Modernity and the meaning of life

By Mike Frates

Contemporary American Conservatism began under President Ronald Reagan, and has since become a scourge on American society with no end in sight. The Republicans’ single-minded pursuit of enriching the wealthy at the expense of everyone else has been, in large part, realized. The result has been an exploding national debt brought on by slashing taxes on the rich, a callous disregard for anyone who can’t help themselves, a deteriorating national infrastructure and the greatest inequality our nation has seen since the Gilded Age.

So, how did we get into this pickle? Between 1848 and 1867, Karl Marx, the great 19th century German philosopher, was catapulted to fame with the publication of two works: “The Communist Manifesto,” with Friedrich Engels, and, “Das Kapital.” Marx predicted that this calamity wouldn’t come to pass. He predicted that the working class would rise up, seize control of the levers of capitalism and reap the benefits of their own toil. Clearly, this hasn’t happened. Why? What did Marx miss? To answer that question, we look to another great 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the question of values.

Although the rich have monopolized ninety percent of our nation’s financial resources, they number very few. They could buy K Street lobbyists to twist arms on Capitol Hill, but they needed votes in the voting booth to advance their agenda. The problem Republicans faced was how to convince everyday Americans to explicitly vote against their own best economic interests. The brilliance of Ronald Reagan lay in how he solved this problem.

The Dixie Democrats were a group of mostly poor, white, southern folk who were essentially holding a grudge against the party of Lincoln for 130 years. Reagan’s plan was simple, “If we keep talking to these people about God, Guns and Gays, they won’t mind if we take all of their money away from them and give it to the rich.” Between saber rattling against the threat of communism and racist “dog whistle” messaging (Reagan’s “Welfare Queens”), the Dixie Democrats fell right in line. The Dixies gave way to the Evangelical Christian crowd which eventually morphed into today’s Tea Party, the Republican base.

Middle class Americans routinely vote Republican, but the most dedicated among them seem impenetrable to commonsense argument or basic scientific literacy. What I’m suggesting is that Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, was wrong when he called his party the, “Party of Stupid.” The Christians trying to introduce creationism into our public schools are not stupid. Wrong on an epic scale, yes, but not stupid. Why are they willing to forsake their children’s economic future and birthright in favor of lip service from a politician thousands of miles away? To answer this question we turn to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s genius was in recognizing the central problem of Modernity: The problem of values. When the Age of Christendom, the Dark Age, receded into the Modem Era between 1500 and 1641 A.D., God was no longer placed at the center of the Western World. Our embrace of “reason” to understand the world and our place in it, the (incomplete) definition of Modernity, undermined this uncritical acceptance of God that preceded it. That’s what prompted Nietzsche to proclaim, “God is dead, and we killed him.”

Today, Christians look to non-believers like me and say, “Without God, there are no objective moral values.” Humanists respond, somewhat indignantly, “The validity of moral judgments has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of a god.” Nietzsche would have agreed with the Theists that the death of God meant the end of objective moral principles. Values to Nietzsche have been reduced to a pastiche of beliefs cobbled together from preexisting religious systems that no longer share a foundation. What Nietzsche realized, and Marx misjudged, was the strength of this unquenchable thirst for objective moral guidance.

This is not the whole story. Our species has an unbelievable capacity to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, like skin color, then kill, maim and persecute one another as a result. Overt racism has served the GOP well. And, the creature comforts afforded the middle class today may have dulled our sense of economic injustice. Our nation’s economy is a far cry from the ruthless, laissez-faire capitalism that Marx railed against.

Dan Dennett of Tufts University wrote in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, “Is this tree of life a god one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue . . .  Is something sacred? Yes, I say with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.” The lesson Modernity has to teach us is that it is our responsibility to imbue our lives with meaning.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, September 13, 2015.

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