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'The New Barbarians'
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=9528"><span class="small">Joseph Natoli</span></a>   
Tuesday, 27 September 2011 07:09

“`Who's going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?’”
`What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself.’”
Ron Paul, CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate 2011

“`Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?’ Perry responded, `No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all.’”
Rick Perry, CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate 2011

David Brooks, a smart observer of American culture who tacks toward a Platonic Ideal of Conservatism, devotes one of his Sept. 13th NY Times Op-Ed columns to research regarding the moral lives of American young adults. This research shows that young Americans, who fail to comprehend the notion of a moral issue, live in “an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism – of relativism and non-judgmentalism. What they speak of as a moral matter goes no further than an occasion of personal inconvenience: “whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters of feed the meter at the parking lot.” According to Brooks, the researchers – from the Catholic Notre Dame -- were stunned “that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).” The piece concludes thusly: “Cultures structured people’s imagination and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”

It appears that a shared moral sense has eroded among American young adults to the point of disappearance. What was once there has now vanished, a carefully shaped imperative regarding moral review has lost its imperiousness and urgency, a sort of vanishing act: now you see it, now you don’t.

But what if young American adults just don’t see “a carefully shaped imperative regarding moral review” visible in the present American surround? What if the moral legacy that’s been passed on causes them to question its moral authority? Brooks implies the existence either at some time or now of an unimpeachable moral legacy, a legacy a young American writing in Salon questions: “This of course prompts a young American to ask, `What has been their legacy?’: Under their watch the following has been made a reality: the greatest national debt to GDP ratio since WWII, the largest oil spill in US history, the second most severe financial crisis, two very long wars, and a deteriorating education system.” Ryan Mooney Salon March 18, 2011 “The Apathy of the Young American.”
“Baby Boomers continue to rail against my young generation and blame us for its demise,” this young American continues, and I seize upon this as of a greater interest than carrying on de Tocqueville’s critique of the politically and morally self-determining individualism that he observed among in America in the 1830’s. Brooks is assuming de Tocqueville’s role and bringing the indictment (applied to my own `60s countercultural generation, Scott Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age” young generation and so on) to young American Millennials. When the coals of prosperity burn at a low ebb, all manner of scape goating and warfare holds forth, except apparently in the U.S. any recognition of the class war we’ve been in since Reagan.
I am therefore not interested in continuing this blame game but curious as to why Brooks is calling Millennials morally apathetic at the very moment when the headlines have been filled with examples of not simply increasing incivility among our lawmakers but a perverse and reckless drive on the part of Tea Party driven conservatives to deny dialogue and compromise, to reject any understanding but their own. At the moment when an Occupy Wall Street protest is in its eighth day and our supposedly apathetic young American adults are waving “A Few Prosper Billions Suffer” banners points to yet another sly strategy of the ideology that brought us the Tea Party brigade. This is a threatening awareness that has led in the Arab world to the Spring revolts. It could happen here. How well will the tactic of demonizing the young work? Will class warfare be once against detoured down a scape goating path, this time generational warfare?

It does not seem as if any moral sense is allowed to intervene in a conservative relentless drive to dismantle enfranchisments of the New Deal which improved the lives of the Many but now seem to inconvenience the very Few.
Consider now whether the New Barbarians are actually those applauded robustly at the last Republican presidential primary debate when the number of those executed in Texas was cited. Or, perhaps the New Barbarians were at a Fox/Google GOP presidential debate where a video of a gay American soldier asking whether the candidates would reinstitute “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” elicited boos from some in the audience?

Consider whether the New Barbarians might actually be those, like Ron Paul, who at the same debate revised the New Testament tale of the Good Samaritan toward a Libertarian “The Greatest Charity Is No Charity At All” ethic. At the very bottom here is the driving force of a “self-interest” we all pursue rationally and not barbarically. To “un-package” this: we make rational choices that best maximize personal advantage by mouthing the collective moral values of the society we are in; we are seen to act barbarically when our self-interest pursuits expose our disinterest in those values. In turn, a social and moral order preserves itself best by providing a moral and civilized façade that accommodates self-interest in a mutually profitable way. We thus have a rationality that stands as an alibi for a rapaciousness that follows closely behind self-interest, a rationality that blocks all attempts to repair the damage done to a just and equitable society.

Because there is no real collective effort toward a shared profit and reward but only a Monopoly game-like competitiveness that has left a few on Park Place and Boardwalk and everyone else struggling on Baltic Avenue, we now need to interrupt self-interest on behalf of the public good. We need to express our collective will through public institutions established to aid and preserve a threatened civilized social life. Our mutual well-being is threatened by the barbarism of a globalized capitalism that has jumped its traces and has sponsored a moral decline we can only reprehensively observe in our young adults without acknowledging attachments to ourselves.

Are we now then ourselves the New Barbarians whose hearts and minds are ensnared within ideologies that either endorse a barbaric morality or accommodate it as if a grounding barbaric rationality was unimpeachable and unstoppable? As if such reasoning was not a fabrication of our own making?

That the New Barbarians may be housed in the Federal government itself was announced in a letter to the NY Times the day after Brooks’s editorial. The letter was from Peter Coyote, the actor, who challenges Brooks to list examples of “sterling moral behavior ... in either Congress, the presidency or the financial and banking sectors of the United States.” “When those with the highest social status routinely lie, cheat, exploit their office for personal gain, profit from outrageous conflicts of interest, when they are rewarded for their turpitude with wealth and acclaim, repeating the conservative party line about moral laxity and self-indulgence is disingenuous.” In short, it is our own Federal government that displays a lack of moral virtue which has led to a dissolution of a moral sense in the young.

The conservative party line has long accused the Federal government of the immorality of intervention, of socialistically intruding in the dispensations of the market’s “invisible hand.” There is, according to this party line, a rationality and righteousness to such market dispensations because they place the winnings where they belong while securing loss, punishment and extinction where they belong. Everything apparently belongs where it belongs. There is an inherent morality to the zero sum game of capitalism, a morality which escapes a socialist governmental intervention, an intervention that is perhaps like a barbaric invasion into the privacy of one’s home.

Who can argue with the moral justness of this conservative party line which situates all of us to the places – Awsomely rich, Always yearning and Absolutely stunned –to which we belong?

Researchers do. Yet another bunch of researchers, quoted in Don Peck’s Atlantic Magazine article “Can the Middle Class be Saved?" acquaint us as to what belongs to who. The researchers reported that “...America was composed of two distinct groups: the rich and the rest. And for the purposes of investment decisions, the second group didn’t matter; tracking its spending habits or worrying over its savings rate was a waste of time. All the action in the American economy was at the top: the richest 1 percent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 percent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation’s treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets.” (September 2011)

Perhaps the New Barbarians are the richest 1% whose barbaric piracy of the nation’s treasure – and who could argue that it’s pure genius and not pure piracy involved here? – deflect attention from themselves by pointing to the “moral laxity and self-indulgence” of the Losers, some 90% of the population. As preposterous as this gambit may appear, it seems to be working on that 90% of the population who are ready to indict whatever scapegoats among their own population are lined up before them: aliens of all alien tongues, Islamo-terrorists, union workers and retirees, south of the border immigrants, gays running amok in the military, emasculating feminists, unpatriotic Liberals, conspiring Leftists, entitlement junkies, the lazy and degenerate poor, and of course anyone darker than a Ku Klux Klan sheet.

These, it is argued, are our Barbarians, not new but abiding, like the Dude in The Big Lebowski.

If you vote for the richest 1% as the New Barbarians, their looting ways more in line with a traditional notion of barbarian, you will most certainly describe the Losers as the New Barbarians simply because within a society in which wealth and power make you civilized, the absence of both makes you barbaric. The wealthy Gentry gentrify and re-gentrify while the Losers apparently “barbarify” and “re-barbarify,” mostly, of course, in bars.

If we added up all our accused New Barbarians, we wind up with the question that Hobbes raised: how the hell is social life possible?

Although Brooks charges young American adults with having lost the “categories and vocabulary” to identify what a moral issue might be and when an occasion for a moral review might arise, that loss cannot be real if none of this is there to be found by anyone. Surely, our recent history, while offering occasions for moral review, show no signs of moral “categories and vocabulary” being applied. Our American sense of moral values has been all over the place, and, in very many places where morality was trumped by the bottom line of profit to shareholders. We are unaware of our own moral barbarism or attribute it perversely because, to quote Montaigne way “back in the year” of 1578, “we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.” Our resident patterns and moral-free examples have led us to a 2012 presidential campaign wherein Republican candidates are cheered for executions, a heartless lack of charity, and a willingness to continue the pain and suffering of the jobless many in order to get Obama out of the White House.

In a way, the immorality of rule by the too visible hand of self-interest fits within faith-based notions of good and evil. There is nothing new under the sun with the Ponzi scheme of Madoff, or, the obscene bonuses given to Wall Street players paid for by soon-to-be-unemployed taxpayers, or, a Mephistophelian twisting of Social Security as itself a Ponzi scheme, or, the insistence that tax rebates to the wealthy continue while unemployment compensation must end, Medicaid must be sent to the States to wither, and the retirement age be raised to comply with the increased life span not of the poor who most need the assistance and are least likely to live long, but to the increased life span of the wealthy. (See Hilary Waldron, “Trends in Mortality Differentials and Life Expectancy for Male Social Security–Covered Workers, by Socioeconomic Status”)

None of this, as confounding as it may be, represents a new moral sense. Our New Barbarians are not so new; history has seen them before, although we could argue that the hi-tech media mechanisms for masking, detouring and confusing what’s right and what’s wrong, who’s a moral barbarian and who isn’t have kicked up to masterful levels.

These young American adults did not create those principles of market rule; they were thrown into them. Some may now be pathless or searching for a moral path, rejecting the pathless path our “rational” morality grounded in a vicious zero sum competiveness, a “war of all against all,” and the so-called perfections of the unfettered free market which repeatedly spin out of control to the long lasting misery and impoverishment of the many. But it also seems clear that the rising generation has all the potential to break free of present moral hypocrisies, the mockery of pontificating that what stands before us now is some moral pinnacle, the pinnacle of charity and compassion, brotherly and sisterly love that were so clearly displayed at the recent GOP presidential debates.

A moral sense that has long rested in self-interest, which in turn has directed itself toward someone losing as a necessary condition for someone – YOU -- winning, has long ago emptied itself. The ideal conservative ethic which Brooks applies like a corrective, measuring rod to young American adults cannot be found in the historical record. Our capitalism rules not only our politics but our morality. And it has all but emptied our sense of political, social and moral interrelationships. You can recognize this absence in the atmosphere of our divisive and mean-spirited politics, in the arrant greed and treachery of Wall St, in the collapse of a society of others – I mean annoying, argumentative, “wrong-headed” others -- as well as friends. We have for very long emphatically upheld strong Christian values while ravaging at will in order to maximize personal gain. The commodification of our moral sense has been an intrinsic part of a conservative Neo-liberal politics that has swept through our minds, ravaged the underclass, diminished the middle class, and sought to replace resident class warfare with a hyped and distracting generational warfare.

De Tocqueville felt that a moral sense liberated from all but one’s own determination would be easily shaped by “fashion” or “impersonal public opinion.” In our own time, these forces are all market forces – via Rush, Fox, the Koch brothers, and the Murdoch empire and so on -- and thus the inevitable commodification of our politics and our ethics. What research shows – research no one as yet been hired to pursue – is that the Millennials are either strenuously challenging all this or laying back in defensive, small social networking groupings. A protesting engagement and a hovering detachment.

When the New Barbarians, who are merely just more barbaric than the Old Barbarians, who are announcing their barbarisms in the coming presidential election, who now own the House of Representatives and who are pursuing madly and gleefully and barbarically the same economic policies that led to the Great Recession of 2008 – a bold protesting engagement, like a Light Brigade charge or a Wall Street sit-in, and a more circumspect, hovering detachment, like Sherlock Holmes seeking a three pipe solution, seem savvy strategies for the young already accused, charged and awaiting final judgment. your social media marketing partner
Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 September 2011 15:09