George Will is at his acerbic best when calling a spade a spade such as when he declared flatly, "Many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people." Then there was the case where he deliciously sneered at the California Department of Education’s stipulation that when "ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, portrayals must not depict differences in customs or lifestyles as undesirable" — Slavery? Segregation? Anti-Semitism? Cannibalism? — "and must not reflect adversely on such differences."
But maybe the propensity to avoid making distinctions between what is worthy and what is not is more contagious than we knew. In his recent column, Will asks in his usual lofty fashion, "Who isn’t a ‘values voter’?" He frets about injury to the body politic by calling one group "values voters," thus inferring that others are not. The phrase, he says, "subtracts from social comity by suggesting that one group has cornered the market on moral seriousness."
He chastises the media for "ratifying the social conservatives’ monopoly of the label," which he contends furthers "the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others."
Fiction? Hello, George. Maybe you don’t ever have to encounter the vulgar profanity of rap — I refuse to call it music — blaring from speakers in a nearby vehicle with such force that everyone within 100 feet (whether their windows are rolled up or not) is jolted by the noise, vibrations and disgusting lyrics that revel in the brutality of rape and murder. For some of us this assault on decency and moral sensibilities is an all-too-frequent experience.
Will’s case runs along these lines. "Liberals," he says,"favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values." Moreover, "Among the various flavors of conservatism, there is libertarianism that is wary of government attempts to nurture morality and there is social conservatism that says unless government nurtures morality, liberty will perish. Both kinds of conservatives use their votes to advance what they value." It seems to me, however, that he is using a semantic dodge to gloss over the point that not all preferences are created equal; some are marginally defective while others are absolutely vile and degrading. The worth of the ideas a group favors are not necessarily proportionate to the intensity with which they are attached to them. Unlike a preference, a value is not unilaterally determined. It is with good cause that philosophers have expended so much energy on exploring what really constitutes the good, the true and the beautiful.
When it serves his purpose, Will doesn’t hesitate to discriminate. Speaking of the current academic culture, he claims that today’s academic elites reject the idea of heroes, those persons whom he describes as "rare event-making individuals who are better and more important than most people." [Emphasis added.] Now that is clearly an ascription of superior worth to one small group as opposed to others. "To banish elites from the human story," he claims, "many academic historians tell that story as one of vast impersonal forces, in which individuals are in the iron grip of economic, racial or gender roles." Will concludes that it is "small wonder students turn away from history taught without the drama of autonomous individuals moved by reason, conviction and rhetoric that appeals to the better angels of their natures."
To his credit, Will has made perfectly clear in his writing that not every effort deserves a passing grade no matter how much damage to self-esteem results from flunking. Will fails his readers in this particular case because, for whatever reason, he is not prepared to pass judgment on which of a group’s preferences are good and which are not, which deserve to be embraced by a society and which — like the left’s welfare-state agenda that Will has effectively criticized — are defective and ruinous to its culture.
Will’s insipid conclusion is that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain "are and will remain busy courting only values voters, because there is no other kind." Sorry, George but this doesn’t cut it; it only proves that, at the same time, you can be right on one level and totally wrong on another.
Surely Will doesn’t view the likes of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski or serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer or Larry Flint, the publisher of Hustler and other pornography, as "values voters," assuming they ever voted? If Iraq split into three regions and the Sunnis chose to bring Saddam back as their leader, would this constitute an expression of "values"? Would a return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan constitute just another alternative system of values?
It is not enough to write comfortably about virtue and civility. Recently, for example, Will stated amorphously that "manners are the practice of a virtue. A virtue is called civility, a word related — as a foundation is related to a house — to the word civilization."
Clever wording, George, but what about the great moral questions of the day that loom as large as slavery, segregation, or anti-Semitism? Surely there is no more significant issue today, no clearer focal point of the struggle between good and evil than the sanctity of human life. Being pro-abortion and embracing the culture of death are not exactly the same as opposing abortion because of deeply held beliefs that life is something precious and dear. Will misses the asymmetry between positive values and negative values which in reality are, from a moral perspective, an absence of values.
As in the past, great moral issues now teeter in the political and social balance. Merely claiming that everyone who exercises their responsibility to cast a ballot in the coming election deserves the label of "values voter" is a semantic whitewash that clarifies nothing.
Norman Podhoretz and Joseph Epstein both wrote articles about the English philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin when he died in 1997. They both called him the "intellectual giant" of his age, but agreed that, despite his exceptional abilities, Isaiah Berlin did not live up to his potential. They said, "He lacked the courage to stand up and be counted." They said that he was unwilling to risk his reputation and prestige: "When push came to shove, relativism won out over conviction."
"In the end," the writers said, "Isaiah Berlin did not have the impact he could have had because he didn’t take positions; he tried to have it both ways."
Joseph Epstein concluded with a profound statement that sums up the tragedy of Isaiah Berlin’s life: "Yet issues arise in which one is bound — almost as part of being engaged with one’s time, almost as a part of being human — to take stands and positions — to risk enmity."
In the lingering shadow of Memorial Day — and the memories of the sacrifices made to afford us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — George Will should take up his pen to support, not disdain, those who have courageously taken a stand on the moral issues of our day. You can do better, George. Your avid "values" readers deserve better.
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