I don’t like Bill Bennett. I think he is a very unpleasant man. In fact, every time I saw the former education secretary and ”drug czar” on “Face the Nation” or “Larry King Live,” his smug, unctuous face made my blood boil. It still does
There are few faces that scream out louder: sanctimonious prig.
He makes his pronouncements about cultural values with an insulting certainty, speaking as if he had personally been up on Mount Sinai getting the tablets from Jehovah. His dictums are as irritating as those of any name dropper. And if the name he drops belongs to God, it is all the more obnoxious.
It is his certainty that bugs me more than anything else. It is a quality that inhabits a certain kind of male: A certainty that whatever position he takes is the true one, simply by virtue of his taking it. It is a very male thing, and it reminds me once again that testosterone is a hallucinogen.
One of the reasons he makes me so angry is that the cause he has latched onto is an important one. Our values need to be discussed.
But his version of them is deeply distorted by that inflexible certainty.
Bennett knows what the virtues are that we should maintain: He has made a list. In his “Book of Virtues,” he includes self discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.
It seems a measure of Bennett that humility is not among these virtues.
Some of these seem obvious and inarguable. Others less so. And in reality, such categorical expectations cannot be convincingly maintained. There are times when loyalty conflicts with honesty, times when faith conflicts with compassion. If you are a Sufi mystic, self discipline may be just the opposite of what you require. Perseverance is sometimes merely stupidity. Sometimes diplomacy outranks honesty, for the good of all.
And work, as Bennett outlines it, smells suspiciously of the Victorian principle espoused by such moralists as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, who made millions because other people worked long, virtuous hours.
Perhaps the opposite is truly the virtue. At least Henry Thoreau made a convincing case in “Walden.”
”We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do,” he wrote. ”But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.”
Americans already work like dogs. It is the quality of their leisure that needs improving.
But it is not the individual virtues on Bennett’s list that I take exception to, but the list itself.
For too often, we think of virtues as being something as simple as a list: A series of words.
Virtue, for Bennett in his book, ”involves rules and precepts – the do’s and don’ts of life with others.” In other words, we are good because we do what we are told.
He reiterates his position in his follow-up book, “The Moral Compass,” by asserting, ”Moral education must involve following rules of good behavior.”
In other words, virtue is etiquette.
Personally, I find this view trivializing, and worse, I suspect it is propounded merely to perpetuate an economic and governing system that makes it possible for Bennett and people of his economic and educational advantage to live comfortable lives.
There are other possible lists of virtues.
The Roman Catholic Church lists the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude; and the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
I doubt Bennett considers poverty a virtue.
But whichever list we observe is ultimately forced upon our lives in the style of Procrustes. We are not meant to think about them, but to obey them.
Yet, rules are always insufficient. There are always circumstances that require our disobeying.
William Blake, for instance, wrote in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” how Jesus of Nazareth broke each of the 10 Commandments, enumerating them, one by one. Jesus was good, Blake says, because ”Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
The meaning of the word ”virtue” has changed over time. If it now means righteous behavior, it once meant something less rigid.
For the Greeks, and later the Romans – who gave us the word – virtue meant to be yourself in the utmost. ”Virtue” didn’t take on its acrid sanctimoniousness until the Victorian age, when it was used to approve of behavior that furthered the goals of colonialism and jingoism.
For the Victorians, virtue meant not having sex.
The word ”values” that is bandied about so glibly by politicians now has also undergone such a change.
Our values are those things we take as the rock-bottom basic truths that experience gives us, that we can count on and therefore can act in the world with the expectancy that particular behaviors will result in particular outcomes.
In other words, our values are not written down on paper somewhere, but found in the world around us, the world we experience, the lives we live. And instead of turning out to be as vaporous as the words of a list, values are as solid as the oak tree that grows in the yard. Indeed, they may be the oak tree. Or the birds roosting in it.
If a so-called value handed down to us is proven false by experience, we must either forsake the value or live an inauthentic life. Many of the values Bennett would foist on us no longer ring true. Perhaps some still do. But we must find them out for ourselves. It is one of our life’s tasks.