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By Jason Michael
“NOW I HAVE COME to the crossroads in my life,” exclaims Al Pacino’s character, Frank Slade, in what surely must be one of the most rousing speeches in cinema history (Scent of a Woman, 1992). “I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it.” Before touching on the theme of today’s sermon – Politics in a Degraded Age – it is important we remind ourselves of the obvious hypocrisy of our words. Like the retired lieutenant colonel, we too have never failed to know right from wrong, and we too have often failed to take the right path – to do the right thing. Calling out the faults of others, then, is made somewhat more difficult because the thing we are calling out is often the thing we want least to be called out in ourselves. Modern politics and our present political leadership have exasperated us. We are frustrated and exhausted with the endless and shameless lies they are telling, yet we are also liars. I know that I am. I’ve told some whoppers in my time. I have deceived and misled people, I have proffered mendacious excuses, I have let others take the blame for my misdeeds. This is forever the difficulty in such a moral interventions; we are pointing out in others offences of which we ourselves are guilty.
Moral frailty, while succumbing to it is always wrong, is an inescapable component of the human condition. Like Frank Slade, we have always known the right thing to do and so often failed to do it. As hypocrites, then, we must sit as jurors in the trial of people in politics and in positions of power and leadership who have, it seems, made a virtue of lying. Of course, it will always be problematic to force a distinction on degrees of an offence – to say that one lie is better or worse than another – when all lies are in breach of the same Commandment, but in the real world there is a massive difference between telling a police officer we never saw a stop sign and telling a whole pack of lies to tens of millions of voters so as to achieve a political goal and some measure of personal benefit. Only the most puritanical of jurists would refuse to concede here that the latter is by magnitudes far greater an offence than the former.
So far gone, in our times, is any sense of moral duty and with it any understanding of an obligation to the truth t… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) September 15, 2019
Yet, this is where we find ourselves in the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson, our new Prime Minister, is a man who shamelessly stood in front of a bus during the Brexit referendum campaign and told voters that leaving the European Union would return £350 million every week to essential public services like the NHS; all the while knowing this was untrue. Since moving into Number 10 he has repeated over and again that his government is engaged in ongoing negotiations with its European partners, when the European parliament and commission have unequivocally stated this is not the case. More recently, it was determined in the Edinburgh Court of Session that he knowingly and wilfully misled Buckingham Palace to secure the royal consent he required to suspend parliament and thus stymy any public and democratic scrutiny of the government’s actions and designs at a crucial moment in the greatest political crisis the British state has faced since the Nazi invasion of France. Mr Johnson is a man who routinely stands before the voting public and tells – not to put too fine a point on it – bare-faced lies, and, without the facts and denied transparency, we find ourselves in a blind democracy.
But all of this, I am persuaded, is an indication of a deeper, more fundamental problem across the whole of our society, and it does not seem to me that we can hope to restore any level of integrity to the political system and to government before we address this deeper problem. Let’s face it, not twenty years ago a character of the degraded nature of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson would not have had a chance in hell of becoming the elected leader of a western democracy – it would have been unthinkable. Sure, politicians have always been economical with the truth and lies or some sort of deception have always been part of the political game. Still, we can all agree we have come a long way from Bill Clinton’s adamant denial; ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman!’ to the continual bampot-level compulsive lying of our very post-modern political class.
Clearly something has changed. The level of political intercourse and leadership has been broken by a new type of expedient morality – the morality of the tycoon’s Apprentice as opposed to that of the statesman; something closer to an Idiocracy than a civilised and mature democracy. And here is an interesting point: This is a morality. Perhaps not the morality we would like, but it is a morality. Over the past number of decades, certainly in my own lifetime, we have witnessed a steady transition from the morality of duty in politics – the politics of Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and François Mitterrand – downward in gradations to the morality of petty managerialism – George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Silvio Berlusconi. At length, it seems we have arrived today at their spoiled offspring and their new morality; that of the self-important underachiever, the entitled trust-fund entrepreneur, the morality of the moron – the world of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson, with their fetishistic fascination for brands and easily-digestible tripe.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) September 15, 2019
Gone is the division of person and office in high politics. Today we have a ‘President of the United States of America’ – the great ‘POTUS’ – who flabs over his bed sending brain fart quality diplomatic communiqués to other heads of state while chowing down on fast food cheese burgers. In London we have a ‘Britain Trump’ from whose mouth pours and endless stream of unsophisticated fibs that would make a schoolboy blush. But I cannot escape the feeling that we all share some responsibility for this advanced state of decomposition in the body politic.
Some time ago, in university, a friend commented that I was ‘an anachronism’ – words which have stuck with me. His observation has helped me to think about our current crisis. He and I were talking – gossiping, no doubt – about a mutual acquaintance’s licentious antics. It had become known to us that this guy had entangled himself in a number of then infamous drug-fuelled threesomes, perhaps even a full-blown orgy or two. A theological student and an altar boy to the last (a right wee ‘Bible thumper’), I lifted my whiskey and pronounced it ‘wrong, just wrong.’ More in jest than anything else my interlocutor laughed and called me an anachronism, whereupon others in our company lectured me at some length on how it was ‘wrong’ to impose my morality on others. Student life taught me that I was indeed a man out of time, that the morality I held as a sacred – yet unachievable – gift was in this degraded age little more than the moralistic ranting of ‘yer da’ in a world of competing moralities – some, like mine, backward and oppressive, and others more or less ‘progressive.’
What I was looking at, as I have since learned, is moral relativism – a garden of fruity virtues in which we are each free to pick and leave as we please. We may choose not to eat eggs so as to respect the hen and at the very next tree pluck a woman’s right to choose. Relativism says that all choices are equally correct and justifiable, that the ontological contradictions between the cherries we pick don’t matter, and that the cost of entry is the promise not to comment on the choices of others. One can choose, for example, euthanasia – ‘dignity in dying,’ and grab a handful of a society that refuses to assist and support the disabled, the sick, and the elderly, and in those selections see no contradiction, no ‘evil’ – another anachronism. With moral relativism anything – everything – goes. As Dostoyevsky puts it:
Без бога – то и без будущей жизни – Ведь это, стало быть, теперь всё позволено, всё можно делать.
Without God, without an afterlife, in the end, it will be that everything is allowed, anything can be done.
As you might imagine, I have met this idea with wide, staring eyes – with disbelief. Out of the cloister, out in the world, in politics, in government, moral relativism leaves us with our hands tied. We are no longer free – it is not modern, not progressive – to tell someone else, so long as they are acting in accordance with their own morality, that their words and deeds are wrong. There is no wrong, just difference. And difference is good, right? We can listen to people in government lie, but their lies are only wrong to those of us whose morality holds truth as something of greater value than ambition and power. But to the ambitious and powerful the end justifies the means – and this, to them, is morally good. We have allowed ourselves to be pulled from a world of overarching morals and values – which of course presents its own problems – into a garden inhabited by billions, each with his or her own cherry-picker. But here Nietzsche was truly prescient; in a world where each is his own god, the morality of old – the morality of goodness, truth, compassion, and mercy – is the morality of the slave, there to be crushed by the new morality of the Superman.
“Behold, I teach you the Superman. The Superman is the meaning of the earth.” Behold, we have our Superman – our Übermensch. He may not be a young Christopher Reeve, but Boris Johnson is our Superman. He is the victor in a game in which the strongest, the boldest, and the most advantaged take all. No one can truly hold him and those like him to account because we have made accountability impossible. We have forfeited the right to call him immoral because we have chosen the morality of the herd, the slave’s mentality. Nothing of this will change, I suspect, until we all get back on the same page – an understanding and respect for moral objectivity. Nothing they do will ever be wrong until we accept that there is a difference between right and wrong.
Here endeth the lesson.
Stirring Speech from Scent of a Woman