Dozens of Debates Mean a Mountain of Fun

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Americans sift through more moral dilemmas in a week than people in earlier, more settled societies struggled with in a lifetime. Social/ethical debate has become our political theater — infuriating, entertaining, the stuff of tabloids and cable shout-shows. Culture wars sort us into moral tribes. Charlton Heston contemplates the Tribe of the Million Moms, and shakes his flintlock aloft, and roars to his own tribesmen, "Out of my cold, dead hand!"

We split dramatically over every item on the agenda: Abortion, gay rights, gun control, hate crime laws, capital punishment, affirmative action, Elian Gonzalez. And so on. Nothing is orthodox or unorthodox anymore. We are all fist-shaking schismatics. Cultural pluralism gets wistful for certitudes. Inside every fox, there's a hedgehog ranting. Let me count some of the ways:

  • Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) demonstrated at the CBS offices in New York. They said they were angry because contestants on the CBS game show "Survivor" were roasting and eating rats. "RATS HAVE RIGHTS," the placards said. Admittedly, this was a marginal example of millennial Kulturkampf — I cannot recall the last time I was tempted to violate the rights of a rat by eating it. Still, PETA's case works rather nicely from absurdity (rats?!) to essence (what exactly are the moral claims of life, however odious the lifeform?). You can get an argument going around that.
  • A day or two ago, the Supreme Court decided that students in a public high school may not organize prayers at football games. The house divides bitterly on that one, of course. (Again, it seems to me that principle is getting itself worked up here over small and rather uninteresting potatoes: Anyone who thinks that high school football in Texas requires solemnization may have lost sight of life's bigger picture).
  • The tribes turn out in full battle dress for the fight over capital punishment — a subject that is all over cable shows and op ed pages because of George W. Bush's record on executions, and because of the Columbia University study on the large number of capital cases overturned on appeal. "Do the right thing," Bill Clinton, wagging his finger, would tell every Congress on State of the Union night. The problem is to know what the right thing is. We scream at each other, trying to figure it out. At worst, the theater of moral dilemma makes America sound like a college dormitory at 11 p.m., with 200 million freshmen and sophomores haggling over the meaning of life. At best, we are imitating Michel de Montaigne.

    In the late 16th century, in the violent breakup of the old order and the coming of new science, in the midst of religious civil war, Montaigne withdrew to a book-lined tower in the French countryside and began to compose his essais — rambling, free-associating, magnificently civilized scribblings that invented the modern essay form and, above all, attempted to formulate new rules for conducting a decent, intelligent life: personal experience and reflection struggling toward universal principle. Montaigne had the words "que sais-je?" inscribed in his tower, and looked at them as he worked: "What do I know?"

    Civilized as he was, and ostentatiously well- read, Montaigne could be crude and hilarious (about sex and other bodily functions, for example) in a way that would make the 21st-century reader feel right at home. I like to think our furious, entertaining moral arguments are doing something like Montaigne's work. I hope so. Otherwise, they are just brutal, stupid, dogmatic noise.