Moral Agents

on December 11, 2009

I’ve been struck lately by the extent to which I personify the visions, describing them as though each one has its own agenda which it consciously tries to advance. Personification was considered a major no-no by my high school English teachers, but in this case I don’t think I’m wrong. The visions do display a consistent identity and sense of purpose which extends across diverse cultures and many human lifetimes.

I’ve even seriously wondered whether the visions might be the real agents of human history and we mortals only their mouthpieces — whether every choice we make and every opinion we express is just one vision or another manifesting itself through us. But although there’s an element of truth to that, it’s far from the whole story.

hooprollingFor one thing, the visions are not some sort of clockwork mechanism that got wound up at the beginning of history and have been running through a predetermined series of changes ever since. They’re far more like a toy hoop that can take any path but only keeps rolling as long as a human operator is there to maintain its momentum and guide it round the obstacles.

This factor of outside intervention has two main aspects, both of which originate outside the visions themselves. One is the ever-changing material conditions of human life, which constantly offer unforeseen challenges and novel opportunities. The other has to do with the demands made by certain moral imperatives that transcend the specifics of any one vision, although they are woven into all of them.

New visions emerge in direct response to these two forces, and for that reason they start off both intensely practical and intensely mystical. It is only as a vision matures and takes on the task of stabilizing society that it loses touch with its original sources of power and begins to run on auto-pilot. From that point on, the vision increasingly surrenders both its moral bearings and its ability to respond to change and crisis — which is why every vision must eventually fail.

The first major turning-point in the life-cycle of any vision comes when it assumes the leadership of a counterculture and moves from the margins of society to center stage. This is the point at which its inevitable weak points start to have real-world effects, and any failure to live up to its own ideals is quick to trigger a sense of moral betrayal.

This moral break-point affects the vision’s adherents in two very different ways. Some attempt to tone the vision down, making it less socially disruptive and more conventional. This paves the way for it to become one of the dominant visions of its society, but it also begins the process of severing it from its roots. At the same time, however, those who truly care about the ideals at the heart of the vision begin sowing the seeds which will eventually sprout into the vision’s own successor.

The first tentative seeds of holism, for example, lie not in the late 19th century, but several decades earlier — in the horror experienced by sensitive observers in the 1830’s and 40’s, when the Industrial Revolution began fouling the environment and reducing workers to slaves of the machine. What began with moral revulsion on the part of social critics like Charles Dickens would lead by the 1880’s to a rejection of the entire concept of a machine universe and the search for a new vision that would prioritize living beings over mere machinery.

In much the same way, the roots of a successor to the democracy vision can be be found in the emergence of a global economy prior to World War I, which greatly intensified wide-scale migration and the mixing of formerly separate populations. The implicit social contract which underlay Western democracy had functioned smoothly in an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society, but it was not well prepared to handle genuine diversity.

The resulting tensions were greatest in the United States, which was both the Western nation most deeply rooted in the democracy vision and the most ethnically diverse. A watershed moment came with the blockbuster success of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified lynchings and sparked the formation of the modern Ku Klux Klan. As well as inciting racial prejudice, the movie also triggered a wave of anti-immigrant feeling which culminated in the quota-based Immigration Act of 1924.

Ever since then, the people who care most deeply about democratic ideals have been wrestling with the inability of democracy to live up to its own highest principles, to eradicate racism and discrimination, and to protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

Racism was not the only blot on democracy in the late teens. A demonstration that even the United States was willing to repress its own citizens in the name of domestic order came with the passage of the the Sedition Act of 1918, which unconstitutionally outlawed dissent during World War I. The “red scare” immediately following the war inaugurated a second wave of repression — and the ratification of Prohibition in 1919 offered another example of the criminalization of ordinary behavior.

Many Americans were opposed to these actions from the start. The American Civil Liberties Union was formed in 1920 as a direct response to the abuses of the Sedition Act. But even though the flaws in democracy would come to seen minor by the 1930’s in contrast with the repressiveness of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the underlying problems of racism, political witch-hunts, and intolerance of unconventional lifestyles have never been resolved.

At the present moment, as the democracy vision nears the end of its useful lifespan, all the old arguments are breaking out again. A resurgence of racism and anti-immigrant paranoia, the specter of domestic spying and torture, and a war on drugs that gets ramped up whenever it seems to be abating are the cauldron in which the venerable democracy vision will finally be melted down — and recast in the form of a multicultural successor based on tolerance, diversity, and the affirmation of universal rights.

But with the visions, there is never just one thing going on at a time, and by the late 1960’s chaos was starting to reveal its own limitations. Just as the Industrial Revolution had taken the shine off science and globalization had placed intolerable burdens upon democracy, so the breakdown of traditional communities has led to social and psychological upheavals that the chaos vision has either tolerated or endorsed but has never been able to resolve.

As far back as the 1920’s, the chaos vision had been associated with an image of free-thinking young people leaving their narrow-minded small towns and neighborhoods to seek freedom in the anonymity of the big city. But along with that freedom came feelings of isolation and displacement — and when much of the middle class moved out to new suburban tract housing after World War II, the alienation of a few turned into a national epidemic.

There were no dark Satanic mills or brutal lynchings associated with this breakdown of community, but it proved capable of sparking its own moral horrors — such as the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered on her way home late one night without any of her New York City neighbors even coming outside to see what the commotion was about.

Folksinger Phil Ochs was an acutely sensitive moralist much like those of the 1840’s and the 1910’s, and his protest song inspired by the incident, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” (1967), begins with the murder but tellingly goes on to condemn his own peers for their comparable indifference:

Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game
And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends. …

Smoking marihuana is more fun than drinking beer,
But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years
Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why
But demonstrations are a drag, besides we’re much too high
And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.

Excessive self-absorption might be considered a minor flaw, but by the end of the 60’s the chaos vision was displaying a far more serious limitation — its seeming helplessness in the face of anti-social behavior. Members of the 60’s counterculture had a weakness for anyone who appeared more genuinely “chaotic” than they themselves were prepared to be, and this led to a pervasive inability to distinguish intuitively guided free spirits from con artists, garden-variety hoodlums, and deranged sociopaths.

The fatal effects of this failure to exercise moral discernment became starkly apparent in the summer of 1969 with the Charles Manson killings. The message that flower power alone would not lead to peace and love and understanding was confirmed a few months later by the deadly violence at Altamont, when the Hells Angels — whom Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg had attempted to lure into the counterculture — got completely out of hand.

Devising a less nihilistic successor to chaos has been as long and slow a process as finding a successor to democracy and is considerably less far along. Much of the heavy lifting has been taking place not in the United States — which is still caught up in the apocalyptic meltdown of the democracy vision — but in Britain and elsewhere, which makes it even harder to pin down precisely what is happening.

My best guess, however, is that creativity and imagination will be among the keywords of that successor. We are also likely to see a rejection of the extreme casualness in manners and dress that has been a hallmark of the chaos vision — an end at last to the era of blue jeans and t-shirts. But the core ideal of the successor to chaos is likely to be a renewal of belief in morality itself.

I can recall myself in early 1969 wrestling with the question of whether there really is such a thing as true morality, as opposed to either situational ethics or the uptight religiously-based moralism of the 19th century. I concluded then that if morality was real, it must be rooted in a sense of responsibility to the demands of an evolving universe.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, in arriving at that particular conclusion I was participating in the reorientation of chaos towards holism that was the first step on the long march towards chaos’s own successor.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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