Here’s a nice contrast. First, Rod :

As Wendell Berry explains, especially in “Sex, the Economy, Freedom & Community,” you cannot have community without order, and you cannot have a workable order as long as both economic and sexual decisions are wholly privatized — that is, as long as they are considered only a matter of consequence between the parties making those decisions. Because in reality, they aren’t: the entire community, one way or another, has to bear the burden of those decisions.

Then, Matt Frost :
you go to war with the army you have, and if Americans are going to pull through a tough recession and discover the virtues of mutual support and community engagement, it will probably not be through a wholesale reorganization of our priorities — it will happen in a way that flatters and accommodates our peculiar (and peculiarly American) flaws and fantasies. Rather than deep moral and spiritual renewal leading to civic health, what if it’s our national solipsism and susceptibility to suggestion that pull us together, and pull us through? What if, rather than being stuck with virtue, we discover that, after a few initially painful changes in lifestyle, we can buy spray-on virtue in a can? If enough Americans decide that the TV show of their lives should feature them acting like engaged, conscientious citizens, might that not be just as good as a more “authentic” conversion?

It might be exasperating to live among neighbors who are acting out a self-conscious “sense of” community, but that may be the precise way our better natures come to light these days. And the available alternatives could be a hell of a lot worse.


I think Matt’s point is the more powerfully evocative one. Being stuck with virtue in theory does wind up being different from being stuck with virtue in practice, or now. The superficiality of the moral life, despite everything psychotherapy has done to undermine and get beneath it, remains more a feature than a bug; in a democratic age dominated by social acting, striking rewarding poses loses its opprobrium to the extent that everything is superficial. All things being superficial, why not charitable giving by the porn industry ? Virtue superficiality maintains an important hope: that no matter who we are on the inside or what we do on the outside, all of us can meet the minimum standard of ‘social awareness’ — something measured not in personal awareness but in public performances. And Matt is right to imply that outsourcing virtue, as important a component of performing social awareness as it is, has shown itself to be weak less in its superficiality than in its distance from home.

There is another spin on this. It might be that the moral life has become so superficial that the only place to begin in real-izing it is a superficial one. Although we might postpone a return to Real Virtue indefinitely, we also might proceed, through a sort of ‘soul therapy’, from a more superficial to a more actual moral life, in relatively short order. We should not mistake the moral habits and hangups of the boomers for those of America ever after. We might yet have more self-aware virtue perfomances and less superficiality. Things like breast cancer walks have already taken on the depth quality of ritual. And as any good critic of Rousseau knows, if we are stuck with virtue we are also stuck with an inevitable degree of superficiality. At our most bizarre, we maintain the most superficial virtue performances precisely because we guiltily seek a sense of real authenticity. Paradoxically, perhaps moral performance will begin to lose its superficial edge the less we seek to willfully orchestrate and manufacture ‘experiences of the authentic.’

Articles by James Poulos

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