…The Marriage from Hell?

[] Also published on The Policy Think Site []

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions”. Karl Marx, “Introduction to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’” (1844)


“There is no devil and no hell. Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body: fear therefore nothing any more.” Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) “Zarathustra’s Prologue” from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1891)


“Have you ever wondered who enforces and teaches the Moral Code?  I once naively assumed that the K-12 educational curriculum included the essential moral injunctions of the bible, the Torah and the Gospels. But the doctrine of separation of church and state has become the doctrine of the separation of moral law from all state ceremonies and institutions. This is as self-defeating as refusing to teach Newton’s laws of mechanics because he believed they revealed the mind of God, or refusing to teach the Golden Rule as if it were just Christian doctrine, or refusing to celebrate the American Revolution because its architects taught that human freedom was a gift from the Creator.” Jay B Gaskill, the “Thugology’ Lectures.” (2011)

Do Spiritual Narratives Belong In Our Political Discourse?

A Reflection


Jay B Gaskill

A good friend of mine, one of the great teachers, recently told me how much he enjoyed my piece, Why We Are Narrative Prey ( Then he posed the following two questions:

►Q 1 –What do you think are the spiritual narratives inherent in our political discourse?

►Q 2 –What should be the spiritual narratives in our political discourse?

Q 1 – was interesting because (a) spiritual narratives necessarily include/import moral considerations; (b) and at least four narratives are in sharp competition.

The first represents an attempt to censor out any trace of a spiritual or moral narrative. It goes something like this: Politics is all about the allocation or material resources to provide the best mix of material benefits for the majority.  Any talk of spiritual or moral issues is divisive; especially when it splits up constituencies that otherwise might unite around, say, universal, government-administered health care.  The true believers in this narrative don’t want to hear so-called spiritual or moral objections to cloning, harvesting embryos, or those retrograde moral/spiritual arguments that threaten women’s absolute bodily autonomy especially where their reproductive rights are concerned.

The second narrative represents an effort to eliminate any candidates with strong personal moral and religious views, even when those views are not going to affect public policy choices. One thinks of someone who might favor gay marriage, but insists that it is a state-level issue, not to be imposed as national policy. [Dick Cheney, with a beloved gay daughter, holds the latter view and would be eliminated.]

The third narrative is strongly tied to a particular set of moral and spiritual views as a candidate litmus test, such that adherence to these views transcends even the most the pressing public policy issues.  This narrative results in an “elect the values candidates no matter what” stance.

A fourth narrative rejects the materialist benefits distribution thesis of the first narrative (which is essentially the foundational assumption-set of the current version of liberalism) in favor of a pro-liberty agenda but remains equally averse to spiritual or moral narratives because they conflict with an ethic of personal autonomy.  In effect, this is the narrative of those who find a theocrat under every bush (or a Bush under every faith-based invasion of secular autonomy). It differs from the second narrative because autonomy is the preeminent moral-equivalent value.

Each of these four narratives can be adopted by someone almost without thinking.  But the receptivity to argument and the reflexive positions of the adoptees (read narrative prey here) reveal the contours of the underlying narrative that has gotten hold of them, just as a paper rubbing can reveal an underlying indented message.

If you noticed elements of incoherence and the seeds of a functional rejection of dialogue in these four narratives, congratulations: You were paying attention.

When the elites play the “narrative prey” game (see (, rational agreement on particular policies is not their goal: Once a particular narrative achieves dominance, then the actual policy choices belong to those elites who have won the dominant narrative contest. After this victory, if you are still expecting to witness a meaningful dialogue about the policy questions, you can “Forgetaboutit!”

I note that a spiritual/moral perspective is too difficult to encapsulate in a typical political narrative; it invites too much careful thinking. This is the difficulty (and lure) of the political power strategies that rely on competing narratives: Actual thinking is too unpredictable for the narrative pushers; better to just herd voters into their narrative corners.

Q 2 – is a tricky one to answer in any policy detail, because morality can never be separated from spirituality. As someone who has concluded that the moral dimensions of life should never be redacted from our practical, policy discussions, I am all too aware that there are many touchy “third rails” where morality is concerned. This is particularly true when moral concerns touch on sexual and procreative behavior.

Leave the third rails aside for a moment. There is a deep traditional connection between good public policy and the open recognition of our common moral ground. For example, the large scale financial failure of 2008 was tied to an underlying moral failure[1] as measured by moral precepts and principles that are so widely accepted that we can reasonably call them foundational. If you doubt this, try a simply thought experiment.  Imagine living in a social order in which lying, trickery, theft and deception are foundational values.  Having worked within the criminal subculture for a good part of my legal career, I can attest the even the crooks recognize that such a social order would be f**ked up.  This is why the tradition of “honor among thieves” has such staying power.

The practice of leveraging bundles of overvalued assets in cleverly misleading ways in order to sell them as collateral was immoral in a way that can be tracked right back to the Decalogue’s prohibitions against stealing, lying and coveting.  The players who took the brunt of the criticism for the great credit market failure should not have been pilloried because they believed in free market capitalism (assuming they even did), but because they lacked character rooted in core moral values.

In “old fashioned” America, our economic heroes were productive, hard-working, men and women of great personal honor and integrity. They were not shielded from the consequences of failure by complex credit instruments.  An “old fashioned” banker, for example, might make a loan with no collateral other than the credibility of the borrower’s promise and character. No, the old fashioned banker would not “float paper”, thus “securitizing” the loan and transferring the “risk” (i.e., responsibility) to others.

Accountability for failure wonderfully concentrates the mind…and exposes the moral lapses of the deceptive and careless.

That is the sort of “spiritual narrative” I’d like to hear right now.

I must add that (especially in the Judeo-Christian traditions) moral/ethical questions are ultimately based on individual choices, carrying individual responsibility. In the Great Credit Crash of 2008 we witnessed the systemic consequences of thousands and thousands of individual choices that were so clouded and obscured by the complexity of the credit instruments the key players were dealing with that the ongoing deceptions (both the self –deceptions and the deception of others) were masked until the massive collective consequences exposed the whole hollow game for what it really was[2].

Here is a generalization that applies equally in the public as well as the private sector: Collectivist solutions are flawed on both moral and practical levels…especially when they are meant to be implemented by the agents and agencies of the powerful.

In a short piece called Monsters Without Grace (, I called attention to the “mischief” that follows whenever the religious-ethical rules that tend to govern the relationships of individuals to each other and their Creator become the charter of a bureaucratic state or of one of its powerful agencies.  Whenever governments attempt to comprehensively implement a makeover of human nature, things ways end badly. My discussion began with the observation that -“Marxism is a repellant caricature of Judeo-Christian ethics[3], the brutal substitution of faux material equality and collective political justice for equality before God and individuated personal justice. It is as if some ballet impresario trotted out Frankenstein’s monster on stage, miming the dance with crude mechanical movements, deprived of all grace, beauty and spirit”.

Actually the term “mischief” does not begin to describe the evils done in the name of Marxism’s attempt to reengineer human nature.  I believe that there is a natural law of human behavior that says – bureaucracies can’t help but poison ethics.

While reflecting on Marxist brutality and its malignant bureaucracies, I noticed a particularly interesting (and not-unrelated fact): Only the Judeo-Christian traditions (in the Decalogue’s prohibitions against coveting and desiring that which belongs to others) and the Buddhist traditions (in the Bodhisattva vows) condemn envy. It is as though these ancients sought to inoculate us against the envy-propelled collectivist nightmares of the 20th century.

Clarity, transparency, individual accountability and responsibility cannot be forever cloaked in an accounting fog without negative moral and practical consequences.  In the face of this blatant moral failure, we’ve become sidetracked by boutique social issues, like the question – “Who owns and controls the brand name, ‘marriage’?” and we remain hopelessly divided by much more serious (but even more intractable) moral issues, like the permissible limits of commercial trade in embryos.

At a result, our great, long standing societal consensus on the value and justice of individual accountability is being rendered “inoperative”.  This sorry state of affairs is being engineered (intentionally or unwittingly) by three interrelated developments:

  1. the uncritical adoption of algorithmic decision mechanisms in the marketplace (that leave no room for judgment);
  2. politically motivated bailouts (that eviscerate the willingness to be accountable); and
  3. …the adoption of transaction cloaking devices (that block the very ability to detect financial fraud and misdirection, choking off accountability at the very source).

Calling attention to this development is the one “spiritual” narrative that should be at the center of our political discourse. I suspect it was sidelined for the convenience of those who fear real accountability. And I also suspect that the policy paralysis that attends the clash of the four narratives I’ve outlined above serves the interests of those elites whose own disagreements are trumped by their common interests in escaping the bonds of moral accountability altogether.

American’s have been treated to a number of rhetorical flourishes over the years, each calling us to a new narrative: The Fair Deal, The New Deal, The Great Society, the Ownership Society, Hope and Change, and now, sadly, “Not my fault!”


Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill

First published on the Policy Think Site {} and its linked Blogs

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[2] We need to take seriously the insight that Bernard Madoff’s illicit scheme was a naked and blatant version of a more subtle but (because of scale) ultimately more harmful deception: the pretense that underwater mortgages represented real, marketable assets.

[3] Among the ethical precepts common to both traditions are the promotion of the generous and compassionate virtues; the notion of human equality before G-d; and the universal obligation to honor human dignity.  But when these are translated into political doctrine and enforced by top-down bureaucracies, the result quickly becomes brutal and repressive.  Human dignity is the first casualty of morally charged bureaucracies.

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