The Moral Case

on December 6, 2014

At times when the visions are rapidly shifting and mutating, people begin to choose up sides on the basis of their allegiance to one vision or another and act out the consequences in public. Right now, the chaos vision is tied in with the worst abuses of the current social order, so it is at the center of the conflict between those who benefit from that order and those who suffer under it. This is why racism and sexism have become such flashpoints.

The chaos vision emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a perception of the human mind as fundamentally irrational and chaotic. It went through its period of greatest moral purity from the 1920s to the 1960s, when it provided the justification for throwing off the inhibitions and puritanical condemnations of the Victorians. But even then, it was perceived ambivalently — sometimes regarded as liberating and empowering but just as often blamed for violence and social disorder. And now that it is entering its rancid old age, the negative outcome of both these perceptions is becoming overwhelming.

For more than a century, the most chaotic and irrational aspects of the vision have been associated with African-Americans. At the peak of “scientific” racism in the early 1900s, Negroes were portrayed as low in intellect, given to superstitious fears, frequently hopped up on drugs, and unable to control their passions. None of that stopped white people from appropriating jazz and other aspects of black culture — but generally only after they had been cleaned up and shorn of their most raw and vulgar elements.

In the 1940s and 50s, the atrocious example of the Nazis made it unacceptable to portray other races as literally subhuman, so the focus of racism shifted to black culture instead. Rock ‘n’ roll was feared as a socially disruptive force that could turn clean-cut white boys into addicts and criminals, and it was not until the late 1960s, when the counterculture embraced everything associated with chaos, that black culture came to be valued on its own merits.

But by then racism was being cranked up for another go-round. The inner city riots of the middle 60s were conflated with the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era, and Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a slogan of “law and order” — two words that have always represented the antithesis of chaos. Nixon followed up by announcing a “war on crime” in his first State of the Union address in 1970, followed by the “war on drugs” in 1971, and the black community was once more squarely in the cross hairs.

Meanwhile, the chaos vision itself had entered a new phase. It was going mainstream and abandoning the outsider stance that had given it the moral authority to critique existing social norms. In the late 1970s, chaos would inherit the job of stabilizing society after the fragmentation of the previous decade. However, it could fulfill that role only if the socially acceptable aspects of chaos were kept rigorously separated from those that were seen as innately disruptive.

Not surprisingly, the latter category drew heavily on cliches about inner city decadence and decay — drugs and crime, the “pathology” of the black family, “welfare queens,” and eventually gangsta rap and the ghost of the Black Panthers. These stereotypes of chaos were endlessly repeated in films and sensationalized news stories, and they haunt the nightmares of the forces of law and order to this day.

As one recent article on the shooting of Mike Brown put it, “To believe that Brown charged at Wilson in the midst of a hail of gunfire is to believe that black people are monsters, mythical superhuman creatures, who do not understand the physics of bullets, even as they rip through flesh. To white people, who co-sign Wilson’s account of events, this seems like an entirely reasonable assertion, one helped along by a lifetime of media consumption that represents black masculinity as magical, monstrous and mythic.”

However, the elements of chaos that the culture chose to normalize back in the 1970s have been equally harmful — only on the axis of sex rather than that of race.

A century ago, when the chaos vision was young, women were often identified with chaos. They were vamps or gold-diggers or dizzy blondes, while men were rational and level-headed. But in recent decades, women have more often been portrayed as anti-chaotic — the humorless enforcers of a stifling normality who want to lure men into marriage, tidy up their lives, set them to changing diapers, and deny their innate wildness. And that makes it the obligation of real men everywhere to stand up for the chaos within the male soul.

It’s possible to point to the exact moment when the balance between the sexes shifted. Throughout the 1960s, women were still often characterized in films as lovable kooks and free spirits. But that trope faded out at the very end of the decade, just when masculinity began to be defined in terms of violence, aggression, and male dominance.

A preliminary indication came in 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey promoted the “killer ape” theory, based on the idea that “war and interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution.”

But an even more definitive turning point was marked by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film was considered shocking at the time for its violence, but what stands out in retrospect (and I recommend reading the summary at the link) is the degree of violence and sexual abuse specifically directed towards women.

And the new attitudes were validated by Dave Mech’s The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (1970), which popularized the concept of the “alpha male.” The validity of that concept has since been debunked — but we have spent the last 45 years believing that our very humanity grows out of male aggression and dominance.

In the end, though, scientific debunking can only go so far. The belief in an overinflated concept of masculinity has been sustained by its emotional appeal, not by intellectual arguments, and the best way to attack it is by making a moral case against its consequences.

Morality — the bone-deep conviction that certain things are just plain wrong and can’t be excused or justified — is something of a blunt instrument. However, it seems to be the best tool we humans have for dealing with situations where we know something is awry but can’t say exactly what. And the good news is that the toxic side of chaos — the side that enables both racism and sexism — is about to get the bloody shit kicked out of it.

Of course, the chaos vision won’t go away entirely when that happens. But over the next few years, it will be forced to repent of its wicked ways, abandon some of its core premises, and forgo its unqualified endorsement of human irrationality.

What remains in the end will amount to little more than a general philosophical statement about the virtues of spontaneity and improvisation in an unpredictable and ever-changing universe. That will make it possible for chaos to take on the kindly old granddad role as senior member of a dominant partnership in which it plays second fiddle to the younger and more dynamic holism vision.

To be sure, none of that will happen quickly or easily. The humbling of chaos may be as much as ten years off and is likely to require an order of crisis equivalent to Nixon’s resignation in 1974 or the stock market crash of 1929. In the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of sturm and drang to suffer through as chaos turns insanely defensive and repressive.

Over the last two or three years, with the failure of the democracy vision and the collapse of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, chaos has been left without any effective opposition. A few useful reforms have come about as a result — notably same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. But now the good times are over, and as the coalition of holism and horizontalism begins to confront chaos in the name of environmental justice, we can expect to see things turn really nasty.

Nastier than under Nixon even. Nastier than the 1920s, when the Red Scare was used as an excuse to put the screws to the Wobblies and other assorted radicals and troublemakers. The Espionage Act of 1917, which was used to destroy the Wobblies in the 1920s and was trotted out again in 1971 to charge Daniel Ellsberg for releasing the Pentagon Papers, has recently been used to convict Chelsea Manning and to bring charges against Edward Snowden. And that’s only the start.

These major transitions haven’t always been as painful as the last couple, but I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to be one of the easy ones. It isn’t even clear to me that the United States will come out the other side in anything like its present form. The ecological imperatives of the holism vision are meeting with a great deal more resistance here than in Europe or even China, and compared to Latin America, the horizontalism vision is barely on the table.

But we have to do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt — and the most pressing issue for Americans is how to make the impending battle between chaos and the alliance of holism and horizontalism more positive and less viciously destructive.

One helpful tactic may be to attack chaos at its weak spots rather than confronting its coercive power directly. That’s why it makes perfect sense to press the moral case against racism and sexism — and against the violence and abuse deeply embedded in both.

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