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But I have reached
my destination and,
kneeling at water's
edge, look and see
myself framed by
everything that goes
on - endlessly
beginning all around
By Robert Cording
The "New Moral Order" - Nihilismby Gerald L. Rowles, Ph.D.
August 12, 2001
Nihilism: "the general rejection of customary beliefs in morality, religion; the doctrine that existing social, political, and economic institutions must be completely destroyed in order to make way for new institutions.(Webster's)"The old adage, there is nothing new under the sun, cautions us against thinking that we have "discovered", when we have merely re-invented or embellished the wheel.
It is almost laughable, how in their flagrant narcissism, many in America believe that they have "discovered" a new kind of morality. John Leo, in a recent article Have it your way in the new moral order, quotes author Alan Wolfe when he says, "Americans are as morally serious as ever, but they are no longer willing to follow old rules. Besides, the revolution is irreversible. There's no going back, so we might as well get used to it." Make no mistake, John Leo is not endorsing this view, as he concludes: "Wolfe's 'moral freedom' seems to whisk away duty and obligation, relieving us all of the burden of doing anything costly. If this is the future, let's have more of the past."
Alan, Alan, Alan. You are reputed to be a highly educated Sociologist, but like most of today's students you have no grasp of history.
Your New Morality is merely moral nihilism. But Nihilism is not merely a label for a certain kind of iconoclastic behavior. It was actually a historical movement of considerable significance in Russia 150 years ago.
"A movement in Russia (c. 1860-1917) which advocated revolutionary reform and attempted to carry it out through the use of terrorism and assassination. (Webster's)"Russian Nihilism was based in Utilitarianism: "the doctrine that the worth or value of anything is determined solely by its 'utility' ...the power to satisfy the wants or needs of humanity (Webster's)." This was the base justification for Pisarev's declaration.
""Here is the ultimatum of our camp; what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate hit out right and left - there will and can be no harm from it." (Pisarev [c. 1850-60]- in Road to Revolution New York, 1959)
But the added bit of personality in contemporary nihilism that goes beyond the Utilitarianism advanced by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is a sense of entitlement based in narcissistic hedonism. In fact Mill recognized and argued against just such a potential. He cautioned that the moral agent must always be deontological; "Is there something which I am by some accepted moral rule either required or forbidden to do?" So in a curious way, he subordinated his belief in means justified by consequence to deontology, the ethical doctrine which places moral rules above utilitarian consequence.(2-510)
In contemporary American nihilism, what we see most is that added influence of individual self-indulgence:
In the movie Fight Club, most of the reviewers and critics seized upon the surface imagery of men-being-men, fighting, lusting, and carousing. But the more powerful underlying theme was nihilism. For the lead character(s), destruction, whether smashing faces or icons, was the end in itself. Selling suctioned fat back to its original owners as a soap product was but a small triumph of immoral rubbish recycling. But the real triumph was skimming it into the explosive that symbolically smashed the city's institutions while actually collapsing the city's infrastructure. And in the end, the movie's anti-hero nihilist is found to be nothing but a madman bent on self-destruction. Unfortunately, the critics turned it into a lost lesson ... perhaps a bit of journalistic nihilism as well.
For the great American nihilist, religion must be removed as a deontological barrier to self-serving consequences, as in: The fictitious erection of the "wall between Church and State"; the removal of G-d in our solemn oaths; In G-d We Trust our money but not our school hallways; The tableted Word of G-d must be obliterated from the secular square.
Soren Kirkegaard, the Danish philosopher observed that "The first step toward nihilism is the disappearance of the Immortals, the Holy, G-d." (3-464).
Ironically, in place of the Omnipotent, the moderne nihilist glorifies the impotent victim. From the fictions and inventions of patriarchal slavery to homophobia to breast cancer to the Violence Against Women Act to handicap tags hanging on rearview mirrors to Viagra we have come to glorify victimhood. Alfred Adler, a psychologist contemporary to Sigmund Freud, and Albert Camus, a contemporary to Adolph Hitler, provide insight to the victim-nihilist:
"It is one of the triumphs of human wit to put through the guiding fiction by adapting it to the anti-fiction ... to conquer by humility and submissiveness ... to cause pain to others by one's own suffering, to strive to attain the goal of manly force by effeminate means, to make one self small in order to appear great. Of such sort ... are often the expedients of neurotics." Alfred Adler - Study in Organ Inferiority and its Psychical Compensation."(1-16).Albert Camus, the philosopher-playright held that even though as an existentialist he believed that the world had no ultimate meaning, he could not and would not conclude that everything is equivalent; Good and evil could not be defined according to one's wishes; he could find no valid argument for such a nihilism. While "the world has no ultimate meaning, something in it has meaning, namely man because he is the only creature to insist on having one. (3-108)" One of Camus' characters, "Clamence, is a man whose internal corruptness is concealed from the world. He is, in fact, a sort of monster whose ultimate self knowledge leads him to create a sense of guilt and unworthiness in others by advertising his own corruption. In this way, he again feeds his own obsessive need for superiority. (2-18)"
In what other age would a leader of the most powerful nation on earth enjoy the popularity of former president William Clinton. Both Camus and Adler cast his shadow in anticipation of his arrival. He was the First Victim; a president of, by and for the nihilist. He spoke their language of tender sensitivity and effeminate compassion, and manish demands for gratification. He defiantly paraded his promiscuous corruption, and was most vocally endorsed as a superior by his nihilist cohort.
In what other age would such leadership exist? The age of Hitler for one. Germany's nihilistic Aryanism was not an affirmation of national superiority such as the contrasting patriotism of Ronald Reagan, but a grand negation. Hitler addressed himself not to a people triumphant, but magnified and deepened the public consciousness of prevailing unhappiness over various military defeats and the ineffectual Weimar Republic. Before offering his saving prescription, he had to identify the enemy - the dreaded Jew, enemy to Aryan purity. More dangerous even than today's white patriarch. (3-309)
This is not to draw parallels between the person of Clinton and Hitler. The parallels drawn are cultural and national. They illustrate only that when a culture and a nation becomes obsessed with its victimhood and narcissism, it becomes most vulnerable to a certain style of leadership. Such "leadership" can only follow the culture's sense of vulnerability and give permission for it to descend deeper into nihilistic beliefs and solutions. Such leaders are the true "enablers". So, is there no going back, as Wolfe so cavalierly and triumphantly proclaims? No. History is replete with recovery and triumph, and the downfall of nihilism.
This is illustrated in Darkness at Noon. Author, Arthur Koestler, creates the character Rubashov, an old imprisoned Bolshevik-nihilist, who learns to fear the utilitarian interpretation of every moral question: "As we have thrown overboard all conventions and rules of cricket morality our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic (ends justifies means) ... We are sailing without ballast; therefore each touch on the helm is a matter of life and death. (2-508)"
Later , Rubashov laments: " ... it seemed to him now that for forty years he had been running amuck of pure reason. Perhaps it did not suit man to be completely freed from old bonds, from the steadying brakes of 'Thou shalt not' and 'Thou mayst not', and to be allowed to tear along straight to the goal. (2-510)"
Obviously, Koestler writing in 1940 sees the light at the end of the tunnel through his imprisoned nihilists. Not only has the Russian culture recovered sufficiently for them to reach a just end, but one of them, Rubashov, has had a near-religious epiphany.
America has not yet reached the ultimate bottom of the pit that is contemporary nihilism. Unlike Russia and Germany, we have half of a culture that remains tethered to its traditional, moral moorings. The other lemming-like half of the culture continues to smash and pillage its moorings - killing its potential offspring, infecting itself with ever more virulent sexually transmitted diseases, demanding less freedom through its reliance on the State, and squandering the lessons of history.
But the fact that the tethered half of the culture elected a leader who appears to be more leader than lemming is indicative of a light at the end of the tunnel. However, given his recent decision to pursue a more utilitarian avenue of rapproachment in the fetal stem cell debate suggests a disturbing bit of moral lemmingism. The elective half of the culture needs to remind him firmly that they voted for leader not lemming.
In another bit of Darkness at Noon is yet another epiphany.
Rubashov delivers a chillingly contemporary remark on utilitarian nihilism. When his fellow prisoner boasts; "We for the first time are consequent - considering only the consequences of what we do.", he replies; "Yes, so consequent that in the interests of just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. (2-511)"
The 1400 Klamath Falls farmers and families, not to mention four deliberately sacrificed firefighters, would most likely welcome morally tethered leadership, and a spokesman like Rubashov.
So here we stand at the brink of the pit of new morality and old nihilism. Like the wheel, history rolls round and finds itself redux. Alan Wolfe is, at best, a retread. America needs less narcissism and more deontology. Half of US elected to veer away from the pit of nihilism. And we need to keep a firm grip on our leader's coattails, lest he confuse his ends and means.
The "New Moral Order" - Nihilism Part 2
The numbers enclosed in parentheses refer to the book and page no. for source material gathered from the eight volume set of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967.
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