Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

Nietzsche Blogging: Ressentiment
September 6, 2010

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Oh, S. Pritchard, my unwanted reading partner. His liner notes are becoming even more obtrusive and obtuse—as I wade further into Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I’m seeing more and more comments like “Yech! Sentimentality,” scrawled in the margins. Admittedly, Nietzsche’s stabs at poetry are more often than not unsuccessful and bathetic, but you don’t need to scribble all over the page to underline that point.

At least Pritchard’s notes on “On the Tarantulas” tell me something I don’t know, although perhaps they don’t send the message their author intended. The titular tarantulas of this passage are “you preachers of equality,” who Nietzsche accuses of preaching the morality of ressentiment (what I believe he would later call “slave morality”). In other words, the preachers of equality deem their oppressors evil and call the good that which harms their oppressors and brings them beneath the heel of the oppressed.

I’m not entirely sure of the historical/political context for these remarks, but it must be significant. There’s no doubt you can find certain ideologies in the modern era that fit the mold—a crude example might be the more hardline elements of Hamas—but to suggest that any doctrine of equality espoused by an oppressed minority is “secretly vengeful” is patently absurd. Is there anything in the actions or philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that what he truly sought was white subjugation at the hands of black Americans? Of course not, and to even suggest otherwise is monstrous. When he preached equality, he meant it.

Which brings us to Pritchard’s notes. “On the Tarantulas” seems to be the first passage in the whole collection with which our conservative Christian friend fervently and whole-heartedly agrees. In the margins, he lists who he believes the modern-day tarantulas to be: “nihilist punkers,” “sociobabblers,” “deconstructionists,” “free thinkers,” “civil rights politicos,” “gays,” the black power movement, and radical feminists. If some of these references—“punkers”—sound a little bit dated, it’s because this is an old copy. As far as I can tell, Pritchard wrote these notes some time in the early-to-mid-’80s.

But that’s neither here nor there. The takeaway, I think, is that Pritchard identifies slave morality with virtually every group or ideology which challenges white heterosexual Christian male hegemony in the United States. Which is funny, because in finding an agreeable interpretation of this one passage, he reveals his stunning ignorance of what Nietzsche has been teaching about morality for the rest of the book. The philosopher is just as quick to condemn the morality of the master as of the slave—indeed, his whole moral project is based around obliterating your confidence in the values you were taught, and forcing you to invent your own. Pritchard’s notes are a reminder of how easy it is to take a single passage of Nietzsche’s out of context and use it to reaffirm the very moral principles he condemns elsewhere.

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How Not to Read Nietzsche
August 29, 2010

Cover of "The Portable Nietzsche"
Cover of The Portable Nietzsche

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased my copy of The Portable Nietzsche at Niantic, CT’s wonderful used bookstore The Book Barn. The book’s prior owner—S. Pritchard, according to a note on the title page—took a lot of notes in the margins, notes which I was hoping would provide insightful commentary on some of the more difficult passages. No such luck. S. Pritchard’s notes are easily the most frustrating thing about my reading experience so far, and only useful insofar as they are an excellent primer in how not to read philosophy.

From S. Pritchard’s notes I gather that he is a committed Christian, which means that there’s much in Nietzsche for him to disagree with. If S. Pritchard were interested in a challenge to his beliefs, then his problems with Nietzsche’s philosophy would make for far more interesting notes, not less. After all, Walter Kaufmann, in his excellent introduction, advises the reader to allow Nietzsche to challenge him. While the philosopher’s arguments often challenge some of my most deeply held convictions, I can’t imagine how much more frequent the challenges would be were I a person of faith.

In a way, it makes me envious of the devout Christian who dips into Nietzsche for the first time. The philosophers you disagree with the most often yield the greatest rewards, but only if you’re willing to give their position the most charitable reading you possibly can. When it comes to your own philosophical development, the harder an argument you disagree with is to refute, the greater its riches.

S. Pritchard squanders those riches by being extraordinarily uncharitable. In his notes on the title page he accuses Nietzsche of “emotional perversity” and “philosophic nihilism.” The first charge is a bad faith ad hominem attack, and the second should appear obviously untrue to anyone who’s even skimmed the book, let alone taken notes on it. Nietzsche describes himself as having “a more severe morality than anybody,” which, if not strictly true, is at least closer to the truth than the accusation of nihilism. Just because his moral intuitions do not align with ours does not mean he had none.

But S. Pritchard’s agenda—making himself feel more secure in his own belief by denouncing contradictory views—overwhelms his capacity to understand Nietzsche’s arguments, and even his capacity to mount coherent responses. Instead he contents himself with scribbling dismissive notes such as, “idolatry of reason.” Most egregiously, he writes “CONTRADICTORY” next to every single line in which Nietzsche refers to something or someone as “God,” even though he is obviously using it as a metaphor.

The irony of all of this is that S. Pritchard’s notes serve as evidence for a lot of what he is so quick to dismiss. Nietzsche, though probably not a humble man himself, strove to teach us intellectual humility by exposing how easy it is for our own arrogance to lead us astray.

Or, as he put it: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

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Nietzsche Blogging: Truth, Reason, and Moral Weakness
August 24, 2010

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I’m starting to get a better sense of Nietzsche’s style, and although I’m still a novice, I know this much: he would have made a damn good blogger. It’s not just his whole books full of pithy aphorisms—like The Gay Science and Human, All-Too-Human—that make me think this. It’s the fact that Kaufmann has seen fit to include a lot of his hastily scribbled notes, and with good reason. You could even excerpt a lot of his longer essays and turn those snippets into self-contained reflections.

But like posts from the best blogs, all of these little scraps are best viewed in the context of his greater project. If you’ll forgive the cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

That being said, the whole is frequently bewildering, even in the early stages. (Maybe especially in the early stages? Hopefully.) Nietzsche often seems to contradict himself from one passage to the next, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of the inherent difficulty in translating all the nuances of meaning (which translator Kaufmann acknowledges in the introduction), or because apparent self-contradiction is simply a part of Nietzsche’s inimitable style. I’m leaning towards it being some combination of the two, especially because so far I’ve always managed to parse out some reading in which he’s not actually contradicting himself.

Take the odd juxtaposition Kaufmann creates (presumably intentionally) between the essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” some of Nietzsche’s 1874-1875 notes to himself and selected passages from Human, All-Too-Human. In “On Truth and Lie,” Nietzsche convincingly argues that very little of what we consider to be “true” is little more than a “lie according to a fixed convention.” He does this by pointing out the inadequacy of words to truly express what they represent, something that I’m already well familiar with from my recent reading of Sartre’s Nausea. (Here, as in the focus on projects, struggle and competition I noted in “Homer’s Contest,” we can see Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism.) Because words have no real fixed attachment to the objects they represent, to use words to describe the outside world at all is to lie in some sense. The example he uses here is the use of the word “leaf” to describe an individual leaf. There is no true, default form of The Leaf as the Greeks might have suggested, and to imply that there is by classifying an individual leaf as being a descendant of that form is inherently dishonest.

So if “truth” is itself a lie, what to make of Nietzsche’s claim in his notes on the very next page that only “friends of the truth” can help determine the proper use of the German state’s power? Is there anything truly true behind this consensus?

Two pages later, we get the answer. If Nietzsche believes in anything, it’s reason. Our ability to describe the real world may be profoundly limited, but the thing that makes us human—or, as I would put it, persons—is that we have some capacity for a priori reasoning, and to, as Nietzsche later points out, “draw correct inferences.”

But then we stumble into another apparent contradiction. If the “highest” reason lies within “the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such,” then what to make of the assertion that, “regarding truths, the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker?”

Here, I think Nietzsche means to draw a distinction between truth in, as he puts it in the title of his essay on the subject, “the extra-moral sense,” and moral truth. The artist may be an enemy of moral truth, a destructive, nihilist force, but he challenges it in the service of truth overall. The artist is a vaccine, and it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche refers repeatedly to “inoculation” of society in Human, All-Too-Human. In his view, society could always use a bracing jolt of destructive nihilism in order to defend, reassess, and thereby strengthen, its convictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also what Nietzsche does for his individual readers.

“To educate educators!” he writes in his notes. “But the first ones must educate themselves! And for these I write.”

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The Trouble With Utilitarianism
July 18, 2010

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Many of you who have studied philosophy in some capacity have likely heard these objections before, but let’s run through a couple of them quickly:

  • How do you measure utility? I haven’t heard a convincing account of what utility is, much less how it can be properly measured. And I think it’s psychologically unrealistic to think you can graph the same sort of linear metric of pleasure/happiness/fulfillment/whatever else onto everyone.
  • Disturbing human rights implications. Say you govern a small town in which all of the townspeople are united in favor of lynching one of their neighbors. You know the total amount of utility the townspeople will get from murdering their neighbor exceeds any amount of utility the potential victim might be able to obtain over the duration of the rest of his life. What do you do?
  • The utility monster. In a similar vein as the last objection, what would a utilitarian do with an individual who was simply capable of generating more utility out of the consumption of resources than anyone else in the whole village? Give him everything he desires, even if that leaves everyone else with nothing?

In response to those second two objections, a lot of modern utilitarians subscribe to something called “rule utilitarianism,” which puts certain constraints on what can be done to maximize utility. So, for example, the governor of the small town in that second example might be a rule utilitarian who favors maximizing utility at all costs, except when it violates his “no lynching” rule.

The problem is, once you start setting up rules outside of the utilitarian framework, you have to produce some metaethical account of where those rules come from—and suddenly, you’re in the same position as non-utilitarians, trying to locate some outside justification for your ethical code. The closest I’ve seen to a compelling justification for those rules is an appeal to intuition, which I find kind of laughable. “Intuition” as a final justification is the worst kind of hand waving in philosophy; it’s exactly equivalent to saying, I am pulling this entirely out of my ass, but shut up.

Anyway, setting up arbitrary codes to protect utilitarianism from its own logical conclusions doesn’t do very much to solve the underlying problem from which my latter two objections stem: this is a philosophy that does little to acknowledge the natural separations between persons. There’s no math in the world that can take all of our wants, hopes, desires and fleeting pleasures and add them up into some sort of aggregate value.

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Philosophers Agree: Existence of God and Nature of Morality are Two Different Questions
July 10, 2010

Well whaddya know. On the same day I argued that the existence of universal moral norms can’t possibly be contingent on the existence of God, the inestimable Massimo Pigliucci (the author of my favorite philosophy blog right now), wrote this:

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable “coming out” as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato’sEuthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

It’s not uncommon to hear people—mostly critics—say of philosophy that it offers no answers, only further questions. And while that may be true in the sense that you can’t empirically verify a philosophical proposition (at least not since we stopped called science “natural philosophy” a few centuries back), there is such a thing as an overwhelming consensus among philosophers. In the case of folks like Governor Mitch Daniels, it may be impossible to prove or disprove his attacks on atheism, one way or another, but suffice to say that anyone who has made a serious study of philosophy understands that basic logic is not on his side.

By the way, the rest of Pigliucci’s post on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is very much worth reading. I don’t have much to add to it except to say that I’ve been planning for a while on writing a post with more or less the exact same conclusions, except probably not as good.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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God Is Dead
June 20, 2010

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I’ve read very little Nietzsche, but this famous passage in The Gay Science left a very strong impression on me when I first read it. It’s the context for the philosopher’s infamous assertion that “God is dead,” and after getting that context I finally understood what he meant.

Many of you already know this, so I’m going to gloss it very quickly: Nietzsche is obviously not arguing that man literally murdered God. What he is instead suggesting is that man has surpassed and demolished an old, antiquated morality associated with our conception of God. And when the madman who brings this news realizes that he has “come too early,” this is because even the atheists who he tells this to do not grasp the implications.

This parable is, I believe, even more salient now than it was in Nietzsche’s time. And it carries special significance for this generation of Americans. Our parents, the boomers, are the ones who, in Nietzsche’s words, “killed God”—they are the generation of the hippies, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the other various political and cultural upheavals that weakened the white, Christian, heteronormative patriarchy that until the past few decades has unquestionably dominated this country.

This isn’t to suggest that racism, sexism and other traditional forms of American elitism are dead—only that the cultural norms that tied them into some kind of comprehensive national narrative are. Even the political movement most concerned with ostensibly returning us to the old system—the Tea Party movement—is essentially a nihilistic movement, motivated more by self-interest, directionless rage and various racial and classist resentments than a cohesive vision of how America should be. They seek to essentially undo the undoable.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried. Just because the revolution already happened doesn’t mean it can’t still fail, and my biggest fear is that it will, for the reason that most revolutions fail: demolishing a cathedral is a lot easier than building a new one in the rubble. Tea Party nihilism is a monstrous ethical philosophy, and I’m no more satisfied by Nietzsche’s “master morality.” If this country is going to survive and flourish, we need to build a new, better morality. It is my conviction that the burden of doing so lies with my generation, and what scares me is that I don’t think we have either recognized or reacted to this burden.

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