It is amusing to see the folks over at The Nation now promoting moral values. Sort of like the owners of the sunken Titanic promoting Iceberg Awareness Week. Yes, Virginia (and Mississippi, and Kansas), moral relativists have values too, it’s just that in the past they were called progressive ideals, or some such secular handle. But after the trouncing Democrats took in November, and exit polls that reported voters’ number one concern to be “moral values,” a bit of euphemism seemed definitely in order.
Why this change in strategy? Writing in the Dec. 6 issue of The Nation, George Lakoff has suggested that the only way to trump conservatives’ hold on moral values is “with our own more traditional and more patriotic moral values.” So just what are these so-called “progressive moral values?” Lakoff defines them as “car[ing] and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness.”
Sounds like many of the values we were taught in preschool, does it not? Perfect, because liberals often treat voters as if they were preschoolers. What strikes the careful reader is that many of these so-called “progressive moral values” are the antithesis of progressivism. Take “Responsibility.” If there is one thing the progressive abhors it is personal responsibility. Whether it involves crime, drug abuse, or poverty, progressives like to blame everyone but the responsible party, the usual objects of their censure being capitalism, the bourgeoisie, religion, or the military-industrial complex. Confronted with the case of an unmarried, illiterate 14-year-old girl with multiple children living in unspeakable squalor, the progressive will doubtless fault a greedy, misogynistic, racist society, and absolve the waif and her biological architects from all blame.
Or consider the soi-disant progressive moral value of “Caring.” Progressives claim to have a monopoly on caring, but “The Catalogue For Philanthropy’s Generosity Index” shows that when it comes to charitable giving the Red States leave the Blue States eating their red dust. More, a recent study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that the blue New England states are home to the stingiest people in America. Compared to religious giving, corporate giving and Republican efforts to wean lifers from the dole and instill in them a sense of hope and pride with welfare-to-work programs, progressives look like tightwads.
Likewise, the other so-called “progressive moral values,” are equally distorted. In the progressive’s moral universe, “Fairness” isn’t a level playing field, but involves giving the underdog the ball on the one-yard line and a twenty-point lead. “Equality” means favoring one formerly oppressed race or sex over another. To the conservative, “Freedom” is symbolic of the Bill of Rights and other restraints on a bloated, grabby and sluggish bureaucracy. But Freedom to the progressive can only be obtained by bigger, more intrusive government, new laws, and additional oversight, which would seem to be a paradox — because it is. “Opportunity” is not about helping your own prospects through self-reliance, education and sweat, but rather involves waiting for government to offer you a leg up. The rest of the “progressive moral values” (courage, fulfillment in life, cooperation, trust, honesty, openness) are too generic and mundane to require comment.
Mr. Lakoff mocks conservative values that suggest “Taxes take away the rightful rewards of the prosperous,” that “wrongdoers should be punished severely,” and that “government should get out of the way of disciplined (hence good) people seeking their self-interest,” as if such values were morally akin to the Nuremberg laws. He then lauds “progressive moral values” that teach the opposite: successful Americans should be punitively taxed, wrongdoers should be coddled, and government should throw up economic barriers to ambitious folks. Fortunately most Americans find such progressive moral values absurd, which is doubtless why Republicans now control both houses of Congress and Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the progressive’s America, described so fancifully in Mr. Lakoff’s essay, children enter this world wholly and naturally good and must learn from society how to be naughty little boys and girls. Here there are no losers, and evil is but some hallucination in the sick mind of a tyrannical father. (Mr. Lakoff accuses conservatives’ “strict-father morality” for bigotry and intolerance, which seems odd considering how few strict fathers there are in contemporary America. It is a little like criticizing do-do birds for befouling your lawn.) And here there is no such thing as self-interest, only the communal good. A nanny government clamps down on anyone who becomes too successful, and, since there is no evil, no disciplining required, and everyone takes care of everyone else, fathers become superfluous. The progressive’s Utopia. The liberal’s Erehwon.
In the spirit of red-state generosity, I’m going to offer Mr. Lakoff and his readers a bit of unsolicited advice. Forget about trying to dress up failed progressive ideas as “moral values.” Americans aren’t buying it. Rather, progressives should play to their strengths. Many libertarian Republicans, I think, would support greater tolerance of alternative lifestyles, which they regard as no one else’s business. We would certainly support reasonable and sane protections of civil rights, workers rights and the environment. But then such reasonableness and sanity wouldn’t be very progressive, now would it?