The recent arrest of Roman Polanski for statutory rape with a 13-year-old girl has peeled back the veil covering our cultural decay. Numerous artists, directors, and other Hollywood celebrities and powerbrokers have come out and condemned the arrest, while rationalizing his behavior and condemning what they see as unjust punishment. The public response to this has been somewhere between shock and revulsion, with many commentators, even the New York Times editorial page, expressing surprise and dismay at Hollywood’s response to a man who drugged and raped a minor.
Yet in the midst of the outrage about the crime and the response of media celebrities, there have been few if any who have grasped the implications of what this event and its response have uncovered. One can sense this confusion in the many commentaries speculating about the motives of an entertainment industry which seemingly approves and applauds such heinous behavior.
In our postmodern and post-Christian culture, we yet collectively retain an innate sense of wrong or evil behavior, while often being unable to define exactly why we find depredations such as Polanski’s reprehensible. We become even more bewildered when we encounter large swaths of seemingly intelligent individuals embracing and rationalizing such behavior. Remnants of a common moral and ethical framework for society remain, but significant segments of it no longer ascribe to the premises upon which it is based. We are faced with a new religion; a secular faith, morally amorphous and maddeningly incoherent. Yet it is rapidly becoming the dominant denomination and worldview of much of our culture.
It seems perhaps odd to describe a philosophical worldview which rejects any notion of God or moral absolutes as religion. Yet it is very much a moral and ethical framework, albeit one with considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, intellectual incoherence, and moral confusion. This growing secular orthodoxy finds its roots predominantly among those whose political leanings are leftist or progressive, although it is by no means exclusively confined to them, and may be found in its variants among libertarians and even conservatives.
What then are the doctrines and dogmas, if you will, of this rather confusing and contradictory confession?
In traditional religious understandings, especially that of the three great monotheistic faiths, the moral framework resides in absolutes established and communicated by a transcendent Being. While the specifics of what such absolutes entail and demand vary from one religious tradition to another, they all share the precept that human behavior is judged against the standards of a God, and that these standards exist above and apart from man himself. They are by their very nature transcendent. The behavior of man is judged against these unchanging principles, and resulting shortfalls ultimately must be redressed, either by compensatory good works, judgment, or by forgiveness and grace.
This secular religion, in contrast, posits the moral compass within the mind, exclusively. It is fundamentally Gnostic in nature. The morality of a given behavior is no longer judged based on a transcendent standard given and administered by a divine judge, but is rather graded by the knowledge or beliefs of the individual (or group) in question. Simply put, it is the belief system of the individual rather than his or her behavior which is the ultimate determinant of good or evil.
This core conviction gives rise to what appears to those who do not ascribe to this worldview to be a rather stunning propensity for hypocrisy. The identical behavior of two individuals, one of whom believes the “right” things, the other of whom believes the “wrong” things, will be judged in diametrically opposite ways. Those whose beliefs and politics are “correct” will have their errant behavior minimized, rationalized, justified, or ignored, while those whose beliefs are “incorrect” will be viciously condemned and castigated, despite high motives and noble intent. Our instinctive inclination to judge behavior against an unchanging moral absolute finds such arbitrary precepts irrational and frustrating — as indeed they are not really absolutes at all. What we are observing in practice is a guiding principle far removed from our instinctual dependence on moral law. That which is contradictory, hypocritical, and irrational when viewed from a traditional moral framework is in fact entirely predictable once we understand that the seat of moral judgment resides in what the individual believes, rather than what the individual does.
Postmodernism posits the notion of “narratives”, which are an understanding of culture and society largely determined by those in power. It specifically rejects the notions of Divine lawgiver or transcendent moral absolutes as mere narratives of religious power centers whose intent is to control. For the postmodernist, all behavior will ultimately be judged against their own narrative rather than an absolute which transcends culture and time. What the religionist views as a transcendent absolute is seen as nothing more than another narrative by the postmodernist — a narrative imposed by religious and paternalistic authority solely for the purpose of controlling the flock. The intersection of these two radically different worldviews makes compromise and communication virtually impossible between them, since there is no common framework of understanding or language to bridge the gap.
Even seeming linguistic commonalities lead to confusion in the interface between these cultures. For the traditionalist, the concept of evil, for example, represents a violation of moral absolutes, by individuals ultimately held responsible for their actions. In the postmodernist vocabulary, evil is corporate, embodied in institutions and groups, and is a social construct rather than a moral one. The rejection of absolute truth, and the resulting repudiation of reason as a basis for judgment, creates an exasperating comfort with contradiction, where cognitive dissonance is the norm, and that which is emotionally compelling or strongly believed becomes Truth by the mere force of conviction driven home by relentless repetition and coercive groupthink. The term “evil” thus no longer serves a universal meaning across the culture, and its use sows confusion rather than commonality. One could multiply examples without end from the linguistic miasma of politically correct speech, politics, and the mind-numbing inanity of popular culture.
The postmodern philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated throughout the culture through the vehicles of media, academia, entertainment, and politics, has created a fertile soil for the disintegration of a culture based on Western values of rationalism, moral restraint, and the sanctity and dignity of human individualism. Postmodernism is ideally suited for two outcomes: the acquisition of power, and libertinism. Power is acquired through the ruthless dismissal of all moral restraints in the achievement of pursued goals (morals serve only to advance the narrative, and may be redefined as the need arises); through the reinvention and redefinition of language to deceive and confuse; through the demonization of all who oppose the goal as the embodiment of evil; and through the erosive and relentless undermining of the traditional societal and moral constraints which oppose the desired cultural and political changes.
While at the cultural and political level this bequeaths a brutish and divisive social milieu, enforcing a collective coerced conformity of thought and speech, at the individual level, paradoxically, the very opposite occurs. Non-conformity becomes the norm, as radical individualism and autonomy breeds a disdain for restraint in appearance, behavior, and speech. With the loss of the notion that man is a reflection of a divine Creator, and accountable to a higher Being or Law, the individual must compensate for his devaluation (for we are, after all, just cosmic accidents) by becoming ever more outlandish and outrageous in ways self-destructive, offensive to others, and hideous. Michael Jackson becomes our Dorian Gray — as the rotting necropolis of the spirit seeps through the grave clothes we have so carefully wrapped, having whitewashed the entombed soul with plastic surgery, slick production, Photoshop edits and high fashion. Our Ferragamos and facelifts, our tattoos and painted toes, are but weathered signposts on the rutted road to the expansive wasteland of our inner desolation.
In this postmodern desert, where higher purpose and divine restraint are nowhere to be found, all behavior becomes subject to the self-referential and self-justifying emotionalism of self-gratification. Tolerance becomes the standard by which we increasingly accept the intolerable; only restraint, tradition, and religion remain as worthy of contempt, bigotry, depreciation, or outright hatred. Since there is no evil, evil thrives, ever becoming the norm in a cultured stripped of decency, respect, modesty, and self-sacrifice. There is but one fixed point on the postmodernist’s map: the self. With no true North to fix its moral position, the compass needle swings wildly in every direction, resting only on its own center.
The ironic truth of godless postmodernism is that its gods are legion — and they are merciless. The cruel god of Age destroys the fatuous goddess of Beauty. Gaia, worshiped in rituals of trivial privations by pitiful men and the emptied treasuries of nations, hurtles her planet relentlessly to chaos and destruction, in turns by heat or cold, despite those proffered drink offerings. The god of Human Progress weaves delusional hopes of Utopia as humankind bewitched by her visions hurtles violently downward toward Hell. The deities of science and technology deliver not sought-after salvation but ever more frightening sorcery whereby man may be enslaved, devalued, depraved, and destroyed. The worship of the trees, the sycophantic paeans to science, the lugubrious celebration of joyless lust, do naught to appease the gods: the world remains utterly beyond our control, dangerous and unpredictable and profoundly unsatisfying.
And so we turn back to the Dream: the Utopian vision of a world at peace, unified and prosperous, where all problems resolve propitiously as Mankind becomes One, while religious bigotry, ignorance and superstition fade to black. It is always but one more revolution away. But the ethereal vision remains just out of reach, its ephemeral promises an illusion. As we grasp at the shadow in the mists, rather than finding hope we find hatred; rather than finding tranquility, tyranny; rather than finding Paradise we discover a sordid pit of perdition, as our promised deliverance devolves into deviancy and our perceived blessings into barbarism.
It is a dark road down which we travel, made the more frightening by the delusional grandiosity of those whose vision propels us forward. One wishes, were it possible, to stand astride a generation gone mad and scream, Stop!! — in hopes that even some might heed, and awaken to the disaster before them. But even such might prove to no avail; the delusion is powerful, and obsessive, and intoxicating, and relentless.
And the road ahead seems likely to be littered with extraordinary wreckage.