26 September 06
Landscapes Of Moral Rot
Two institutions of higher learning and several lifetimes ago, a progressive colleague of mine recommended the book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, by Andrew Bard Schmookler, saying that it was brilliant. I read it and concurred, gleaning from it the idea that the vast majority of evils result from layers upon layers of acts of power across successive civilizations, not from anything innate in our nature. Moving on to the present, I just discovered that Mr. Schmookler has a website and blog. The site is his response to the amorality and fascistic impulses of the present administration.
But his premise is that this moral crisis is the result of the failings of both liberals and conservatives. In the introduction to the site, he writes:
Many Americans feel a sense of alarm about the moral condition of American society today.
Many in the liberal half of America worry that the political right has been taken over by amoral forces that only pretend to be righteous while they indulge their lust for power and wealth. Many in the conservative half of America fear that America’s moral integrity has been eroded by an “anything goes” culture abetted by the moral permissiveness of contemporary liberalism.
Both these worries are well-founded.
His critique of liberalism is of particular interest:
First, unable to recognize the truth in the old idea that the battle between good and evil is a central part of the human drama, liberalism has been unable to recognize the nature of the forces it’s up against. It is this inability to see these forces for what they are that has rendered liberalism impotent to make an effective stand against them.
And, second, unwilling to take seriously the distinction between right desire and wrong desire, liberalism has been complicit in the emergence of a trash culture that undermines standards and ideals and that cultivates what is base and degrading. This moral decadence, in turn, has created among many Americans a kind of moral anxiety that has historically provided fascistic forces an opening to exploit in their quest for power.
In one post on his blog, he asks his readers for “vignettes of ‘moral rot’ in America”. He cites as an example the routine nastiness in the media, even in in his favorite television show that is at times prophetic and brilliant.
Violence and nastiness in the media are clear examples of moral rot, but what I am curious about is finding instances of cultural degradation in our landscapes. Does the way we create landscape have a moral component to it? And concomitantly, doesn’t inhabiting a degraded landscape lead to moral decline in other aspects of culture?
I believe this is the case. Trying to define a “landscape of moral rot” I come up with the following—a landscape where the forces of greed or lack of respect for personal or collective space predominates.
What are examples? At the small-scale level of individual action, graffiti is clearly one. At the opposite end of the scale would be the the result from the act of drilling for oil in ANWAR. (One perspective on the Republican fixation on ANWAR is that once the taboo on tearing into that last pristine landscape is broken, all other acts of environmental destruction would be simple.)
Closer to home, don’t we see an expression of moral rot in our current housing slump, one that I predict will be long-lasting and deep? It’s sheer greed upon the landscape. People buy huge houses they can’t afford which leads to developers building vast tracts of huge, ugly, and shoddily-constructed things until the system collapses of its economic contradictions.
The antidote to such landscapes is cultivating a sense of aesthetics in our built environment. Of course this means doing something that is completely academically uncool and counter-postmodern—making moral judgments about aesthetics in cultural production, claiming a role for high culture, asserting the primacy of social order, and so on.
Some landscapes just are ugly—let’s cultivate!