The Morality of Selfism

The Gospel of Saint You.

We live in a culture of selfism — a culture that puts tremendous emphasis on self, on self-care and self-display. And one of the things we’ve discovered is that you can be a very good person while thinking only about yourself!

Back in the old days people thought morality was about living up to some external standard of moral excellence. Abraham Lincoln tried to live a life of honesty and courage. Mother Teresa tried to live up to a standard of selfless love.

But now we know this is actually harmful! In the first place, when people hold up external standards of moral excellence, they often make you feel judged. These people make you feel sad because you may not live up to this standard. It’s very cruel of them to make you feel troubled in this way!

When somebody does this, you should just say, “That makes me feel judged,” and just walk away. Don’t stoop to their level!

The second problem with these external standards is that they are very hard to relate to. People are always talking about how Nelson Mandela came out of prison and tried to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s all very well and good for Nelson Mandela, but what does this have to do with your life?

If people are talking to you, shouldn’t they be focusing their attention on your life? Shouldn’t they be saying things you can relate to? If somebody starts talking about some grand hero who is dead or lives far away, you should just respond, “Sorry, that’s not relatable.”

These people have to learn to keep it real!

The good news is that these days we don’t base our values on moral excellence. We base them on meaning. People are always saying they want to lead a meaningful life. They want to do things that have “meaning.”

One great thing about meaning is it’s all about the emotions you yourself already have. We say that an experience has meaning when that tingly meaningful feeling wells up inside. Picture yourself shopping at a farmers market where everything’s locally grown. Do you feel the tingly meaningful feeling welling up inside? Of course you do!

The Sidney Awards, Part I

“The more online shame cycles you observe,” Andrews writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window.”

Most of us have certain stereotypes about the European far right — that it’s just a bunch of blood-and-soil racists. But in an essay in The New York Review of Books, “Two Roads for the New French Right,”Mark Lilla shows that there’s a lot more going on. He found a group of Catholic conservative intellectuals who argue that social conservatism is the only viable alternative to neoliberal cosmopolitanism and who are all fans of Bernie Sanders.

They believe that both the European superstate and global capitalism undermine the cultural-religious foundations of European civilization. They are strongly environmentalist, feel that economic growth should be subordinated to social needs, believe in strong social support for the poor and limited immigration. As Lilla notes, they have a very coherent, communitarian worldview. I found the essay uplifting because it shows that in times of political transition, ideas get shuffled and reassembled in new and impressive ways.

.. In a post called “How This All Happened” for the Collaborative Fund blog, Morgan Housel walks us through 73 years of American economic history. He shows us how many economic phases there have been. And how each phase led to something unexpected.

.. In “How Did Larry Nassar Deceive So Many for So Long?” in The Cut, Kerry Howley blows up the conventional telling of the American gymnastics sex abuse scandal. The story is generally told as a large group of victims finding their voice and “breaking their silence.” But Howley shows that they were telling their stories all along, to every relevant authority. It’s because the abuser, Nassar, had built up an edifice of trust that people couldn’t see the monstrosity that was taking place literally in front of their eyes. Nassar abused many of these young girls while their parents were in the room. He just told them he was doing a medical procedure he called a “sacrotuberous-ligament release.” He might still be doing it today if a police officer hadn’t discovered his hard drives, with 37,000 child porn images on them. It was the hard drives that finally persuaded the world, not the women and their repeated warnings.

Andrew Sullivan has forced me to do something I really don’t want to do — award two separate Sidney awards to the same writer in the same year. But his work for New York magazine this year has really defined the era. His two masterpieces are “The Poison We Pick,” on the opioid crisis, and “America’s New Religions,” on political fundamentalism. If you want to understand America in 2018, those essays are a good place to start.

The Struggle to Stay Human Amid the Fight

World War I and the adversarial mentality.

It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.

Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.

Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.

As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.

The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.

.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.

Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.

The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.

George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.

.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.

Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.

A Really Good Thing Happening in America

A strategy for community problem-solving does an extraordinary job at restoring our social fabric.

.. SAM embodies a new civic architecture, which has become known as the “collective impact” approach. Americans feel alienated from and distrustful toward most structures of authority these days, but this is one they can have faith in.
..  it creates an informal authority structure that transcends public-sector/private-sector lines, that rallies cops and churches, the grass roots and the grass tops.

Members put data in the center and use it as a tool not for competition but for collaboration. Like the best social service organizations, it is high on empathy and high on engineering. It is local, participatory and comprehensive.

.. Cincinnati had plenty of programs. What it lacked was an effective system to coordinate them.

.. Collective impact structures got their name in 2011, when John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote an influential essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in which they cited StriveTogether and provided the philosophical and theoretical basis for this kind of approach.

.. Such structures are now being used to address homelessness, hunger, river cleanup and many other social ills. Collective impact approaches have had their critics over the years, in part for putting too much emphasis on local elites and not enough on regular parents (which is fair).

.. Frankly, I don’t need studies about outcomes to believe that these collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary. Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.