Economically flexible morality
Art, or things that pass for art, can be useful. Otherwise, how can one explain the epiphany I had when watching 2004's Maria Full of Grace, a critically acclaimed movie about a teenager from Columbia who smuggles drugs into America. Both the movie, and the critics' unconditional praise for the movie, helped clarify something I've been struggling with for a long time, which is defining what exactly constitutes morality on the Left.
One of the reasons I abandoned the Left was because I came to believe that, while there are certainly moral individuals who hew Left politically, the Left collectively has no morality. By morality, I mean a transcendent set of ethical rules, external to specific individual needs and concerns. The best example is the Ten Commandments, which are unconcerned with individual situations or cultures but, instead, are ethical practices applicable to all people at all times. Abiding by these virtues is good; failing to abide by them, bad.
The most obvious thing that has replaced traditional morality on the Left is the elevation of personal feelings. Thus, a Leftist who has given up on old—fashioned morality confidently defines the ethical thing to do in any given situation by deciding whether it feels good or not.
One of the great examples of this approach — and a defining moment in my drift from Left to Right — was a story I heard long ago on NPR about a high school ethics class. The subject on the day the reporter attended class was theft. The teacher asked students to describe how they imagined they would feel if they learned someone had stolen their purse or wallet. Some described rage, some sadness, some frustration. At that point, the NPR reporter observed with some incredulity, the class simply ended. The teacher made no effort to draw any larger conclusions about whether theft is morally right or wrong. Instead, the teacher apparently thought it sufficient for the students to understand that, were they to steal a purse or wallet, their victim might be as unhappy as they had imagined themselves being under similar circumstances.
A more recent example of feelings—based morality is the Michael J. Fox video aired during the World Series. In this video, Fox, showing the distressing effects of his Parkinson's disease, urges Missouri voters to choose Democrat Claire McCaskill as their Senatorial candidate because, he claims, Republican Senator Jim Talent is all for making stem cell research illegal. Aside from the commercial's significant factual errors, its whole point is that you, the voter, can make Michael J. Fox feel better by allowing unfettered, government sponsored stem cell research to go forward. After all, wouldn't you want someone to make you feel better? Of course, in a more traditional universe, where feelings do not substitute for ethics, neither Michael J. Fox's manifest suffering, nor your feelings about his suffering, would replace a reasoned, principled approach to a challenging moral dilemma.
For a long time, the fact that so many on the Left subscribe to the amorphous, situational navel gazing school of morality blinded me to the fact that there is indeed a hard and fast rule guiding those on the Left as they face situations that don't personally involve them. Maria Full of Grace, however, revealed to me that there is a second element to modern Leftist morality that transcends mere feelings. It is, if you will, Marxist morality. This ethical paradigm isn't premised on right and wrong. It is, instead, concerned with oppressor and oppressed.
We all know, of course, that Marxism orders the world by oppressors and oppressed. I always saw this hierarchical standard, however, as ex post facto retrofitting explaining, not why someone was right to do as he did, but why he shouldn't be punished. This Marxist approach was an explanation for things that had already happened (a la the Officer Krupke song), not a moral justification for determining future conduct. Maria Full of Grace, however, puts this Marxist algorithm in a whole new light.
If you haven't seen the movie, the plot pr is is that a poor, unemployed, pregnant Columbian girl gets herself a job as a mule, running cocaine into America. The San Francisco Chronicle, in its review, introduced the movie as follows:
A "Bonnie and Clyde'' moment — when you find yourself rooting for the outlaw over the authorities — comes a third of the way into "Maria Full of Grace,'' a revelatory independent film whose moments of incredible sadness are offset by the same state of grace that blesses its astonishing title character.
Given that the lead character is an unwed pregnant woman engaged in illegal conduct, I naively assumed that the "state of grace" to which the review refers was the moment in which Maria suddenly realizes that she is engaged in evil, immoral conduct; repents; and works to undo the wrongs in which she was involved. Had I begun by reading the Roger Ebert review, I never would have made this silly mistake. Thus, Ebert has this to say, in relevant part:
Long—stemmed roses must come from somewhere, but I never gave the matter much thought until I saw "Maria Full of Grace," which opens with Maria working an assembly line in Colombia, preparing the roses for shipment overseas. I guess I thought the florist picked them early every morning, while mockingbirds trilled. Maria is young and pretty and filled with fire, and when she finds she's pregnant, she isn't much impressed by the attitude of Juan, her loser boyfriend. She dumps her job and gets a ride to Bogota with a man who tells her she could make some nice money as a mule — a courier flying to New York with dozens of little Baggies of cocaine in her stomach. [....]
Maria is a victim of economic pressures, but she doesn't think like a victim. She has spunk and intelligence and can think on her feet, and the movie wisely avoids the usual cliches about the drug cartel and instead shows us a fairly shabby importing operation, run by people more slack—jawed than evil. Here is a drug movie with no machineguns and no chases. It focuses on its human story, and in Catalina Sandino Moreno, finds a bright—eyed, charismatic actress who engages our sympathy.
By writing the above, Ebert unwittingly defines the second part of Leftist morals, the part that states that, if you are on the bottom of the Marxist hierarchy, your status preemptively sanctifies any conduct in which you engage, provided that it is directed against oppression (however you define that oppression, or whoever creates that oppression). In other words, morals aren't just about feelings, anymore. Instead, they can be determined relative to a person's status on the economic ladder. "Maria is a victim of economic pressures." Given her situation, she cannot make immoral choices. All of her choices are virtuous responses to her degraded situation.
As it happens, I saw the movie very differently. Maria's travails appeared to arise less because of economic concerns and more because of her sour, selfish personality — a personality that drives every minute of this ugly, demoralizing movie.
Although Maria certainly has a dead—end job — stripping thorns off roses — there's no indication that the environment is unduly abusive. In a short scene, we see that her boss is a petty, quota—driven bully, but Maria's problems with him actually appear to arise from her own oppositional personality. As for that boyfriend that Ebert so casually denigrates, he's responsible for the one traditionally moral moment in the movie. When he learns that Maria is pregnant, he immediately offers to marry her. Maria turns him down with insults aimed at letting him know what a boring pig he is, and immediately goes off with another man who introduces her to the drug trade.
When Maria heads off to America with a large load of cocaine in her stomach, she enters into a superficial of friendship with one of the other women doing the run. She is understandably upset and frightened when this woman dies from a ruptured cocaine pod, and the drug dealers eviscerate her for any remaining pods. Maria doesn't respond by having second thoughts about the morality of her conduct; instead, she just gets scared. As a clear—headed Rhett Butler says to a weeping Scarlett after her selfish conduct leads to her husband's death in an abortive Klan raid,
"Your ethics are considerably mixed up too. You are in the exact position of a thief who's been caught red handed and isn't sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he's going to jail."
Faced with the risk that she may be killed for knowing too much, Maria decides she should hide from the drug runners by going to the dead woman's pregnant sister. There's no indication in the movie that it's morally wrong to impose on an innocent women the risk that murderous thugs might come to the door seeking their drugs. (The drug operatives do not, in fact, hunt Maria down, but I sweated through that whole part of the movie, convinced that Maria's selfish decision would result in a bloodbath.)
I might have spent several days brooding over the movie's complete immorality, and the critics' swoons over that same movie, if I hadn't heard the next day a laudatory review on NPR about the new Battlestar Galactica series. In that science fiction show, cyborgs have conquered humans living on a distant colony, and the humans are struggling to deal with the situation and to overthrow the cyborgs. The critic interviewed in the NPR spot said that, to him, the show worked to make the viewer understand the insurgents in Iraq by showing us that they have an "oppressed minority fighting against conquering majority" viewpoint. In other words, it makes the Iraqi insurgents sympathetic.
Frankly, I have a hard time being sympathetic to people who back regimes that murder millions of its own people; who enjoy beheading innocents; and who would like to impose a relentlessly grim religious rule that requires death sentences for eating ice cream, singing, playing tennis, or putting on a clown show for children. These are not good people whether they're in power or are seeking power.
In the Leftist moral view, however, just as all workers are exploited and should be praised for taking the initiative by engaging in utterly immoral, illegal activity, so too are all underdogs virtuous. If you're in charge, you're bad; if you're struggling to overthrow those in charge, you're good. It doesn't seem to occur to Leftist moralists to examine the motives of those involved in any given struggle.
Lest you think I'm imagining this, just cast your mind back a few days to the way in which Byron Calame finally acknowledged that he acted wrongly when, in his capacity as public editor of the New York Times, he appoved of a story exposing the government's secret program tracking terrorist finances. While he conceded that he erred, he nevertheless advanced his moral justification for having written the story in the first place:
What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers about in my first column. [emphasis mine.]
The "underdog" to which he's referring is either the terrorist or the New York Times itself, a striking example of poor writing from an editor. If his meaning is the latter, he is seeing the most powerful critic of the Bush administration as as victim and approving of damaging national security to hurt its oppressor. If his meaning is the former, in a battle to the death between America and terrorists, he's rooting for the terrorists. And he's rooting for them, not because he cares about their ideas (violent oppression, genocide, degradation of women, etc.) but simply because, at this moment in time, their relative position on the economic hierarchy is lower than America's.
You can just imagine a modern Leftist moralist passing backward through time, and putting his spin on 20th Century events. If he were to land in 1920s Berlin, he'd see a valiant Hitler (spouting violent, anti—Semitic rhetoric) and his beleaguered Brownshirts (breaking Communist, Jewish, and gay heads) involved in a valiant insurgency against the oppressive Weimar government. In mid—20th Century China, he'd pay homage to the downtrodden peasants, led by the brave Mao (mass murderer unparalleled), fighting against the corrupt Chinese regime. And in the early 1970s, our time—traveling Leftist would cheer on the Khmer Rouge in their underdog fight against a capitalist system dominated by glasses—wearing intellectuals.
Heck, I don't even need to imagine some of these time—travel scenarios. We know for a fact that, a credulous, Leftist Western press carefully framed Mao's underdog story for public consumption. Likewise, you all know by now how the press in the 1930s, especially the New York Times, turned a blind eye to the worst Soviet depredations against the Russian people.
In the non—Leftist world, of course, in a world hewing to traditional Judeo—Christian moral standards, an underdog's position is not validated simply because he's at an economic or military disadvantage. Instead, traditionally moral people focus on the nature of the cause. A clear—eyed moralist, looking at words and acts, would know that Hitler, Lenin/Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were all utterly evil, regardless of their relative place in their societies.
So don't be fooled into thinking that modern Liberals (or Leftists, or Progressives, or whatever self—identification idealogues choose) have no morals. They are relentlessly moral. It's simply that they operate in a Marxist moral universe that gives a pre—emptive pass to anyone in the one—down position, regardless of that person's beliefs or conduct.
Understanding this allows you to appreciate why the Left will always be there for Islamist insurgents (Third World soldiers fighting America's military might), the Stanley "Tookie" Williams of this world (economically oppressed products of American racism), and American and British Muslim who, despite all evidence to the contrary, have had the insight to position themselves as victims. I don't know how you feel about all this, but I can assure you that Big Brother would be proud of this morally inverse world.
Bookworm is the pen name of the proprietor of Bookworm Room, and an occasional contributor to American Thinker.