Monday, June 22, 2009

True? No. But Strongly Felt!

In a review of Michael Harrington's The Other America, the wonkish book that motivated, or rationalized, so many 1960s anti-poverty programs:
In 1999, Time magazine named “The Other America” one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. But how relevant does it remain today? As social theory, it is deeply flawed. Harrington’s culture-of-poverty thesis was at best ambiguous, at worst an impediment to making the case for what he regarded as the real solution. (In later books, he made no use of the term.)

But what remains fresh and vital in “The Other America” is its moral clarity.
'Moral clarity' is a euphemism for a strongly held belief in right and wrong, usually used by those who agree with the dichotomy. 'Manichean', 'platonic', 'naive', 'simplistic', 'absolutist', are common criticisms of these views, and usually by the left towards the right.

'Moral clarity' is one of those virtues that is ambiguous by itself, because allied with a misguide notion it is the basis for a great amount of evil. Strong moral feelings without a good discrimination mechanism, is like having a powerful gun with no aim (Mr. Evil himself, Adolf Hitler, had large amounts of it). As Oscar Wilde has noted, many people die for sincere beliefs that are rather absurd. When the most singular compliment one can say about a former intellectual pertains to their 'moral clarity', you can be sure they are irrelevant to current debates, relevant only to biographers and historians.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that in America, the moralizing side should be associated with the right. In Europe, the right is often associated with heartless free-market forces while the left succeeds rather well in occupying the moral high ground and appearing as those who care for the downtrodden.

Anonymous said...

clarity vs. ambiguity

sounds like a dichotomy

do we always think in terms dichotomies *or* can we also think in terms of continuums?

or = dichotomy!

thinking in terms of continuums is a challenge, but a worthwhile one to take on if one's mind is up to the task