Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones:
The Reality Beneath William Bennett's Virtues,
Or We Need Morality But NOT Traditional Morality
A Time for Radical Ruptures
Fairy Tales and Tradition's Chains
By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #975, September 27, 1998
"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this -- at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity -- is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."
In light of the power struggle now threatening to bring down a president, the series of articles written by Bob Avakian on the `crisis of morality' in U.S. society is both timely and insightful. These important essays include: "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Selections from these essays, including a series on "What Is Communist Morality" appeared in the RW from January to May, 1996.
In this selection from "A Pulpit of Bones" Avakian critiques William Bennett's "Book of Virtues." Bennett has emerged as a powerful voice demanding Clinton's resignation and his latest book The Death of Outrage, is an analysis of the Clinton affair and the persistance of 1960's ideas about sex which he considers a big problem for the country.
Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow and the entire series will soon be available on our website at http:// rwor.org.
To my surprise, my first impression in glancing through William Bennett's "The Book of Virtues" was that it seemed pretty innocuous. Bennett, after all, has been a leading figure in the Charge of the Right Brigade--an official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, waging war on the poor in the name of "war on drugs" and "war on crime," and aggressively attacking any departure from old-time traditions in education and in general. I got this book because it has been a "bestseller" in the U.S., playing a major role in a high-powered cultural and ideological offensive propagating "the traditional American way of life" and "traditional values." But "Virtues" is not a noisy proclamation of "conservative" principles -- it is an eclectic collection of fairy tales and other fables, speeches, stories, poems, excerpts from novels, essays, dialogues, homilies, and so on.
Yet, as the saying goes, first impressions can be misleading. "Virtues" is not innocuous but insidious--and its seeming innocuousness serves its real insidiousness. It begins by stating that it is "intended to aid in the time-honored task of the moral education of the young....the training of heart and mind toward the good." Right away, the impression is created that there is some definition of "the good" that everyone can, or should, recognize and agree on--a GOOD that has existed from time immemorial exactly as it is now and always shall be. In this way, the fact that Bennett has an "agenda"--and that his notion of "the good" reflects the outlook and interests of a particular class, a class that amasses wealth and rules society by exploiting and oppressing others--is covered over.
This deception is deepened by the fact that Bennett builds his model of "the good" by presenting layer upon layer of qualities which are in fact given a particular class-based content but are put forward as universal "virtues." For example, he writes in the "Introduction" that "The vast majority of Americans share a respect for certain fundamental traits of character: honesty, compassion, courage, and perseverance." And he organizes the book into chapters dealing with these qualities and six others: Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Loyalty, and Faith. With the possible exception of the last in this list (depending on whether "Faith" refers to blind, unquestioning belief, as in religious faith, or to beliefs that are deeply held but also grounded in material reality) I am certainly not going to declare myself in opposition to these qualities in general, and there are few people who would. The question is: what content is given to these qualities and what context do they exist in?
Take "Perseverance," for example. Among the Selected Works of Mao Tsetung is a commentary on the traditional Chinese fable of "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains." This is the story of an old man who gathered his sons to dig away with a hoe at mountains the old man was determined to remove. Despite difficulty and derision, the old man persisted, declaring that if he did not remove these mountains during his lifetime, his children and if necessary future generations would carry on the work until the mountains were removed. Finally, the story goes, god was moved by his spirit and caused the mountains to be removed. Mao applied this to the task of waging revolutionary war to overthrow the "mountains" of oppression that weighed on the Chinese people: he said that the revolutionaries were like the foolish old man and the masses of people were like the god in the fable--they would join with the revolutionaries to remove these "mountains," so the revolutionary fighters must persevere. Somehow, I don't think this is the kind of lesson William Bennett has in mind!
Or take "Work"--one of Bennett's "Virtues." One of the interesting things brought out by Mel Watkins in his book On the Real Side--a survey of African-American humor from slavery days to the present--is that a very popular form of humor among slaves involved stories of slaves who avoided work by outwitting their masters. Are we to think that such slaves were not "virtuous"? Are we really supposed to believe that the masses of Black people who identified with this form of resistance were lacking in the proper "work ethic"?
Or take one selection in the first chapter of "Virtues" ("Self-discipline") where we read that children are to mold themselves--or be molded--in the image of a proper boy or a proper girl--and the difference between the two is very clear, and very familiar to anyone who grew up in the U.S. in the '50s. For example, one selection (a poem by Emilie Poulsson) tell us that "the kind of little girl/People like to see" is one who is "Modest as a violet,/As a rosebud sweet....Bright as a diamond,/Pure as any pearl". These, we all know, are not the qualities that boys are supposed to have: for them it is fine, and necessary, to be rough and forceful--so long as they do so in a way that remains obedient to and in the service of higher authority.
Fairy Tales and
Once again, despite Bennett's platitudes about being against racism, sexism, chauvinism, and the rest, and despite the fact that a few selections about people like 19th-century feminist Susan B. Anthony can be found in Bennett's "Virtues," it is unmistakable in reading through this book that from beginning to end very "traditional" gender roles, or stereotypes, are being held up as models--after all, Bennett's whole point is to extol the "virtues" of such "tradition."
Thus, the poem that Bennett introduces with his dire warning--learn to control yourself or be controlled in ways you won't like--is titled "There Was a Little Girl," and it presents once again that old "double standard," where what is good for the gander is not good for the goose. The final stanza makes it clear: "Her mother heard the noise,/And she thought it was the boys/A-playing at a combat in the attic;/But when she climbed the stair,/And found Jemima there,/She took and she did spank her most emphatic." Along with gems like this, sprinkled throughout "Virtues" are the familiar fairy tales of the virginal princesses who are saved or carried off to bliss by the handsome princes (even if the princes first appear as frogs).
But, after all, isn't this pretty harmless--sure, this could be said to perpetuate sexual stereotypes, but isn't it a case of "politically correct overkill" and the tyranny of "feminazis" to make a big deal out of little things like this? Isn't all this "political correcting" getting rather ridiculous, even infuriating? That is obviously the point of the little book of parodies--Politically Correct Bedtime Stories--that apparently became something of a bestseller in the U.S. in recent times. But, in reading over those "Bedtime Stories," which spoof "politically correct" criticisms of old fairy tales, what stands out to me is not so much that the original tales should be rewritten but more that they should be seen in their true light--as illuminations of an era when divisions between rich and poor, princes and commoners, men and women, and so on, are thought to be natural and inevitable.
Can it really be said that the influence of tales like these--the models and morals they provide--are after all really so harmless? Among the things I reviewed in preparing to write this article were clippings from U.S. newspapers that were sent to me, and one of them is an article from the USA Today (January 24, 1995) by Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski. It is titled "Why women stay with abusers" and the subtitle (or "kicker") is "For millions, the ideal man is a romance-novel fantasy--powerful, protective, sexually aggressive. And an invitation to trouble."
The romance novel is, in U.S. society today, the equivalent of the "Prince Charming" fairy tale. It is aimed at teenage girls and women--and according to this article (citing Forbes magazine) 25 million American females are reading an average of 20 romance novels each month! This article asks a very important question and gives a very telling answer: "What do these women find so compelling? The hope and thrill of being `saved' by a strong, dominant male who will take care of them and make them feel secure." But the reality of life with--which means living under the domination of--such men does not end up fulfilling the romantic fantasies of Harlequin novels. Often it turns into a dreadful nightmare.
(This reminds me of Engels's observation that, in its origin, the word family [from the Latin familia] referred not to "the ideal of our modern Philistine, which is a compound of sentimentality and domestic discord," but to the "totality of slaves" in a household in ancient Rome--a household presided over by a male who had the power of life and death not only over his slaves but also over his wives and children.)
Is it not possible to see that the influence of Grimm fairy tales-- and more modern-day versions of the same kind of fables -- play a significant role in conditioning girls to accept and seek to act out these romantic fantasies, and that the consequences for them may well be anything but harmless or humorous? And when William Bennett & Co. seek to reinforce this ideal of "feminine virtues" and the "rewards" they will bring, what after all is the nature and effect of the "moral education" they are pushing?
A DANGEROUS PLACE TO BE
With the whole unrelenting barrage of propaganda and hype about violent crime, crime in the streets, kids murdering kids, and on and on--and despite the fact that violent crime is a major social problem in America today--one of the things that is not so highly publicized by the media, the politicians, etc., is the fact that, for women and for children, the place where they are most likely to be subjected to violent crime and brutality, including murder, is in their own home, by "the man of the house." Women are more likely to be raped by their husbands--and children more likely to be sexually assaulted and molested by their fathers--than by strangers. It is only in recent years--and largely as a result of the social upheaval of "the '60s" (which actually carried over well into the 1970s), and in particular because of the women's movement that was brought forth out of that upheaval--that much light has been shed on this horrendous "domestic" violence. Before that, this was largely shrouded in darkness, behind the closed doors of "the home," protected by the "sanctity" of the "traditional family."
Until quite recently, in the dominant culture the concept of "marital rape" was considered a contradiction in terms. Well into the 1980s, in most states in the U.S. men could legally rape their wives, and it is only within the past two years that this has been declared a crime in all states (North Carolina was the last state to do this, in late 1993). Of course, despite the passage of these laws, marital rape remains a major form of violence against women and one of the major crimes for which people are least punished (along with various kinds of "white collar crime" and crimes in which the victims are Black people and others who are portrayed and treated as less than human by the dominant institutions of society). A fortifying of "traditional relations" and their accompanying "traditional values" will, to say the least, hardly help to eliminate this crime and violence, and in fact will only serve to provide more cover or even "legitimacy" for it--and more generally for the oppressive social relations of which these crimes are a dramatic expression.
When we hear Bennett and others tell us that it is time to "get back to the basics" on which the USA was founded, and that "the '60s counter-culture" attack on this tradition has been the cause of "moral decay" and rampant crime in America, we must ask: Do you mean we should go back to the situation where untold numbers of women were raped by their husbands every year, and this was all legal? Where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Black people were lynched, year after year, and yet this was rarely if ever treated as a crime?
Bennett & Co. would no doubt answer that they do not mean this. But the fact is that they do want to reinforce the "tradition" in which girls and women are in effect the sexual possessions of men--presented as "pure virgins" under the "protection" of their fathers until they are married and become the objects of gratification, and even plunder, by their husbands.
(The commodification of sex and sexual conquest and plunder--and the misogynist core of all this--must be exposed and uprooted, but "traditional values" and their adherents cannot point the way to abolishing this--they are, in fact, expressions and exponents of it.)
And Bennett and Co. do want a situation in which Black people are granted certain "civil rights," in words, and in turn are made to "act in a `civil' manner"--that is, to quietly, submissively accept the reality in which they are subjected to systematic discrimination and brutality, daily outrage and insult.
The truth is that people like Bennett most definitely do mean to aggressively reassert the male supremacy and white supremacy which are in fact built into the very foundation and the institutional structure of capitalist America, and they do mean to--they must--uphold and carry forward the fundamental "tradition" of monumental and monstrous crimes on which this system has been built and on which it depends.
One of the main reasons that people like Bennett aim so much fire at "the '60s" and its "counterculture" is that this dragged out into the open much, though far from all, of the reality beneath Bennett's "virtues" and called significantly into question the authority and legitimacy of the ruling class in its posture as the standard-bearer of righteousness and bastion of freedom. But "the '60s" did far more than that.
In addition to, and in the context of, a revolutionary upsurge throughout the world in that period, millions of people in the U.S. broke with the prevailing conventions and established authorities and took up the challenge of fighting for new relations among people and new cultural expressions that were not centered around careerism and battling for position in the cash nexus and the social pecking order and that consciously rejected "America number one with god on our side." A great many people came to understand that the common source of all the evils they were fighting against--and the obstacle to the things they were fighting for--was the capitalist-imperialist system. Many who had been into crime had their sights raised and turned instead to revolution. The great potential for people to transform things--and to be transformed themselves--through revolutionary struggle was shown in many powerful and moving ways.
Between the anti-war protesters and the war planners in the Pentagon; between the Black Panthers and J. Edgar Hoover; between Black, Latino, Asian, and Native peoples on the one side and the government on the other; between the women who rebelled against their "traditional" roles and the rich old men who ruled the country; between the youth who brought forward new music, in the broadest sense, and the preachers who denounced them as disciples of the devil and despoilers of civilization: the battle lines were sharply drawn. And through the course of those tumultuous times those who were rebelling against the established order and the dominating relations and traditions increasingly found common cause and powerful unity; they increasingly gained--and deserved--the moral as well as the political initiative, while the ruling class dug in and lashed out to defend its rule but increasingly, and very deservedly, lost moral and political authority.
But, unfortunately, although perhaps hundreds of thousands became revolutionary-minded in that period and millions more were radicalized and rose up in various forms of resistance, there was no revolution--the old ruling class continued to rule, the old system remained in effect. And so, with the changing of conditions and relations within the U.S. and in the international arena, much of what was brought forward through this whole "<|>'60s" upheaval was turned around--some of it co-opted, some of it corrupted, and some outright crushed--but not all, and that is a continuing bone in the throat of the powers-that-be.
THERE IS NO GOING BACK. "The '60s" cannot be brought back--and if they could that would not be enough. For, even as far as they went, "the '60s" did not after all go far enough. But neither can people like William Bennett bring back "the '50s." The battle for the future will be fought from here forward.
The challenge for those who have not given up the vision of a radically different and better world--and for those who are for the first time searching for such a vision, or are rediscovering it--is to carry forward the best from past upsurges, but to carry it further and develop the means for actually making those two radical ruptures Marx and Engels spoke of--with traditional property relations and traditional ideas.
This is a real, and unprecedented, revolution--as opposed to the fortifying of tradition's chains under the threadbare banner of "revolution"...against liberation! What is called for is nothing less than advancing humanity to a whole new stage of history, where it will have left behind the oppressive divisions which for thousands of years have brought horrendous consequences but which have been unavoidable--until now. And a crucial part of the battle to break tradition's chains is to bring forward the radically new morality that corresponds to this world-historic transformation--that can expose in its true light "traditional morality" and at the same time can illuminate the way to a far higher basis for human relations.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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