Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that [humanity] is no longer at one with [it] origin. . . .

The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. . . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of goo and evil, but only of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17, 38


This book is not the Ethics which Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to have published. – Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface,” p.7


Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics . . . – Me, “Richard Rorty ‘Texts and Lumps’, No One Special, October 11, 2016

Albrecht Durer's engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Once many years ago I tried to explain Bonhoeffer’s basis for his Christian ethical reflection to someone. Needless to say, even quoting the author didn’t do much good. If one is predisposed to believe that the Christian life entails moral absolutes that are timeless, true always and forever across time and space and language and culture, then hearing that a well-known if little studied Christian theologian calls bunk on that just won’t sound right. All the same, the opening pages in Bonhoeffer’s collected writings on Christian ethics were little less than a bomb going off for me.

I remember the day I read this. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, 1991. I was listening to . . . something . . . on the radio. The music was little more than background noise. I was taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer’s writings, and first up on the agenda was Ethics. A strange choice considering that of all his major works published after his death, it is precisely this volume that would have given the living Bonhoeffer fits. Assembled from bits and pieces of writings scattered across the years 1939 to Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945, some of which his literary executor and editor admitted were written on scattered pieces of paper, some just a single sentence, the result can best be described as a mishmash of traditional Lutheran ethical reflection combined with truly mind-blowing insights.

When I read that first chapter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Did I just read what I thought I read?” I went back and read that chapter again. Yup. I did indeed read exactly what I thought I’d read the first time.

Words like “morality” get tossed around both by philosophers and non-philosophers as if everyone knew precisely what we’re talking about. Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the problem with so much ethical and moral thought by insisting that, rather than concern itself with “good” and “evil”, proper Christian ethical reflection concerns itself with the will of God, sought and lived anew each day. Rather than yet again redefine a concept that had become (to use Rorty’s phrase) shopworn, Bonhoeffer cleared the boards completely.

I felt myself at a bit of an impasse regarding matters related to what it meant to live as a Christian; the relevance of personal moral uprightness to the call to live faithfully; the demand for a social ethic that replaced personal moralizing with a kind of political moralizing; these things and more were pushing me to wonder whether or not I could, in good conscience, even call myself a Christian. Then along comes Bonhoeffer. The Gordian Knot into which my brain had been turned was not only cut; the sword that dangled from it pierced me all the way through. It is impossible to describe every thought and feeling I had that warmish September afternoon 25 years ago. I can say with certainty that I felt an enormous, “YES!” ringing through the world, as if simultaneously confirming my questions were the right questions and that this, this presentation right here, offered a solution consonant with Christian Scripture and Christian doctrine that, while perhaps not fully realized by the author, was among the more revolutionary statements Christian theology produced in the first half of the 20th century.

“Does this mean you don’t believe in right and wrong?” That was the question I was asked a decade ago when I tried to explain all this. The answer to that question is simple: Any four-year-old understands the concepts of right and wrong. The belief for one moment that serious, faithful reflection on Christian living in our contemporary milieu should explain something clear enough to toddlers is ridiculous on its face. “Believing” in right and wrong is neither here nor there. As, too, is the distinction between good and evil. I remember well in the time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington some on the right insisting that “liberals” were unwilling to call an evil act evil, or that the person who performed an evil act, in Pres. Bush’s words, an “evil doer”. Again, what relevance does such labeling have for serious reflection upon faithful living?

I think the best example of why I find the whole “Call it evil!” business is the following, in which I quote at length a piece no longer available on the web:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – “”Moral Indignation,” May 8, 2010

Whether it’s kitten-burning, or demanding liberals call evil acts “evil” or somehow be complicit in them, for some reason the proof of a proper moral outlook can only ever be that everyone speak out against, well, kitten burning and terrorism. As if somehow that makes on a moral person.

Denying to the Christian life any concern with good and evil certainly does not mean either being insouciant about them or, worse, condoning immoral acts. In just the same way, Christian ethical reflection does not exclude particular matters from consideration, including the old standbys of smoking, drinking, and sex on the one hand, or how best to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, whether that be local, national, or international. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s claim here directs the believer’s attention toward God and Divine Will. There aren’t any eternal moral laws, either revealed or accessible to reason. There is no once-for-all-time declaration from the Almighty regarding “what ought we to do”, whether in our personal or social conduct. All there is, for those whose faith declares the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, is a reliance upon Divine grace. This grace is, as Bonhoeffer notes, new each day. So, too, is the answer to the question, “What ought we to do?” Asking questions about good and bad or right and wrong, demanding to know the immutable moral will of God isn’t “wrong” in some absolute sense. They’re just the wrong questions to ask, the wrong matters with which to be concerned should one be seeking an authentic Christian life.

This is one reason why I find so much of our current moral discourse, whether it’s political or within the churches, so appalling. Rather than seeking in prayer what it is we are called to do, we pronounce eternal judgment upon those with whom we happen to disagree (regardless of which “side” one finds oneself taking), ignorant of how such actions are antithetical to real Christian ethical reflection. Despite Bonhoeffer’s status as a contemporary martyr, so little is known about his thought even among those who praise his courage in the face of Nazi tyranny that bringing this particular bit of his thought to light might well cause far more problems than it solves.

I read this at the same time I’d been reading Rorty. What I saw in Bonhoeffer, this emphasis upon our limited, contingent existence; a refusal to seek universal answers to particular questions; an opening to particular possibilities rather than general demands and laws; all this I understood was also part of Rorty’s ethical and political and antiepistemological agenda. I had long since become comfortable with a kind of general acceptance of the contingency of all that is as well as the necessary limits such contingency places upon us in our understanding. Now I had encountered a Christian thinker who seemed equally comfortable rejecting the long-running notion that the moral life was a set of hard-and-fast rules either revealed to humanity or accessible to human reason therefore accessible to all human beings at all times and places. Embracing human contingency of life, of thought, of language, and of action, Bonhoeffer offers the freedom from precisely all those phony and ridiculous “moral laws” and “ethical demands” that has so exercised western thought for millennia.

Few things taste and smell as sweet as that first breath of free air.

Creepy And Toxic Pseudo-Christian Ideas

A "Quiverfull" meme that should make it difficult to eat lunch after reading.

A “Quiverfull” meme that should make it difficult to eat lunch after reading.

On the fringes of American Christianity there are many small groups that do very strange things. Some, however, rush past “strange” and wind up in places that are not only psychologically toxic, but just downright creepy. Nine years ago, I noted the existence of something called “purity balls”. I wrote:

Like a cross between a cotillion, a wedding, and a prom, fathers and daughters dress to the nines, get together, and the daughters (I can hardly keep my gorge down as I type this) pledge their virginity to their fathers. They promise to remain abstinent until marriage, making the vow public.

Later on, I found an example of the kind of thing a father “pledged”:

I, (daughter’s name)’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.

Really just profoundly wrong, on so many levels, right? What could be worse than this?

I’m sure you’ve probably, at the very least, heard of the so-called “Quiverfull” movement. The Duggars are an extreme example: Having many babies, as close together as possible, home-schooling them, and restricting their access both to peers and the media. As a parent, I tend to get itchy when people start going after how others raise their children. I’ve never appreciated criticisms of our parenting; I’m sure there are many who probably figure we’re too lenient, allowing our girls to have as much freedom to grow and become who they are. So these folks home-school their kids and are strict disciplinarians; I have nothing against either, up to a point.

Today I discovered that this movement is rooted in what I can only call pseudo-Christian nonsense, incorporating physical and psychological abuse both of women and children, and as the above meme from one of the “leaders” shows, borders on endorsing both child marriage and pedophilia:

Vaughn Ohlman is a sick man with a twisted sense of fatherly love.

Suzanne Titkemeyer, administrator of the No Longer Quivering blog, frequently features the bizarre rantings of “Let Them Marry” in the “Quoting Quiverfull” section and has had numerous interactions with Vaughn, whom she describes as, “a nonsensical pain in the ass who refuses to accept logic, facts and legitimate figures,” reports that Ohlman was interested in a girl at his church and her daddy judged him not good enough and rejected him.

(That story is all kinds of messed up, but the good news is … whew, she dodged a bullet!)

While there is some standard right-wing rhetoric tossed around on these websites, there are also far more disturbing topics discussed in all seriousness. For example, the whole issue of women submitting to their husbands.

Submitting is not difficult, we do it all the time; we just have a hard time submitting to our husbands, and in this case they are unbelievers. 

God has placed your husband to be the head of the home, the Commander. Submission is a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden” (Greek/ Hebrew Lexicon)

It means that no matter where our husbands are at spiritually we have a responsibility to them and to God to submit to their authority.

Submission is not a giving in and bending over to let him walk all over you.

Jesus was in submission to the Father, but He was considered equal with God the Father. We are to be in submission to our husbands, but God sees us as equals as well.

When we truly grasp the meaning of submission we will begin to see ourselves as no longer singular, but as a part of a unit, a part of a team.

Our motives for submitting to our husbands is not because “God said” so much as it is, “God said and I love God, so I am going to submit to this man God has placed over me, because I seek to please God above all else.”

Now you see your choice for submitting, in this case, to an unbelieving husband means that we seek his good above our own. Our motives for submitting are not for our good and our benefit, but for his good and his benefit.

This is a recipe for disaster. Weak and abusive men will see such behaviors as invitations to do even more harm.

There there is “disciplining” children, or as one writer puts it, “training” them.

I have observed and engaged a sufficient number of parents, both in action and in conversation, to have made a very good guess about what this frustrated father was thinking. I’m certain he was proud of his patience and tenderness, knowing that he was not being overbearing or insensitive toward this child. His philosophy clearly is, “She’s a handful, but kids will be kids! Just love them, and in time they will turn out all right.” No doubt, he was solaced by the fact that in the best of times she responds to his commands. He has “faith” that such a sweet child will survive and eventually “grow into” obedience.

I cautiously mentioned to him that he could actually train her to stop upon command, pointing out how much safer it would be if she obeyed instantly. He brushed it off with, “Oh, she is not being disobedient; we play games like that.” And then he made some comment about how he didn’t like to spank his children except in extreme situations. He didn’t really consider it to be disobedience in a child so young. He was a foolish young father, not yet having seen the final end of the seeds of self-will and rebellion he was sowing.

Nothing says someone has a twisted view of children when they talk about “training” them to “stop upon command”. Nothing says someone has a twisted view of children when they believe an 11-month-old being an 11-month-old – playing a game with Daddy – is actually an example of “self-will and rebellion”. How, precisely, are such children trained?

The methods used to create children who are always smiling, who always obey instantly, who never go through individuation, who never talk back– they should horrify us because they are nightmarish. In order to achieve this, you have to beat infants. You have to strike your children multiple times a day with a switch or a board or a belt. Age-appropriate exploration must be prevented at all costs– either through things like blanket training or slapping a baby every time they reach for a necklace or your hair. You must subject your infant or toddler to brutal physical punishmentevery single time they show a disavowed form of curiosity about their environment.

For older children and teenagers, you have to completely disallow any form of individuality. They must agree with everything you teach them. Doubts and questions are forbidden. If they attempt to express their own identity, they must be bullied by other members of the fundamentalist community to immediately stamp it out.

Being socialized as a fundamentalist child means being horribly abused.

I followed the link above about blanket training because I had never heard of such a thing.

In its simplest form, blanket training consists of 3 actions: (1) place a young child (usually an infant or toddler) on a small blanket, (2) tell that child not to move off the blanket, and (3) strike that child if they move off the blanket. Rinse, repeat.

That sounds like a healthy way to discipline a child . . .

There’s always a fine line between proper discipline at the extremes and what constitutes abuse. Certainly parents who engage in these practices wouldn’t consider themselves abusive. The ideology behind all this, however, a steaming pile of Bible verses, extreme patriarchy, and the dehumanization of women and children, is something that deserves far more attention that it currently enjoys.

Moral Indignation

N.B.: This is another post from my previous blog, dated May 8, 2010 (our wedding anniversary!). It is one of a series of posts in which I discuss misplaced or misused moral superiority. It has been edited slightly from the original. Also, there were links in the original which only end in 404 Errors. I know nothing is supposed to disappear on the Internet, but the truth is, sometimes, things do disappear.

I have occasionally offered the view that I am not impressed with moral indignation. Claiming some kind of moral high-ground on any topic of controversy usually is a way of insulating oneself from the messy reality that we are all compromised in some manner, fashion, or form related to moral judgments. Way back in the fall of 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, one often heard “liberals” chided for some kind of failure to call what happened “evil”, especially after George W. Bush used David Frum’s “axis of evil” in a speech before Congress. For some reason still not completely understood by me, it was thought to be an act not only of moral but intellectual acumen, not to say public heroism, for the President of the United States to call an evil act . . . well, evil.

I was puzzled by this until I found the following. It is the source of what I call “the kitten-burning trap”, i.e., someone demanding that others make moral pronouncements on actions that are clearly vicious.

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong.

It takes very little moral imagination to call an evil act evil. Indeed, a child of eight or nine can understand pretty readily that burning kittens, or killing thousands of people, is morally vicious. I have been chided by moral scolds of both sides of the ideological fence because I refuse to engage in that kind of thing.

Pronouncing moral judgments upon this or that or another act is the easiest thing to do. It’s safe and easy and involves no risk on the part of the person passing judgment. It also helps us avoid the far more difficult and far more important moral task of understanding why such an act is committed. When serial murderers and pedophiles are dehumanized by calling them “monsters” or “animals”; when terrorists are labeled “evildoers”; even when kitten-burners are labeled “sociopaths”; when people say these things, they are safely out of reach. We and they cannot possibly be related in a moral sense. Whatever drove these individuals to act in the ways they do has no relationship to the ways we live our lives; indeed, being morally vicious they can be considered intellectually unintelligible. Who cares why the priest molested the little boys and girls? Who cares why John Wayne Gacey or Jeffrey Dahmer killed all those people? That they did is sufficient to declare them evil, outside the circle of our empathy or concern.

The author quoted above continues:

Again, I whole-heartedly agree that kitten-burning is really, really bad. But the leap from “that’s bad” to “I’m not that bad” is dangerous and corrosive. I like to call this Thornton Melon morality. Melon was the character played by Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Back to School, the wealthy owner of a chain of “Tall & Fat” clothing stores whose motto was “If you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people.” That approach — finding people we can compare-down to — might make us feel a little better about ourselves, but it doesn’t change who or what we really are. The Thornton Melon approach might make us look thin, but it won’t help us become so. Melon morality is never anything more than an optical illusion.

This comparing-down is ultimately corrosive because it bases our sense of morality in pride rather than in love — in the cardinal vice instead of the cardinal virtue. And to fuel that pride, we end up looking for ever-more extreme and exotically awful people to compare ourselves favorably against, people whose freakish cruelty makes our own mediocrity show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.

Melon morality is why if the kitten-burners didn’t already exist, we would have to invent them.

The narcissistic aspect of this phenomenon should be clear; these evildoers exist solely to demonstrate our moral worth. Pronouncing moral judgments, whether it’s on kitten-burners or Satanists or abortion-providers or racists or whomever – it’s a child’s game and has nothing to do with serious moral inquiry. I can’t even be bothered with calling evil acts evil, not because I do not believe them to be so. On the contrary, they are prima facie evidence of the reality of radical evil for those who think such a thing nonexistent. I do not bother with such labeling because it has nothing to do with understanding how an evil event took place. Whether it’s a mass murder, a serial child-rapist, or a terrorist attack, we get absolutely nowhere if we call such things “evil” and figure there is no more to be said, done, or thought.

What is far more important, and far more troubling, is investigating how human beings no different from us can engage in acts of radical evil, whether that is kitten-burning, serial murder, or genocide. To those who complained of the alleged silence of “the left” on the moral status of terrorist acts, I can only wonder how they could miss the equally vicious idea, bandied about by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of “collateral damage” during the run-up to the Iraq war. Precisely because it is the embodiment of Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, creating bureaucratic phrases hides horrors. Of course Rumsfeld was talking about the unintended, but nevertheless forseeable, deaths of thousands during combat. Not to see the moral viciousness of such a phrase is far more troubling than refusing to say that killing thousands with airplanes is an evil action.

Precisely because pronouncing moral opprobrium upon acts that are morally evil is so easy, it should be avoided. Whether it’s denouncing sociopathic adolescents or dictators, our intellectual and moral effort should aim toward understanding in order to prevent, rather than standing on some kind of pedestal, calling perpetrators of such acts evil. We should be willing to engage in the far more dangerous, and personally risky, task of keeping evil acts squarely within the possibilities available to any and all human beings. That takes real moral imagination, and is far more necessary in an age when genocide is commonplace and war has become our new normal.

The Great Divide

This post originally appeared on What’s Left In The Church? on June 14, 2012. It has been edited for the sake of clarity.

—–

[N]o matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source. – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Political equality – citizenship – equalizes people who are otherwise unequal in their capacities, and the universalization of citizenship therefore has to be accompanied not only by formal training in the civic arts but by measures designed to assure the broadest distribution of economic and political responsibility, the exercise of which is even more important than formal training in teaching good judgment, clear and cogent speech, the capacity of decision, and the willingness to accept the consequences of our actions. It is in this sense that universal citizenship implied a whole world of heroes. Democracy requires such a world if citizenship is not to become an empty formality. – Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, pp. 88-89

Me at the time I wrote the original piece. Bit more gray, lots more hair and beard now.

Me at the time I wrote the original piece. Bit more gray, lots more hair and beard now.

I have been considering the current state of the United States, its political and social state, in an attempt to make clear what I see as the defining challenge of our current historical moment. I believe as a people we have become so consumed with fear from such a wide array of threats, real and imagined, we have, as a people, lost the capacity to consider threats not as very real yet manageable, but as dire, absolute, existential threats to our persons and to our national integrity. In short, the fears induced by a series of national traumas have metastasized to a kind of generalized, yet overpowering, terror.

The consequence of this state of affairs is a shrinking of our view of possible alternative actions. For several decades, elite institutions and individuals have sought to circumvent the minimal legal and administrative checks placed upon concentrated power. The result us our current state of affairs where elite institutions operate largely outside not only popular, democratic controls, but without even the pretense of concern for popular endorsement or validation. That we have allowed this situation to occur is perhaps inevitable. It isn’t the first, nor is it the last time congeries of private and public power have united in mutually beneficial ways, introducing policies that benefit them at the expense of the commonweal. Unlike the modest reforms of the Depression Years, there has been no serious attempt to reign in those private institutions that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. In fact, defending their existence as an essential feature of our common life has become more important the demanding accountability for the damage they caused.

Nearly four years after, the divide between elite institutions and the public is wider than ever; four years after, the basic governing proposals of the major party candidates for high office are indistinguishable in their refusal to take a good, hard look at the abuses of power and their possible corrupting influence on our public institutions. The result is a potential voting public grumbling about both major party candidates for President as well as the current, sitting Congress without the alternatives that would address and perhaps correct the imbalances that continue within the system.

Just as there have been times in our history in which powerful private interests have created a barrier for popular participation to the detriment of our common life, elite disdain for popular democracy is nothing new. Even the founders were wary of extending potential participation beyond those individuals who, as current lingo has it, were stakeholders in decision-making. Thus, it would be nearly two hundred years before most effective barriers to universal participation were legally dismantled. Once the franchise became available to all adults, the movement to insulate seats of private, corporate, power from the threat of popular participation began in earnest.

There have been few more blatant examples of elite disdain for democracy than a recent column by New York Times‘ pundit David Brooks. Setting aside Brooks’ introduction and his attempt at a kind of profundity to which he is particularly ill-suited, the nub of Brooks’ complaint comes at the end:

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else. In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice. To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

The interesting thing about Brooks, his career as a pundit, and this particular column is the way it demonstrates the divide between the interlocking institutions of elite power and their immunity to popular disdain. There are many well-paid, highly-visible individuals whose documented history of error on a number of levels has not prevented their continued presence as the voice of elite opinion. Precisely because the punditry exists for the sake of the wielders of power, rather than as expressions of democratic opinion in all their variety, the criticism Brooks has received, such as these, is meaningless. Whether or not the people not operating within the interlocked institutions of private and public power agree or disagree with Brooks is immaterial.

The clear expression not just of disdain but hostility toward the democratic ideal, given voice by Brooks, displays the complete break even with the pretense of obeisance to that ideal. No longer content to parade their quadrennial fealty to the voter, the only elites who really matter – the intersecting persons and institutions who represent corporate and public authority without any democratic check or limit – no longer feel any compunction about expressing their true feelings.

The problem would be insurmountable if not for the on-going complete and utter failure to govern in ways and through policies that are in their own interests. Even as corporate profits and managerial compensation rise to record levels, a sizable plurality of America remains unemployed, underemployed, or permanently outside the workforce. This large segment of people, unable to contribute to economic activity, create an ever larger hollow space in our economy that no amount of tax cuts or administrative reform will fill. In short, without people to pay for their products, corporations have created an unsustainable economic model.

Of course, this means we may well find ourselves in a situation in which we are in need of public officials willing to address the situation. As things stand, the elites of both parties, beholden to a system that rewards subservience to private money to maintain a career in public life, are incapable of giving voice to popular demands for systemic change that creates new barriers to corporate interests and institutions and their desire to control our public bodies. The divide between elite and popular interest is wide and, as the system is currently arranged, nearly impossible to cross.

The undercurrent of faith in our democratic traditions and values, however, lies at the heart of recent popular protest movements. Whether expressed by the Tea Party or the Occupy movements, regardless of the influx of corporate cash to the Tea Party, they both demonstrate an on-going popular trust in democratic protest against elite usurpation of power. One may disagree with the overall ideological thrust of one or the other of these movements; one cannot doubt, however, that the millions who expressed solidarity with each did so out of a sincere desire for some kind of check upon the power elite institutions wield without accountability.

Neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Movement, however, has been successful in curbing on-going distortions of our public institutions away from democratic norms. It may well be the case that only some collapse, far larger and more devastating than the one that occurred in 2008, needs to happen before democratic distrust of unchecked power finds expression in one or another of our major political parties. Precisely because the status quo becomes shakier by the day, this may yet be the case.

That this continues to be a source of public angst should be beyond doubt. Our ongoing inability even to pretend the system will respond to mounting evidence it no longer works even for those few institutions who benefit from it creates many hazards, not the least of them a disdain for public life in general that could very well leave us without recourse to a return to democratic forms serving as a check upon the abuse of power. Our fear may well be even more our undoing than our current, teetering, system. For that reason alone, we need to be clear about what is happening, and prepare ourselves to act for the common good should it come to that extremity. As it stands, the system clearly shows no interest even in pretending to hear the voice of the people.

Miley Cyrus

From a Cyrus fan’s older sibling in Carson City, Nev.: “I tuned in with my minor sister who considerers [sic] Miley her role model. I have one question for you: What kind of pornographic display of indecency whas [sic] that? Miley wore barely any clothing and even flashed her breasts without any sensory [sic] at all. I find this absolutely disgusting that this was allowed on national TV.“

From someone in North Andover, Mass., who didn’t even tune in to the show: “I did not watch the show but I saw plenty of pictures and video recaps of it. What rubbish. It was offensive; it was pornographic and it was disgraceful. Miley Cyrus should be barred on grounds of public indecency. Please do not televise this garbage. It is not fit for any human being to see.” – “FCC Complaints About Miley Cyrus’ Nipple on the VMAs: She’s ‘Very Troubled’ & ‘Should Be Punished'”, Billboard & Yahoo News, September 21, 2015

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When anyone uses persons in the entertainment industry as examples of moral turpitude, we are playing the game the industry wants us to play. Whether or not Madonna, or Stefanie, or Britney are or are not sluts is a question they want us to ask so that we will pay attention to them and, hopefully, buy their music. Of course, the persona they create is what we are really purchasing, with the music the soundtrack to our thoughts about them; pushing the boundaries of bourgeois sexual propriety is not only the method by which we are enticed to buy. It is what they are selling.

More than anything, calling these women sluts, bad examples young women should not emulate, is to accept the lie of the image. Even if you believe the constant barrage of carefully placed “rumors” and “stories” in the celebrity press, alleging bad behavior, you are still participating in the game. Here in the entertainment industry, its insistence on visibility and image, we have one of the best examples of capitalism eating itself. On the one hand we have bourgeois morality, with its tsking and tutting about what is and is not “proper” dress and behavior. On the other hand we have millions invested in ensuring these boundaries and mores are clear precisely because they are traduced so thoroughly and consistently. – Me, “Sluts And Celebrity”, What’s Left In The Church, August 3, 2011

OH. MY. GOD!!! A celebrity did something to attract attention to herself! We can't have that!

OH. MY. GOD!!! A celebrity did something to attract attention to herself! We can’t have that!

Every few years, a new, usually female, celebrity comes along whose behavior attracts attention because it pushes our arbitrary boundaries of propriety. Once upon a time, it was Mae West inviting hecklers to her hotel room after a show. Marilyn Monroe appeared in Playboy Magazine, offering millions of American men a glimpse of what they had been wanting to see. Raquel Welch pushed the sexual image of women even further, particularly in the film Hannie Caulder. Over the course of my adult life we’ve traveled from Madonna rolling around on stage in a wedding dress lip-synching “Like A Virgin”; Britney Spears tempting the repressed pedophile in too many men, dressed as a school girl while breathlessly singing “Oops! I Did It Again!”; Lady Gaga offering empowerment and great dance beats while always allowing as much skin as possible to show.

Now we have Miley Cyrus. She first made millions of jaws drop a couple years ago at the MTV Video Music Awards, twerking among and upon her backup dancers in a number that wasn’t as sexually offensive as it was racially demeaning. She appeared nude – but carefully hidden – for her song “Wrecking Ball”. She has allowed nude photos of herself to be displayed on the Internet. Now, she has done the unspeakable: A woman well-known for pushing both boundaries and buttons allowed her bare breast to flash for just a moment on national television. Like Capt. Renault in Casablanca, I’m shocked – SHOCKED! – to discover attention-seeking is going on here!

Thankfully, of the millions who tuned in to the VMA’s this year, only 20 were outraged enough to put finger to keyboard and send complaints to the FCC. Considering they let Bono off for saying “Fuck” during a live-broadcast event, I just don’t see them rushing to investigate the baring of a nipple on cable television.

Yet it must be said – again and again and again – that the folks who are just “outraged”; who see a nipple and scream “pornography”; and insist “this filth” has no place on television are doing exactly what Cyrus, her management, and her publicity agents (not publicists; those are persons who are expert on international law) want them to do.

The whole point of the entertainment industry is to entertain. There are those purists, of course, who insist that actors should act, musicians and singers play and sing, and otherwise should remain both silent and hidden. The reality, however, is very different. Particularly for someone of Cyrus’s limited acting and musical ability – she isn’t bad; she’s just “meh” like thousands of others who weren’t born to a country-and-western singer – exploiting our need for constant stimulation and information, for content to fill 24-hour news cycles and an Internet in which even a day without a “mention” or a “Tweet” can have serious consequences. Add to that Cyrus’s need to escape the shadow of her adolescent character in Hannah Montana, and we have the ingredients for fake controversy. An exposed nipple and Cyrus saying “tit” on national cable television? We can’t have that! Showing up in the outfit below to walk the “red carpet”? Disgraceful!

How much body tape was used to hold that thing together? Image courtesy of Getty Images

How much body tape was used to hold that thing together? Image courtesy of Getty Images

Of all the things in this world about which to arouse oneself enough to write to a federal agency, a celebrity attracting attention shouldn’t even be on anyone’s radar. Sad to say, there are still way too many people in the world who think it’s their business not only to determine how others live their lives; they believe it is incumbent upon them to make decisions about what images, sounds. and words reach everyone else. Not understanding that shock and outrage is about all Miley Cyrus has to sell to the public, they are protesting a product that generates millions of dollars in income. What are a few church ladies needing a fainting couch compared to that kind of economic power?

A few years ago, a long-time commenter on my previous blog bemoaned the fact that Lady Gaga was held up as a model for young women to emulate. Personally, I think that’s a fine idea. A talented musician as well as a canny manager of her public persona, were I to have a child who looked up to celebrities – as opposed to my wife and me, the people to whom our children turn when looking for someone after whom to model their lives – I could do worse than recommending Lady Gaga. That she’s edgy and provocative are part of her charm because there’s so much more there. Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, has little more than flashing skin at a hungry public to keep her name in front of us. I’m not bothered by her willingness to appear nude or nearly so in public. I’m far more bothered by those who take their time to carry on about such trivialities.

Who is the real Miley Cyrus? I couldn’t care less, not really. I hope she’s a nice person, but if she isn’t I hope she learns enough in years to come to become one. The images we’re carefully fed, the stories written beforehand with fake sources and phony inside details, her appearances at the VMAs sans clothing; these things have nothing to do with who Miley Cyrus really is. As long as she remains aware of the distinction – that “Miley Cyrus” is a character no more real than Hannah Montana; Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, needs food, water, shelter, and family and friends in order to be a happy person – then all should be well. It’s when celebrities begin to believe their own press that trouble arises.