Freedom & Slavery
Our moral predicament — and Bill Bennett's.


Stanley Kurtz

Let’s push a little deeper into the William Bennett question. We haven’t yet got to the bottom of it. In “Power of the Pen,” I explained why I thought it was wrong to charge Bennett with hypocrisy for approving recreational gambling but not recreational drugs. And in “That Other War,” I laid out a middle-ground position between the two sides of our culture war. Now I want to show why our cultural divisions make us react to the Bennett story in such different ways.

For some, William Bennett’s gambling is a permitted pleasure that does not undermine his larger moral stand. For others, William Bennett’s gambling is a moral failing that bears out the necessity of ethical standards for always-imperfect human beings. For others, William Bennett’s gambling is proof that preachers of morality are hypocrites, and that all moral standards beyond direct harm to others should be dropped. The latter two views belong to religious traditionalists and social liberals, respectively. So to really understand the Bennett flap, we need to understand the difference between the religious and the libertarian worldviews.

In “That Other War,” I argued for striking a balance between our ever-increasing personal freedom and our ongoing need for virtue. A number of traditionalist readers objected that my definition of freedom was too narrow, and my account of freedom’s goods too vague. Real freedom, they said, is something higher than the mere absence of restraint. True freedom is freedom for excellence — freedom to place an otherwise base desire at the service of a noble end. The freedom I was talking about is nothing but the freedom to be led into calamity by lust. The sort of freedom I was describing, these readers said, is really a form of slavery.

This is a profound point. The combatants in our culture war hold radically differing views of freedom. That is why they react so differently to the story of William Bennett’s gambling. I’ve already described freedom from the standpoint of traditional religion. Now what is freedom from the standpoint of social liberalism? Other than the fact that it is the absence of state coercion, can we say anything about what makes the freedom cherished by social liberals seem to them to be something good? I think we can.

From a traditional religious perspective, the freedom of social liberals is simply the freedom to be enslaved by base desire. But for social liberals, desire itself has been spiritualized. We don’t hear much talk about the spiritualization of desire from say, libertarians. Libertarians are more interested in talking about their right to pleasure, than about what pleasure actually means to them. But everywhere in our society, you can see the signs that pleasure itself has taken on an almost religious aura.

Take this lyric from, “Every Morning,” a pop song by Sugar Ray:

Every morning there’s a halo hanging
from the corner of my girlfriend’s four post bed,
I know it’s not mine but I see if I can use it
for the weekend or a one-night stand…
She always rights the wrong

This is not how premarital sex would have been sung about in the Fifties. Sure, there’s a bit of self-conscious irony to the moral-religious language here. But basically, the spiritualization of casual sex is sincerely felt. Of course, as William Bennett would point out, the singer goes on to complain that his girlfriend has ripped his broken heart out and stopped him from “believing.” The downside of casual sex is there, but mixed with a sense of sexuality’s almost religious character.

Explicitly or implicitly, spiritualization of pleasure is everywhere in pop culture. REM made the analogy explicit in “Losing My Religion.” And although the language is not explicitly religious, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” was important to a lot of people because of it was so believable as a guilt-free celebration of sex (and clearly sex between an unmarried couple).

America’s blue states have largely adopted what we might call an “aesthetic” culture. A spiritualization of pleasure (music, drugs, and sex) has in many ways come to replace the traditional moral-religious framework for which William Bennett speaks. The mutual incomprehension between the aesthete and the traditionalist accounts for the divergent responses to the William Bennett gambling story.

From a traditional religious perspective, humans strive to create a community based on shared moral standards. Conscious of his own weakness, an individual enters a community and places himself under the authority of its moral norms. He knows that both he and others will at times fail to meet those norms. Yet a refusal to articulate and impose moral requirements on himself and others would be an betrayal of the community itself. It would, so to speak, be unbrotherly.

The aesthete, on the other hand, is first and foremost an individual. He substitutes personal expression for moral judgment. To the aesthete, the moralist’s judgments are oppressive attempts to coerce creativity and stifle the inner self. For the aesthete, music, sex, even drugs, are extensions and revelations of his spiritual self.

For the traditional moral man, on the other hand, the aesthete’s refusal to make judgments is tantamount to withdrawal from the community. Moral man sees the spiritualized pleasures of the aesthete as a form of idolatry — an attempt to turn all that is selfish in man into a substitute for God. In >The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom argued brilliantly that American pop music is, at root, a sophisticated masturbation fantasy. Bloom was right. But from the perspective of the aesthete, spiritual satisfaction comes precisely from the elaboration and contemplation of his pleasures. That is why popular music holds an almost religious significance for many Americans. (By the way, for all his condemnation of vicious song lyrics, William Bennett distanced himself from Allan Bloom’s sharpest criticisms of popular music.)

The spiritualization of pleasure in popular culture is often shallow and dangerous. Yet that is not to entirely deny the worth of expressive individualism, which can take higher forms. In modern democracy, the tension between shared moral standards and free self-expression is profound and ineradicable.

So now we know what competing goods stand behind our two conceptions of freedom. For the traditionalist, true freedom is expressed in a community constructed around a shared set of virtues. Unless our desires are placed in the service of that community and those virtues, the “freedom” to follow desire is little short of slavery. But for the aesthetic individualists living in “blue America,” true freedom is, at least in part, the ability to express your unique character through your pleasures. Even the pain of a wrecked relationship becomes, in the aesthete’s view, spice to the song. What the traditionalist might see as a lesson in the social destructiveness of unchecked pleasure, the expressive individualist sees as a profound and dramatic chapter in his personal story.

Now consider a lyric from, Bob Carlisle’s song, “We Fall Down,” which you can hear on any Christian radio station. As the song begins, a poor man, burdened by a heavy load, gazes up at the high cathedral walls of a monastery. Those high wall make his own life seem miserable and small by comparison. Envious of the prosperous and peaceful life of his moral betters, the man asks a priest about his life behind the walls. The reply is the chorus:

We fall down, we get up.
We fall down, we get up.
We fall down, we get up.
And the saints are just the sinners
Who fall down and get up.

The lesson the poor man draws from this revelation is that, “if even priests who fail can find the grace of God…there must be some hope for the rest of us.”

There is nothing in the least surprising about this song. Yet it’s moral presuppositions are almost totally alien to a blue-state aesthete. How else can we explain the puzzling notion, so prevalent among Bennett’s critics, that a moral lapse on Bennett’s part would somehow invalidate traditional morality itself? Moral traditionalists set the bar high, knowing full well that all men will fall short — moralizers no less than the rest. In contrast, the aesthete’s response to a failing in the moralist is to throw the bar away altogether.

Martin Luther in his day, like William Bennett in ours, was a moral crusader on behalf of marriage and the family. Luther rejected the Catholic Church’s elevation of celibacy, and what he believed to be the Church’s excessively negative view of sex within marriage. Luther ended the practice of sending young girls off to nunneries without their consent, and in many other ways reformed marriage along more modern lines. Yet for all that, Luther retained the notion of original sin. For Luther, something of our original corruption always clung to sex, even within marriage. Yet, because marriage was God’s work — God’s way of securing and perpetuating human society and his Church — Luther believed that God excused the sin of sex within marriage.

The notion that some quality of sinfulness always clings to sex is exactly what the aesthete is trying to transcend. Marvin Gaye set out to eradicate the sinfulness of sex, with considerable success. Nowadays, it’s tough for an expressive individualist even to grasp what the intrinsic sinfulness of sex could possibly mean. The whole notion seems cruel and vicious. But to traditionalists, the recalcitrant sinfulness of sex is a reminder that pleasure takes its meaning and justification from subordination to something higher. Pleasure put in the service of God’s good works brings a deeper and more lasting satisfaction than pleasure for itself. Pleasure for its own sake is slavery. Pleasure in the service of a moral community is freedom.

The traditional perspective is profound, yet its great vulnerability is that it cannot work in the absence of a coherent community. Only the reality of a broader fellowship makes the sacrifice of lower pleasures worthwhile. Nowadays, we take offense at the idea of friends, neighbors, or relatives making moral judgments about our personal affairs. But in the old small towns and ethnic neighborhoods, your relatives and neighbors watched your kids, got you a job, and in a thousand other ways, enlarged your life. In that supportive context, moral demands designed to keep communities alive did not feel intolerable. Only in such a world of mutual sacrifice and fellowship does the image of Christ on the cross make sense. But to the expressive individualists living in our relatively atomized social spaces, moral demands (and the ethos of sacrifice they depend upon) seem merely cruel and incomprehensible.

William Bennett has gambled…a lot. In earlier pieces, I’ve explained why, in and of itself, this does not amount to hypocrisy. Not only does the state accept, and even encourage, gambling, but Bennett’s own church does not deem the practice immoral — so long as it remains within reasonable limits. It’s perfectly fair to argue that drug use ought to be legalized, but there is also a good case for drawing a line of permissibility between gambling and drugs. So in none of these respects, I believe, can William Bennett be blamed for hypocrisy.

Having said all that, there is still the lingering sense of a moral problem in Bennett’s behavior. I believe that William Bennett is right when he says that his gambling did not impoverish his family, or keep him from spending the time it takes to being a good family man. Those facts are morally significant. After all, they trace out the dividing line between the permissible and the impermissible for Bennett’s own church.

Nonetheless, I am perfectly willing to believe that Bennett’s gambling was excessive. Bennett says as much himself in his statement: “I have done too much gambling.” What was technically permissible, even in the moral terms of Bennett’s church, could still have been excessive in the perspective of William Bennett’s own life.

Obviously, William Bennett is a man of large appetites — for food and for gambling. The reaction of Bennett’s foes to this is: “You are a hypocrite. If you can have your pleasures, why can’t I have mine (whether you like them or not)?” The traditionalist’s reaction, on the other hand, is that, like everyone else, William Bennett is a weak and flawed human being — a creature touched by the universality of sin. No doubt, Bennett’s own large appetites taught him something about the dangers of the slippery slopes against which he preached. But that is not proof against traditional morality itself. It is proof of the need for morality. Across this gulf of incomprehension, the two sides in the Bennett matter sit.

In the final analysis, however, those sides may not be so far apart. No matter how atomized society gets; no matter how many of us morph into expressive individualists; our need for a community with at least some common moral presuppositions remains. And no matter how convincingly Marvin Gaye sings about sexual healing, some element of social and moral danger will always cling to the unrestricted enjoyment of our pleasures, be they chemical, sexual, or musical.

So the real reason Bennett’s foes hate him is not simply cultural incomprehension. At some level, Bennett’s opponents surely can understand what he is saying. Each side in this conflict knows something about the other. Bennett’s prohibitionism is no doubt based on his knowledge of his own large and potentially dangerous appetites. Yet the unseemly hatred of Bennett — the ugly rejoicing in his weakness — is based on the fact that Bennett has pricked the conscience of his foes. If his foes had been totally alien to the traditional moral universe, Bennett’s defense of virtue would not have created in them the misery they continually complain of.

What, then, are we to make of Bennett’s dilemma? By his own admission, William Bennett has stumbled. I believe he will get up.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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