Pro-school choice, that is. My brother Alan, an education activist who publishes a provocative, nitty-gritty newsletter and blog out of Denver, just wrote an excellent (centrist! yay!) post on the subject.
You'd think the Republicans would find a less loaded synonym for the C-word in non-abortion contexts, such as:
I winced when I heard that last night at the obliviousness to the irony of using that word so approvingly. Of course, it's not the right but the left that has loaded the word "choice" with euphemistic portent. My conservative brain-washer (in the good sense), Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, said many times in my hearing that (paraphrasing) the left has made "choice" a god, in ways that go far beyond abortion. That is, choice in matters of morality and conduct, putting the self at the center of the universe and making one's own whim its law, limited only by a narrow conception of "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody." Talk about ironies, how about this twisted relationship of a neopagan precept to a Christian one:
- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. ~ Aleister Crowley
- This famous statement derives from several historic precedents, including that of François Rabelais in describing the rule of his Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua and Pantagruel: Fait ce que vouldras (Do what thou wilt), which was later used by the Hellfire Club established by Sir Francis Dashwood. It is also similar to the pagan proverb: An ye harm none, do what thou wilt; but the oldest known statement of a similar idea is by St. Augustine of Hippo: Love, and do what thou wilt. (Wikiquote)
Below is something I wrote a few years ago in relation to "cosmopolitans" -- like Barack Obama and me -- and "choice" and morality. The word "cosmopolitan" (antonym: "nativist") is making a comeback, as in this IM dialogue between Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein (link also sent to me by Randy). I thought "cosmopolitan" was a pretty good word for what I am (because I really liked Kwame Anthony Appiah's very centrist book about it) until I discovered, just a day or two ago, that at the far end it has some awful associations -- people who place no allegiance above any other, nutjobs like Peter Singer who believe it's morally wrong to defend your own family, country, or species, and do-gooders like Jeffrey Sachs who believe the world's problems will be solved by the rich showering money on the poor. Here we go again, from one extreme to the other! And here I go, doggedly trying to drag it back to the center:
Are spiritual nomads moral relativists who answer to no god but the self, as traditionalists claim?
On the one hand, here’s philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (who’s half Ghanaian and half British) in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers:
On the other hand, here’s Ford Vox, founder of “Universism,” an attempt to codify the “outsider” worldview into a “religion without faith” (I believe Vox eventually saw that attempt as a contradiction in terms, and gave it up):
Universists know that our own unique perceptions are the only truths, apply to ourselves alone, and will change as we change.
Our actions, our personal ethics, are derived from our own unique metaphysics. They are the manifestation of our personal religion.
Universism distrusts universal moral principles, anything that prescribes the way humans 'should' behave.
According to Universism, there is no transcendent right or wrong . . .
Morality is culturally and individually subjective . . .
What is right for me? What is wrong for me?
We cannot truly celebrate the individual if we do not respect each person’s moral self-determination.
Universism declares absolute and total moral liberation for the individual.
Morality is an idea like "good and evil" that does not express anything about the inherent nature of the universe.
My reaction to that is, “Yikes!”
Notice the difference in tone between Appiah and Vox. One is uncertainty as humility in the face of the tough task of figuring out what’s best. The other is uncertainty as carte blanche to “create your own reality” and decide what’s best -- for you.
I want us to go Appiah’s way.
When it comes to metaphysics, we really don’t know. When it comes to morals, we do. Buddhism doesn’t posit a God, yet it’s in agreement with Judeo-Christian tradition that you shouldn’t kill, lie, steal, or screw around, and in agreement with Islam that you shouldn’t get drunk or stoned.
There’s a purported Native American story circulating on the Web (as yet unauthenticated) about the “two wolves fighting within” –“the one that wins is the one you feed” -- that corresponds exactly to the Jewish idea of the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the inner inclinations to natural selfishness and spiritual kindness. This suggests that good and evil do express something about the “inherent nature of the universe,” or at least about the inherent nature of human beings.
Throughout the human heritage -- our “grand reference library for the study of reality” – we find the insight that morality, in its essentials, is objective. It’s not a matter of “should,” it’s a matter of “is.” Experience has proven, over and over again, the truth of consequences: “If you do x, you get y.” And these reproducible experimental results, which have great predictive power, are summed up in the set of axioms called “wisdom.” Wisdom is the science of the spirit.
For example, just as one of the basic laws of Newtonian physics is “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” one of the basic laws of moral physics is “What goes around comes around.” In the East, that’s called the Law of Karma; in the West it’s “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for as ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Or Martin Luther King: "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Don’t kid yourself: the universe is not a blank slate for your will to write on. You’re perfectly free to try to bend its laws, but it’s you who will break. You could try living “free from universal truths” like the law of gravity, too. Only in dreams and in fantasies like “The Matrix” can we fly unaided.
Embedded in the time-dated customs and myths of every tradition is a core of timeless truth about what works and what doesn’t. Spiritual nomads go for that core. They don’t restrict themselves to one tradition any more than scientists would only study science done in one country. The point is to bring together the truest and most lifesaving information about reality. So spiritual nomads deliberately take their moral compass from all points of the compass. It’s both a matter of principle – defying the death-grip of Tribe – and a matter of best practice: why not learn from the greats in every field?
Each human tradition has its own genius, a theme it has explored to depths no other culture can touch. Native American culture, for instance, had a spiritual rapport with the natural world that we who live in central-heated homes and hunt by laptop will never remotely come close to, yet can honor as an ideal. And everyone on earth, not only Christians, has been touched and changed by Jesus’ gospel of love.
Traditionalists will protest, But couldn’t you find all these same ideas within one tradition that’s all of a piece – the one you were born into, or the one that calls to you? Probably -- if you stretch and reinterpret that tradition, as people have always done to keep their religions from dying of irrelevance. For example, reverence for nature hasn’t historically been a big part of Christianity -- to put it mildly. As part of a fallen world that constantly threatens to seduce us away from God, nature was to be hated, not loved. But now there’s a growing evangelical Christian environmental movement, and theologians are finding Biblical support for the alternate view: nature is God’s beloved creation, and we are charged with her care.
But reinterpreting one tradition to keep it relevant isn’t the work “outsiders” feel they’re here to do. Their job is not to keep the forms of the past intact, but to be true to the emerging contours of the present and future. Assembling a code from parts of many traditions only makes sense when you realize that nomads are seeing a different whole. Traditionalists see the beautiful arc of their canon, like a bridge across time, being broken up and cobbled together with alien fragments into a mishmash, a chimera. Nomads see the invisible but equally beautiful shape of now coming into the light as the right pieces are found, one by one, and fitted into place. No single tradition matches that shape, because they were all cast in the mold of other times.
The nomads’ code does not spell out in great detail what to do and what not to do. It’s a moral compass composed of principles, not rules. It shows you why and why not, and how things work, and leaves the application up to you. (If living things are “all my relatives,” for example, that doesn’t tell me what to eat, but it does have powerful implications for how I should treat what I eat.) With a lifetime of practice, we gain skill in applying these simple but challenging principles quickly to a wide range of unpredictable encounters and dilemmas. They are spiritual exercises in themselves.
I think the one-line coda to this post should be, "Don't get me started."