Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's Virtues, Or We Need Morality but NOT Traditional Morality


By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #976, October 4, 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."

Bob Avakian

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)."

In this selection from "A Pulpit of Bones" he critiques William Bennett's Book of Virtues. Bennett has emerged as a "moral authority" and a powerful voice demanding Clinton's resignation in his latest book The Death of Outrage.

Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow in future issues and the entire series will soon be available on our website at


In one of his most powerful songs, the truly great reggae artist Peter Tosh rebukes the attempt to glorify the "so-called great men" of "Western Civilization," such as Christopher Columbus. He sings:

All these `great men' were doin'
was robbin' and rapin'
kidnappin' and a-killin';
so called `great men' were doin'
was robbin' and rapin'
kidnappin' and a-killin.'

He is right, of course. That is what they were doing and what their descendants are still doing--it is in the nature of their system.

Many times, in attempting to make the horror of this more vivid, various writers (including myself) have used the metaphor of capitalist wealth consisting of blood and bones. But, in fact, it is not just a metaphor. The reality of this is powerfully brought home in the book Indian Givers, How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford. Beginning with the present-day ordeal of a Bolivian miner in Potosí--the site where literally mountains of silver were for centuries extracted, by actual or virtual slaves, and then shipped to Europe--Weatherford brings back from the dead the millions of Indians and Africans whose blood, skin, and bones actually established a pedestal for the wealth of (European) nations. Weatherford concludes bluntly--"The capitalists built the new structure on the twin supports of the slave trade from Africa to America and the piracy of American silver"--and he then cites the statement in which Marx captures the essence of this with piercing irony: "[The] discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production."

Nowadays, there is no major political leader in the U.S. who will openly uphold slavery (although it is difficult to think of Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms and not picture slaveowners and overseers). But is there a major representative of the U.S. ruling class who does not uphold as "great men" slaveowners such as George Washington ("Father of our Country"), Thomas Jefferson (principal author of the "Declaration of Independence"), and James Madison (main author of the U.S. Constitution) -- all of whom are put forward as models of "virtues" by William Bennett in his bestseller "The Book of Virtues"? And, more fundamentally, is there any representative of that ruling class who is ready to say that, since the wealth of America's capitalists and the power of their state has slave labor poured into its very basis, this wealth is ill-gotten and this power is illegitimate?

And what, in addition to this slave labor, makes up the rest of that base? Conquest and genocide of Native peoples; robbery of land and resources; ruthless exploitation of wave after wave of immigrants; the heartless harnessing of child labor to the machinery of capitalist accumulation; the degradation, brutalization, and low-wage exploitation of women; the subjugation and super-exploitation of non-European peoples. This has continued from the first conquest down to today and from one corner of the earth to another--from the garment sweatshops in the U.S. to even more horrendous hellholes in Haiti or Pakistan; from the slaughter of literally millions in Indochina and Indonesia to the mass destruction and death rained down on Iraq and its people, particularly its children.

Thieves of Empire

All this is the pulpit of bones on which people like William Bennett are leaning when they preach their "virtues." They have the nerve to extol the value of "Work" (one of the chapters in Bennett's "The Book of Virtues"), when the work that, over centuries, has put them in the position they are in today has been the work of others, under conditions of outright or virtual slavery and other forms of brutal exploitation.

It is small wonder that in the chapter on "Work" Bennett features stories, poems, and parables about bees and ants and the story of "The Rebellion Against the Stomach"--whose point is that the division of labor in which other parts of the body labor to feed the stomach is, after all, the best possible arrangement! For the "division of labor" in the world today--in which the ruling classes of a handful of imperialist states are fed and enriched by the labor of billions of people who are treated as little more than bees and ants--such a division of labor is obviously one that these ruling classes, and their representatives like William Bennett, are anxious to maintain and enforce.

They pontificate about "Responsibility" (another of Bennett's chapter headings) and how the lack of it is corrupting the youth and the people generally in America. They insist that people must take responsibility for the choices they make in life. But why is it that, for the class of people Bennett represents, the choices involve things like whether to close down factories in this or that area and whether to invest billions in Mexico or South Korea, or what kinds of austerity measures to impose on Peru, or how to wage war against Iraq or when to invade Panama or Haiti? While for people in a country like the U.S. who are part of what is broadly referred to as "the middle class," the choices may be between accepting a cut in pay or losing their job, or deciding whether to go deeper into debt to help their kids get through college. And for millions in the ghettos and barrios of the U.S., the choices involve things like trying to get a minimum-wage job vs. going on welfare, or turning to crime--or having to fight in one of those wars the ruling class decides to wage. And meanwhile, a young girl in Thailand--maybe as young as 9 or 10--has the "choice" between slaving in suffocating squalor in factories making clothes or toys for export to countries like the U.S., or being forced into a brothel to be sold for sex to traveling businessmen from Japan, Europe and America! It is the worldwide system of capitalist imperialism and its economic, social, and political relations of oppression that have shaped these different choices for different classes and groupings of people.

What a cruel, cynical, and monstrous lie it is to preach, as Bennett does: "As Aristotle was among the first to insist, we become what we are as persons by the decisions that we ourselves make." Does that explain why 40 thousand children die every day in the Third World from starvation and preventable disease, why one out of every five children in Peru dies before the age of 5, while people like William Bennett attend $1000-dollar-a-plate dinners to raise funds to promote their reactionary agenda?!

When Bennett declaims about the scourge of crime, I am reminded of the story (in a passage from St. Augustine, of all people!) about an exchange between Alexander the Great and a pirate he had captured:

"Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possessions of the sea, he answered with a bold pride, `What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who doest it with a great fleet are styled emperor.'"


Scandal As Power Struggle in the U.S. Ruling Class: The Starr Report

from RW #974

Scandal as Power Struggle in the U.S. Ruling Class: Down and Dirty

from RW #971
By Redwing

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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