesh D'Souza saying she's "the person that horrifies them the most"?
What's he trying to do; make people vote for her?
Don't ask me why his argument was linked to the Cultural Values survey (I hope it wasn't because my post accused D'Souza of borrowing Knight's idea.)
I've had enough values-based satire for one day.
Next they'll be telling me that "Islamic Values" are "traditional."
Well, I guess they can tell Muhammad that there's no quarrel with tradition here...
UPDATE 03/14/07): Commenter Socrates thinks it's clear that the people behind the study (which would be CMI) do not know the difference between values and virtues, or between classical and traditional.
If that's right, then I'm probably wrong to suspect dishonesty.
posted by Eric on 03.13.07 at 09:39 PM
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