Jonah Goldberg understands what went wrong with the culture

Jonah Goldberg writing for National Review observes in Empty Integrity what has gone wrong with western culture and entertainment. I know Goldberg’s writings from Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change
, which is well worth a read.

Although to my knowledge Jonah Goldberg has never heard of the superversive literary movement he does understand well the culture that it exists in reaction too and he makes that abuntantly clear in Empty Integrity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” in part as “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.” This is basically what most of us have in mind when asked to define “integrity.” A man of “great integrity” is a man who is honest, forthright, and incorruptible. In the secular faith that is Americanism, George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington is about as good an exemplar of the idea as one can conjure.

Then again, that’s what we’re supposed to say. It’s a bit like when pollsters ask people, “What is your biggest concern?” No one says, “The Chargers beat the spread this weekend” or “I think I got the clap from that waitress.” But surely that sort of thing is closer to the truth for most people. I live in Washington, and while lots of people say their biggest concern is “the deficit,” I have yet to meet anyone who has lost sleep over it. Regardless, certain answers are expected of us, and so people say things like “entitlement spending” or “the plight of the uninsured.” We say that because it’s the sort of thing we want to believe about ourselves. We want to believe that we’re good people.

That’s one of the interesting things about integrity, according to the moral philosophers (at least the good ones). Integrity in the moral sense isn’t defined simply by doing the right thing, but by wanting to do the right thing. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt laid out a hierarchy of desires. Every animal has the thought, “I want to have sex.” Many animals — mostly the better ones — might have something like the thought (or, if you want to be pedantic, the desire): “I want to reproduce.” Only humans think: “I want to marry a nice Jewish girl who’d make a good mother.” Badgers don’t think to themselves, “I must crush all of my enemies so I can rule supreme as the emperor of the North Woods and have my choice of the finest badger sows to copulate with.” It is the desire to have moral or immoral desires and the decision to act upon them that defines humanity at its best. Integrity is the measure — or at least one important measure — of how successful we are at acting on our desire to have the right desires.
David Thunder (the Irish philosopher, not the American porn star, I think) identifies five types of integrity, but I won’t burden you with the full list; it’s not going to be on the test. Suffice it to say, the five kinds of integrity are really a spectrum. At one end, there are “purely formal accounts of integrity.” According to Thunder, “purely formal accounts essentially demand internal consistency within the form or structure of an agent’s desires, actions, beliefs, and evaluations.” Thunder continues (I wish he were more strident so I could write “Thunder thunders”) that under purely formal integrity, a person “may be committed to evil causes or principles, and they may adopt principles of expediency or even exempt themselves from moral rules when the rules stand in the way of their desires.” At the other end of the spectrum are “fully substantive accounts.” In this version, a person with integrity is someone “who desires to do what is morally good in all of his decisions.”

There was a time when this desire to do good in all things was considered the only kind of integrity. After God himself, the exemplars of integrity are the angels, who are God’s intermediaries to the physical world (at least according to Maimonides and the producers of the old CBS series Touched by an Angel). Angels are better than mortals. They’re always certain about what is right because, by definition, they’re doing God’s will. (As no one says, “If it’s from the Almighty, it’s alrighty.”)

Meanwhile, humans are like Hong Kong knockoffs of angels, in that we have a divine spark in us, but sometimes it goes dim when Cinemax “After Dark” is on. As Psalm 8 says, “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” Free will means that we can fall short of doing the right thing. As James Madison put it, “If men were angels, we wouldn’t need the IRS criminal-enforcement division.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Still below angels, but above normal men, are heroes. Traditionally these are people who do the right thing at great personal sacrifice. The Greek heres means protector or defender. Sometimes protectors must do bad things for the greater good. Knights, at least as a mythic ideal, strove to be as close to angels as humans could be. In the later Middle Ages, the angelic ideal of chivalry was democratized as the bourgeois sought to raise their children according to gentlemanly rules of honor, too. Even as the chivalric code evolved, the idea of heroism remained largely intact. Heroes make sacrifices for the greater good. Tom Doniphon, the man who (spoiler alert!) actually shot Liberty Valance, cut some corners, but he did so for a higher good. The incorruptible Dirty Harry was dirty in a legalistic sense but closer to the angels in his desire for divine justice. (Angels in the Hebrew Bible never read the wicked their Miranda rights and weren’t exactly reluctant to open a can of whoop-ass when necessary.)

But something in the culture has changed. Through virtually the entire history of Western civilization, heroes had the right-end-of-the-spectrum version of integrity. They did good out of a desire to do good — and that good was directed by some external ideal. Sure, it wasn’t always, strictly speaking, a Biblical definition of good. You can’t blame Odysseus or Achilles for not following a book that hadn’t been published yet. But however “good” was defined, it existed in some sort of Platonic realm outside of the protagonist’s own id. (Or ego? Or superego? Or super-duper id? I can never keep that stuff straight.) The hero clung to a definition of “good” that was outside himself, and therefore something he had to reach for.

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