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Dead Zone at the Core of American Life

In one of his typically remarkable posts at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reflects upon the story of Rajat K. Gupta, who was indicted yesterday on charges of insider trading. As head of the distinguished consulting group McKinsey & Co., Gupta was “privy to the most sensitive information in American corporate life,” Mead explains.

Gupta abused the trust of his clients in (allegedly) trading on the information to enrich himself. “If the government proves its case,” Mead says, “it will demonstrate that the American establishment has lost its ability to discern character and demand integrity”:

That a criminal could win the trust of so many of the “best and the brightest” in philanthropy and business chillingly demonstrates the moral and intellectual vacuum in the corporate world. Years of excessive payment for executives, okayed by go along to get along boards of directors, a culture of entitlement and a lack of personal character and strong moral codes have created a dead zone at the core of American life.

A haunting phrase — the dead zone at the core of American life. Success is now the measure of respectability throughout the culture; men and women of principle put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and are roundly hooted at.

It is not merely “the corporate world” that is to blame, however. Where in American life is the living zone of personal character and strong moral codes? The churches? Perhaps in the more Evangelical ones (and in Mormon temples), but the mainline Protestant churches have abandoned their tradition of moral radicalism, according to the great novelist Marilynne Robinson:

     What are called now the mainline churches were very much in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. They truly were radical in the terms of the time, and ahead of their time. . . . And I think that they are radical institutions in their deepest impulses, but that they have been stereotyped as the archetypal conservative institutions. . . .
     They don’t like this characterization. They don’t think past it. And they’ve been very much intimidated by these kinds of things. I think that they would be very well positioned to assume an important place in contemporary culture. For them, the issue seems to be, “Should we imitate others?” and it never seems to be, “How can we be more fully ourselves?”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say — how much more true of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which together account for 70 percent of American Jews. Much of the religious life in America is simply a lowered-voice rush to accommodate itself to the dead zone.

The universities? Don’t make me laugh. Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.

As a blogger at Ace of Spades HQ put it in asking whether education is the “root cause” of our current political dramas, “[A]n uber-expensive university system . . . encourages students to take on debts approaching a house mortgage yet leaves them ill-prepared to actually earn a living, much less pay back their loans.” Even the sharp-toothed Charles Krauthammer, liberally educated at McGill and Balliol College, Oxford, shares the same basic assumption about university education. In a recent column on Occupy Wall Street, he wrote:

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching —

and not in those worthless English degrees, I suppose, that left them ill-prepared to earn a living. The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as William James once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”

That leaves literature. In preparing The Aspern Papers for a course on Henry James recently, I stumbled upon a 1995 article by Joseph Hynes in the South Atlantic Review. Now retired from the English department at the University of Oregon, Hynes is a scholar of postwar British fiction who wrote one book on Muriel Spark’s novels and edited another. He calls his essay “Morality and Fiction,” and he focuses largely upon James, because James reveals “something valuable about fiction” — in his own work and since then. James himself is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” Hynes writes.

But James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction. “[S]ince James’s time, fiction-writers have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. Which brings us to our own time, and to what Hynes calls “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”

Religious men and women, scholars, writers — the company once known as humanists — suffered a failure of nerve. Scorned by “the corporate world” for principles and codes that seemed fully to explain their own economic shortcomings, confined to a zone of culture without power or influence, they were quick to capitulate. They preferred to imitate the standards of success. But the zone they abandoned is now dead, and the institutions that once made it possible for the fugitives to earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade — are not much better off. If a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.

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