Schmookler discusses spirituality in applying his concepts. He says that spiritual well-being and goodness involves wholeness, while evil involves brokenness. Before the 1960's, there were very clear institutions that defined right and wrong. They were the school, parents, churches, and society. All our movies had black and white endings in which the good guys had a clear point of reference to look forward to.
The 1960's movement was a revolt against that. People realized that there were more than just one way to do things. "If it feels good, do it!" became the watchword of the day. People experimented with drugs, sexuality, protested the war, challenged the doctrines of mindless conformity, and helped bring about a society that was much more inclusive than before. People are becoming more tolerant of people that are different than them, although there is a long ways to go in that respect. The same-sex lifestyle has become accepted in places like Massachusetts and Vermont. Public figures can get fired for making racist or sexist remarks.
But in the name of inclusiveness, Schmookler argues that liberalism has lost sight of the possibility of evil. This explains why we saw such howlers as Kerry saying, "Bush is basically a good man. We just have different ideas of running things," in the last election campaign. This explains why we see Joe Lieberman and Henry Cuellar kissing up to Bush. The problem with our Democratic leadership is that many of them still see the Bush administration as basically good despite all their flaws. That is why their criticism and opposition to their policies is a lot more muted than it should be. Schmookler argues that they do not see that our society has become locked in a struggle between good and evil:
Our present rulers don't want the Geneva Conventions ban on torture to hold them back. Other Americans are struggling to return our country to a willingness to be ruled by law, and to sheer human decency.
Our present government has no interest in restraining greed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change and other degradations of the biosphere. Others in this country are devoting our energies to moving America toward a way of life in harmony with earth's living systems.
The forces now dominating America are moving relentlessly to shift power from the weak and vulnerable to those already mighty, and to transfer wealth from those who have less to those already rich beyond any rational need for more. Many of us are striving to create a country where principles of justice hold sway.
Such struggles have characterized the whole sweep of civilized history. On the one side are forces that care for life and work to create and maintain life-serving structures. On the other side are forces that tear such structures apart.
Philosopher and sociologist Philip Selznick says in his book "Moral Commonwealth" that we have overturned our old institutions of right and wrong and are now in a moral vacuum in which reality is a matter of opinion. And Bush and his crew have taken full advantage. They think that it is OK to torture, kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, take away money from Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare, and education, look the other way as thousands were dying in New Orleans, and commit treason for partisan political purposes. Schmookler points out that this moral relativism has gotten to such a point that fundamentalists he knows say that in their truth, they would not have participated in the Holocaust. But, they say, the Nazis had their own worldview that says it was OK; therefore, why should they pass judgment on them?
At this point in time, I would point out that it is not people who are evil; it is a matter of forces of good and evil. Good is defined by Schmookler as wholeness and evil as brokenness. Evil happens when a person becomes so broken and so corrupted by their experiences that they turn into a monster. This is what happened to Rove; he grew up idolizing Richard Nixon and kept pictures of him on his bedroom wall. Now, Rove operates out of the view that Nixon's only problem is that he did not do a good enough job of not getting caught.
The problem with our spineless democrats is that they are uncomfortable with such terms. Schmookler says:
Perhaps the deepest element in the widespread liberal resistance to the idea of evil lies in the strain of thought called "moral relativism." It's surprising how widely such thinking has infiltrated our culture. Among students I've dealt with across two generations, it's been common to hear -even from those who describe themselves as Biblical Christians--such statements as "What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn't what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them."
The idea that there is no important distinction to be made between right desire and wrong desire has its sources in modern philosophical thought but is probably most powerfully driven by our consumerist economy, which doesn't care what kind of impulse we gratify so long as we seek our gratification through what can be bought and sold.
But whatever the sources of this moral relativism, among the results of this failure to distinguish between choices that are good and those that are not has been a radical transformation -a degradation--in this nation's cultural expressions.
But this kind of moral relativism is what gets us monsters like John Negroponte. In 1980, right-wing death squads assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero. But instead of putting the brakes on such activities, Negroponte extended them far and beyond what they were doing back before he took office as ambassador to Honduras. But despite this, the Democrats did not offer any meaningful opposition when he was named Director of National Intelligence. They either did not know or did not care about his past. Instead, they gushed over his qualifications and easily confirmed him to his post. All this, despite the possibility that he may also have been the man organizing the death squads in Iraq, which I wrote about yesterday. So, by his silence about this assassination, Negroponte gave his assent to this barbaric assassination. And by their silence, the Democrats gave their assent to Negroponte's assent.
On the other hand, we cannot return to the days of mindless conformity of the 1950's. The logical extreme of this mindless conformity is doctrines like that of Zarqawi's; he has a feature in the NYT Magazine.
Many of these rootless and unwanted believers found a spiritual and political home in a type of Islam called Salafism. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider "bida," or "innovation." Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called "takfir," often translated as "excommunication": an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
So, we cannot return to the preoccupation to ideological purity that marked the 1950's. Instead, we should recognize that there are standards of right and wrong. But we should also recognize that there is also a wide grey area between the black and the white.
I would start with the premise that all human life is sacred and that no human life is expendable. Not only that, sacredness of human life means we focus on the quality of life as well as on the fact that there is life. We can argue all we want about how much money should go into what programs. But it should be beyond debate that the role of government should be to enhance the quality of human life. Furthermore, actions that infringe on basic human dignity should be avoided.
Therefore, it should not be a matter of debate that torture is wrong. It should not be a matter of debate whether a man like Negroponte who organized death squads in Central America and may have in Iraq should be one of the people in charge of protecting our country. It should not be a matter of debate that extraordinary rendition or warrantless wiretaps is wrong. Actions and policies that seek to create wholeness are good. Grey areas in which there is no right or wrong answer should be a matter of debate. Black areas that involve the destruction of human dignity should be beyond debate.
Furthermore, the Constitution, as written today, is the best articulation that we have of these values. The key amendment is the Ninth Amendment - which states that rights are not limited to the Constitution. Therefore, at the very least, there is an implied right to privacy throughout the Constitution which states that the government has no right to interfere with personal private life or private decisions. Furthermore, we, the people, have no right to infringe on someone else's private life or private decisions. That is why there are laws against murder, for instance; it infringes on someone else's right to live their own life and make their private decisions.
So, I would reject the idea that we have to set 1950's-style standards and troll-rate people out of existence who do not conform to those standards. But if we are to win elections and build as broad of a coalition as possible, we must set clear standards of right and wrong that include everybody and gives them the freedom to make their own choices.