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Intolerable Tolerance
In praise of Moral Centrism.


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Jonah Goldberg

I have a high degree of confidence that I will see naked women tomorrow. These will be women lacking in the sort of protestant modesty and self-denial to which Max Weber attributed so much of America’s success. And while I am not 100% positive that I actually will see such women, I do have total confidence that I will be gambling tomorrow. And, if John McGlaughlin were to ask me “Jonah! Where is your whale, Jonah?”

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I would say, “I don’t have a whale, John.”

“You don’t?!”

And then, finally, when he would ask, “Jonah on a scale of zero to ten, with 0 meaning absolutely no likelihood and 10 meaning metaphysical certitude, how likely is it that you will drink beer tomorrow?”

“Well, John I would have to say 11 on that one.”

You see, tomorrow is my bachelor party.

Shortly after dawn — yes, dawn — I will be part of an advance patrol heading to the Pimlico race track in Baltimore to secure a spot on the infield for the 126th Preakness, the middle jewel in the Triple Crown. Once we have successfully bivouacked, a larger contingent of barbarians and would-be barbarians will reinforce our ranks. We have set strict rules for ourselves. No alcoholic beverages will be opened until noon. Considering the fact that post time for the actual Preakness (also known by its more social-scientific name, “freakness”) isn’t until around 5:30, we think this is the prudent thing to do.

Our daylight hours will be filled with merriment, jocularity, and gentlemanly wagering. Witty badinage and the exchange of salty bon mots — usually in iambic pentameter — shall be the order of the day. Indeed, if we feel particularly saucy we might even conjure a few haiku.

My buffalo wing
refluxing grotesque constant
won’t stop me from more.

Beer on my breath
Nacho cheese on my shirt
Horizon holds no women.

Nobody said they would be good haikus.

Afterwards, we shall board a rented conveyance of some sort and head into Charm City itself for a healthy repast, which, in the anti-matter universe where Spock has a goatee, might be called “health food.” What happens after that remains unclear, but the bus is paid for through dawn and my fiancée has chained the front door. It is somewhere in this gray period that I suspect naked women will viewed — but not touched.

Lighten Up, Francis
Now, as surely as Alec Baldwin moves his lips when he reads, I am sure I will get e-mail today from some readers scolding me for the poor example I am setting for today’s youth.

Indeed, whenever I write about TV, beer, women’s prison movies, and any other staple subject of magazines like Maxim, I get a hard time from somebody about how I should follow a higher standard.

These are always tough criticisms for me, because I generally like the sort of people who make them and often agree with their arguments. For example, in Wednesday’s column I used the phrase “pacing the floor like an expectant father with the clap” and several readers, most of them moms and grandmothers, scolded me about it. These are good people who make a valid point about good taste and bad.

More importantly, as a conservative — as opposed to various flavors of liberals, libertarians, libertines, and radical queer theorists — I believe in standards, defend tradition and, despite my fondness for the Chained Heat oeuvre, would surely not want to live in a country where prison movies about saucy women with fake breasts and faker dialogue, living 20 to a cell, taking soapy showers 10 times a day, eliciting “feelings they’ve never had before,” were anything but naughty. Very naughty. So, so, so naughty.

Sorry. Got caught up in a bit of revelry of a flashback there.

I bring this up because I’ve been struggling with how to reconcile my deep-seated conservative convictions and my equally unapologetic fondness for brown liquors and not taking myself too seriously. I may just be making excuses, but I think there’s an intellectual case to be made for people like me who think there’s such a thing as right and wrong but who also get a kick out of Cheech and Chong. Call it Moral Centrism, a phrase I just made up and which I may abandon after thinking it through. In the meantime, Mr. or Mrs. Webmaster, could you toss me one of those cool subhead-title things…?

The Case for Moral Centrism
We are all familiar with the problem of centrists in politics. All moderates think they’re centrists, which is what usually but not always gives centrism such a bad name. Moderates believe in splitting the differences. The mean-spirited conservatives don’t want a federal program designed to guarantee that small children never again get splinters. The impractical liberals want to implement the program, costing billions, right away. The moderate splits the difference and carries on as if he’s incredibly brave for introducing legislation that will make a “fiscally responsible down payment” on this much-needed program. It should come as no surprise that these are the politicians I despise the most.

But there are some self-described “centrists” who actually are centrists. These are the ones who actually arrive at a middle position because they believe it is the right way to go, without ever going through the hassle of splitting the differences. On gun control, for example, a lot of people believe that guns should be legal but hard to get. And they draw that conclusion without splitting the difference between the NRA and Handgun Control Inc. Rather, they make a legitimate compromise between principle and reality, not between principle and the unprincipled.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of these folks either, but they’re infinitely preferable to the moderates who concede vast swaths of rhetorical ground to the Left but hide behind a burning desire to find “common ground” or to avoid spending too much money.

Interestingly, when it comes to the culture wars we don’t hear the word “centrist” in any meaningful sense too much. What we do hear is that on one side there are “Taliban conservatives” who are theologically obsessed about “virtue” and “family values.” On the other side there is an assortment of liberationists, deconstructionists, radical theorists, and, let’s face it, buffoons, who argue not merely against standards, but also against the idea that standards can exist at all.

But the reality is that while these extremes do exist — there are some very uptight conservatives out there and there are plenty of hideously silly whatever-floats-your-boat types (see “Dress-up Games in Academia” for example) — the vast majority of Americans are firmly in the middle.

The problem is that some people are moderates and other people are centrists. Generally speaking, I think the moderates are on the liberal side of the spectrum and the centrists are on the conservative side. When faced with some of the grosser excesses about sex or drugs, the moderates look at the harsh conservatives and the loosey-goosie lefties and split the difference, saying “You know, that’s not my bag, but who am I too judge?” The centrists say, “Look, I’m not perfect but what that guy is doing with that chicken is disgusting.”

For example, when I wrote a column ridiculing Peter Singer, the Princeton “ethicist” who advocates getting jiggy with Ms. Piggy, a bunch of people wrote to me saying that I shouldn’t simply dismiss Singer without taking his arguments seriously. Many of these people are in a sense moral moderates. They don’t agree with what Singer’s saying, but they are unwilling to say that any idea, any personal-definition of identity or liberty, is without at least some merit. These people seem to view themselves as taking the high road because they are unwilling to fully condemn those who take the low road. I can’t make up my mind about whether that’s stupid, arrogant, or cowardly, but I’m sure all three of those shortcomings play a part.

Alan Wolfe, the esteemed sociologist from Boston College, has written a new book called Moral Freedom in which he “discovers” a growing trend among Americans, “a version of moral laissez-faire in which seeming tolerance became an excuse for not taking others seriously.” I know what he’s getting at and I largely agree, but I think in a way that formulation has it backwards.

The problem with today’s laissez-faire morality is that it encourages people to take everyone seriously. It’s only when people adopt the idea that everyone’s position has merit that they show an unwillingness to judge anyone. The threat is that by remaining unwilling to dismiss certain ideas and behaviors as ludicrous, immoral, or simply icky we invite people to think all ideas and behaviors are morally equal.

Moral centrists on the other hand see that standards do exist, but we also recognize that they are standards, as in an abstraction worthy of emulating but impossible to personify. We are not willing to say that just because ideals are abstract, they are also arbitrary. There is such a thing as Truth and Good and, in the case of beef jerky, Super Tasty. But while moral centrists recognize that there’s an ideal, they are also willing or compelled to make a few compromises with life, if only for the laughs and the fun.

In short, (“It’s way too late for that!” my couch just yelled), moral centrism requires knowing which way is True North and which way is South, and even though you like where you live, you can tell the difference between the two.



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