June 29, 2009

Book review: "Moral Clarity," by Susan Neiman

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Moral Clarity, by Susan Neiman
Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists
By Susan Neiman
Harcourt / ISBN: 978-0-151-01197-1

Even less than a year after it's ended, it seems that there are more and more Americans (even former supporters...er, especially former supporters) now openly acknowledging what an utter disaster the eight years of the Bush Junior administration was, and especially as more and more of the details from that shameful decade become public facts that not even the perpetrators bother denying anymore -- how it's pretty much a given now, for example, that the American public was lied to regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, simply to justify a pointless war cooked up by a handful of violent sociopaths for petty personal gain; or how even the people responsible for it now happily admit that they authorized the use of torture among soldiers for the first time in American history, hiding the victims in other countries so to sidestep the jurisdiction of the US Constitution, then hiring a series of weasely lawyers to concoct elaborate justifications for the actions after the fact. This first year of the Obamian Age is essentially like Germany in 1946, both societies slowly starting to wake up from the collective nightmare their nations had become; and as such, there are suddenly millions of Americans starting to ask themselves the same tricky questions that millions of Germans did as well after the close of World War Two, questions like...

How did things get so out of hand in the first place? How is it that there could've been such a colossal, systemic breakdown of such basic philosophical understandings as the difference between right and wrong, among millions and millions of people all at the same exact time? Does this make all Americans "evil?" Does this make me evil, for sort of understanding all this while it was going on, but not doing more to stop it? How do you define evil in the first place? How do you collectively punish 400 million people, anyway? Is that what the economic collapse was? Divine retribution against an entire society for collectively turning into such monsters? How do you pick up the pieces after an event that nearly tore of the fabric of your society apart? And most importantly, how do you ensure that such a situation never occurs again, and ensure it in such a deep and lasting way that the very idea will never again even enter people's souls and lodge there to begin with?

These are all questions pondered by philosophy professor and thinktank head Susan Neiman in her smart and sober new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, a manuscript bound to be highly welcomed by a huge portion of Americans because of doing something that so few others do; namely, it clearly divorces the actions of the Bushists in particular from the entire ideological debate over Republicans versus Democrats, using basic lessons of philosophy to show how ashamed all of us should be over the things perpetrated in our name in the last decade, liberals and conservatives alike, then gently guiding us (mostly through the precepts of the Enlightenment) to a place where we can all be a little prouder of our life decisions, no matter who we'll be voting for in the next election. In fact, if anything you could call this book a "hybrid" in the best sense of the word: partly an informative history book, partly a heady primer to philosophy and the world of ethics, partly a Malcolm-Gladwellesque contemporary guide to politics and other practical issues, using a plethora of fascinating examples to make points that are always strong but never insulting. It can be a tough read sometimes but a highly worthwhile one, a book guaranteed to have you thinking differently about the Bush years no matter what you thought of them before, and that very well might change you into an entirely different person by the time you're done.

And in fact that's one of the most important things to understand about Moral Clarity, that despite her bipartisan approach, Neiman very clearly has an axe to grind; as she herself admits in the acknowledgments, for example, the entire book itself was inspired by the 2004 re-election of George Bush, which like millions of others Neiman reacted to with an almost overwhelming sense of alarm and depression, especially given that her day job is to sit around thinking very deeply about the slippery subject of morality. (After all, she's the previous author of the sleeper hit Evil in Modern Thought, and it's no coincidence that I earlier compared this "real-world philosopher" to Malcolm Gladwell.) Although she uses the very foundations of Western thought to get her points across, Neiman definitely has a very contemporary and very pointed issue that she wants to address: of how the Bush years could've happened in the first place, and by extension how it is that any formerly rational society can manage to get to the point where evil deeds are suddenly being perpetrated in their name.

And indeed, as she explored in more detail in her last book, one of Neiman's first big contentions is that the process of defining "evil deed" is a much more complicated thing than it might seem at first, using it as a gateway in her book to delve into the age-old question of moral absolutism versus moral relativism, an issue that's been debated among humans all the way bak to ancient Greece and beyond. And in fact this is one of many places in Moral Clarity where Neiman displays a refreshingly balanced look at the underlying causes of Bushism, given that this book is quite obviously designed to appeal mostly to Bush-hating liberals, because one of the other big early conclusions she makes concerns why so many tens of millions of Americans would end up supporting such mustache-twirling cartoon villains as made up the Bush administration, asserting that for many of these people, no matter how flawed the 2000s GOP was, it at least offered a clearly defined sense of right and wrong, and a clear sense that the world can be a great place again through the belief in "idealism" (that is, believing that ideal situations actually can be practically brought about in the real world, no matter what your particular vision of an "ideal situation" might be).

As Neiman methodically shows us through history and example, as little as a hundred years ago this situation was reversed: it was progressive, Marxist-friendly liberals who were the big optimistic idealists, who sincerely believed that a society without poverty, without untreated illness, could actually be brought about in the real world; and it was the conservatives who were resigned to the crappy pre-civil-rights reality of the world as it currently was, and not believing that the world was bound to ever get much better than that, the situation that brought about the popular rise of fascism in so many countries in those years in the first place. It's a surprising conclusion, one that makes sense but that I had never thought about; that after the collapse of Marxism as a viable long-term political structure, that after the counterculture and murky postmodernism of the 1960s and '70s, most liberals have given up on the very idea of there being absolute rights and absolute wrongs that exist in the world, have given up on the very idea that the world can eventually be brought to a more ideal state than it currently is. For example, later in the book she poses an interesting challenge to us, to quickly name a couple of contemporary people in our head we consider heroes. Did you just laugh at the very idea of there being heroes anymore in the early 2000s? Did you just mentally put quotation marks around the very word "hero" when thinking about it? Then you're probably a liberal, Neiman astutely guesses, and your snotty brushoff of the entire question was the exact reason that millions of otherwise sane middle-class suburbanites voted for Sarah Palin in the 2008 election, because at least she and her fellow Republicans think the question worth pondering in the first place, think not only that it can be answered but should be.

And so it is throughout Moral Clarity, with Neiman devoting each chapter to one big subject from metaphysical life (happiness, reason, hope, etc), using both classical philosophers and current-day examples to examine that issue from all sides, hesitant to tell you what conclusion to draw but insistent that you draw some kind of conclusion by the end. And that's why this book is so great for a bipartisan audience, because it essentially argues that all of us need in our lives at least a little of the attitude from both the traditionally liberal and conservative standpoints -- that liberals as a whole need to add a little more idealism to their lives, that conservatives in general need to add a little more common sense, and that all of us need to stop mistaking the loudly-shouted piety of fundamentalists for a legitimate commitment to "moral values." After all, she concludes, this is one of the biggest places where things went so wrong during the Bush years -- that since most on the left believe the entire idea of "being good" to be a childishly simplistic concept not worth even addressing, it allowed immoral hypocrites on the right to easily take advantage of the millions of Americans who precisely do think that "being good" should be a daily habit among both themselves and the people they elect, splashily declaring their beliefs in absolute morality through pandering surface-level gestures that make for great soundbites in the media (fighting gay marriage, covering the breasts of Justice statues in government buildings), while in actuality getting away with some of the most horrifically vile acts humans can commit behind closed doors when no one was looking (and of course lots of vice that's not so horrific -- it's no coincidence that more Bush-era politicians have been caught in sex scandals than the entire rest of American history added together).

Neiman wears her biases on her sleeve, make no mistake, and like millions of other Americans continues to have an almost all-consuming hatred for the "Christian Taliban" Bushists and the way they nearly destroyed our country; but such sleeve-wearing is just how it should be in cases like these, and I never mind a nonfiction writer having biases as long as they honestly admit these biases upfront. If you're able to get past this yourself, you'll find an infinitely informative and thought-provoking book, one bound to challenge your political beliefs no matter what they are, and help you understand how to more embrace both realism and idealism without the usual platitudes of the paleocon right or nihilism of the intellectual left. It's a heavy read, too heavy for some, but if you're comfortable diving into discussions regarding 18th-century philosophers and life-quality issues of pure thought, Moral Clarity is a title you'll surely not want to miss.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about Moral Clarity: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:19 PM, June 29, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |