Our Modern Moral Crisis

A case for battle and books

“It is curious to me,” Walt Whitman writes in 1871, “that while so many voices, pens, minds … &c., are discussing intellectual topics…there is one need, a hiatus the profoundest, that no eye seems to perceive, no voice to state.” This need, Whitman goes on to say, is that of, “a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.” He points to the “depravity” of the business classes; the “flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, [and] small aims,” that define so-called “fashionable life” in America; and the, “atmosphere of hypocrisy” that permeates throughout.

Remnants of this apparent moral hollowness could be found nearly a century later, in Lewis Mumford’s depiction of American liberals in the throes of World War II. The liberals of his day (or so Mumford writes), likewise took, “the world of personality, the world of values, feelings, emotions, wishes [and] purposes, for granted.” This time, in large part due to their strict adherence to purely scientific and logical reasoning, liberals had become “indifferent to ethical values” and had failed to recognize that, “there are modes of insight into man and into the cosmos which science does not possess.”

“Arid pragmatism,” in this case, had begun to serve as a “substitute religion” in America. Echoing Whitman’s words and his allusion to the Christian scriptures, Mumford writes, “They [i.e. liberals] have eyes and they see not; they have ears and they hear not”; and in their “deliberate withholding of themselves from the plight of humanity” — referring in this case to their reluctance to intervene in the war against Fascism — they betray the very foundations upon which the liberal tradition was created, turning a blind eye to justice and freedom for the sake of peace.

Whitman’s and Mumford’s solutions to this “color-blindness to moral values” seem to be twofold. First, both authors find inspiration in the self-sacrificing act of military service as exemplified by soldiers in battle — a service that necessarily brings them closer to the questions of life and death that unite comrades to one another, and to all of mankind. Whitman recalls with admiration the “religious nature and fortitude” of the soldiers he encountered in the army hospitals and marvels at the, “perfectly calm…noble, spiritual manner” with which these soldiers met their deaths. While he, “see[s] clearly enough the crude, defective streaks in all the strata of the common people,” Whitman conversely sees in the soldier a transcendence beyond individual self-interests, and a noble concern for the broader human community.

Similarly, while he is less explicit in his glorification of the self-sacrificing soldier, it is clear that Mumford takes this humanitarian interest — this understanding of the importance of ideals “worth fighting for,” the significance of which extend beyond even that of life and death — to be centrally important. In describing the most essential aspects of his notion of ideal liberalism, Mumford first identifies “the great Roman notion of Humanity, united in the pursuit of freedom and justice, embracing all races and conditions” as a central tenet that, “commands the allegiance of all well disposed men.” He then goes on to extend this idea into the notion of war and what justifies it. “For life is not worth fighting for,” he says — “bare life is worthless. Justice is worth fighting for, order is worth fighting for, culture…is worth fighting for: these universal principles and values give purpose and direction to life.”

This notion, to Mumford, is diametrically, “opposed to the isolationism, moral and physical and political, then advocated by most American liberals.” Their “unwillingness to defend civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for ending those faults,” he concludes, “means barbarism tomorrow.”

This passage is particularly striking to consider today, as we as a society grapple with the atrocities in Syria, where innocent civilians are brutally murdered, where children are heard crying as their bodies are crushed beneath the weight of collapsed buildings, where civilians have begun to send final appeals (or in some cases, simply goodbyes) to a world whom they fear will not step up to save them or their families. As too many nations choose to look away rather than intervening in Aleppo, it becomes all too clear that these politics of isolationism — which, as Mumford aptly notes, ignore the essential principles of justice and freedom that undergird liberalism in its ideal form, and which actively deny the great Roman principle of Humanity — are alive and well today, not only in America (where our president is intent upon building walls), but also on the larger global stage (where passive states choose to turn a blind eye to the plight of human beings, and where active ones choose to contribute to the massacre of innocent people). 
 
Whitman and Mumford seem to have understood, if not to have predicted, the willful ignorance that we see across the globe today. Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, in her speech to the UN Security Council Emergency Briefing in December of last year, called out Russia, Iran and the Assad Regime for continuing their conquest of the city of Aleppo regardless of the toll it has taken on the lives of innocent civilians. Like Mumford, she appealed to “Our shared humanity” and insisted that, “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later.”

Interestingly, both Whitman and Mumford saw battle as having the potential to inspire an elevated consciousness of our common humanity and of the profound moral issues that come with it. But war is not, for either writer, the only means to this noble end. Both authors call for a transcendence beyond the “mere surface of living”; for a culture that is not, “held together merely by political means,” but that rather, “goes deeper, gets…. a hold in man’s hearts, emotions and belief” and that, “effuse[es] for the men and women of the States, what is universal, native, common to all, inland and seabord, northern and southern.” Both seem to locate this also, to varying degrees, in literature: in its potential to inspire empathy, to draw connections between readers and the archetypal characters portrayed in great works, and to bind a people in a common sense of human dignity and moral consciousness.

Whitman expressly states that the social and religious “problem of humanity…is to be finally met and treated by literature.” He makes it clear, throughout “Democratic Vistas,” that he sees literature — with its capacity to “penetrate all, give shape to all” — as capable of filling the void left by ineffective churches, who have failed to instill a moral consciousness in the American people.According to Whitman, while America had its Religion, “preserv’d in the churches and creeds,” it had not achieved, “the simple, unsophisticated Conscience, the primary moral element,” upon which true Religion depends. Developing this Conscience, for Whitman, would require a great, awe-inspiring literary tradition. He writes, 
 
“To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul.”
 
 Just as Mumford laments that the liberal, “took for granted that the emotional and spiritual life of man needs no other foundation, than the rational, utilitarian activities associated with the getting of a living”, Whitman likewise articulates the (often overlooked) importance of the more abstract, spiritual and ethical considerations of life. “We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind,” he writes, highlighting a similar discrepancy to that which Mumford identifies in stating that, “Thought that is empty of emotion and feeling, that bears no organic relation to life, is just as foreign to effective reason as emotion that is disproportionate to the stimulus or without intellectual foundations and references.”

Both authors agree that a marriage is required between the intellectual and emotional aspects of the human experience. Literature seems to provide that combination, thus delivering, “All the best experience of humanity, folded, saved, freighted to us here” between the pages of civilization’s greatest works, and “cultivat[ing] and recogniz[ing]” the, “Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man — which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviors of every land and age.”

If literature and service are the two identifiable loci of elevated moral and ethical consciousness, then our seemingly modern moral crisis should not come as much of a surprise. As a nation, our interest in the military is waning: since 2009, there have been a decreasing number of applicants for every enlisted position available across the military services; and after years of operating in a favorable recruiting environment that allowed the U.S. military to be increasingly selective, the CNA now anticipates a significantly “less fertile” environment, as fewer “high-quality” American men and women feel compelled to join the armed forces.

What we lack in military engagement we unfortunately do not make up for in literary interest. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, over a quarter of America’s adult population did not read a single book in the year 2014. American adults spent nearly three hours per week, on average, watching television — versus less than half an hour spent “reading for fun.” What’s worse is that the television we are watching is often far from a literary substitute.

While it is difficult to say for sure how much of the television Americans watch falls under the realm of Reality TV (some studies place estimates around 68%), it is undeniably clear that this particular genre has been gaining popularity among Americans of all ages, giving rise to pop-culture icons like Kim Kardashian of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Lisa Vanderpump of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. These programs, which follow the trivial dramas of day-to-day life, are quite literally antithetical to Whitman’s vision of a noble literary genre, which was, for him, “the only general means of morally influencing the world.” Nevertheless, reality television seems to be taking the place of great books in the lives and routines of many American people. 
 
With no appetite for battle or books, we face a dwindling sense of moral responsibility, and an erosion of humanitarian concerns and commitments in America. Many of us seem to have forgotten how to empathize with one another (much less with “others”) and have learned to place shallow, personal gains and instant gratification above the larger moral and humanitarian aims that Whitman and Mumford so fervently espoused. 
 
It is this culture of narcissism — detached from the ideals of empathy and humanitarianism that literature and service could, in theory, provide (and that 140 character tweets certainly fail to) — that has helped to fertilize the soil for Donald Trump’s presidential win. And it is this same culture that has, in part, enabled our now-president to advocate for things like the building of a wall to keep immigrants out; an ambiguous registration system to “manage” Islamic Americans; and the dropping of economic sanctions on Russia despite their direct involvement in the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians in Aleppo, because these actions are in our best pecuniary interest.

As Mumford writes, however, “The world of political action must transcend that of the Economic Man: it must be as large as the fully developed human personality itself.” The problem of our society is, as it was in 1871 and 1940, a social and ethical one. And so, to take a line from Walt Whitman, “I say we had better take a look at our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.”