Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2004 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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‘Moral values’ — just what are they? | The post-election post-mortems are full of talk about Moral Values, which would be a fine thing if all the talk indicated a new interest in moral values.

But this catchphrase may just mean a checklist of campaign issues that arouse a certain kind of voter — for example, Gay Marriage, abortion-on-demand, and using human embryos for research purposes, with maybe gun rights thrown in. Or maybe the phrase Moral Values is just a general shibboleth of the Religious Right, the way Social Justice once was for the stained-glass left.

There may be a lot less to Moral Values as the key to this election than the pollsters think. After all, when quizzed by a stranger over the phone, who wouldn't say that moral values were important, whatever one's moral values are?

To some of the good folks I grew up with in Louisiana, voting Democratic was a moral value, like going to church and not cussin'. Back then voting Democratic (was there any other party?) meant sticking up for the underdog and the South — if that's not being repetitive. Oh, yes, it also meant defending racial segregation, which ranked highest among some folks' Moral Values.

The definition of Moral Values may change with the years and political fashion. Today the term encompasses not only social issues but can involve questions of taste, from Janet Jackson's peep show at the Super Bowl to the popularity of trash talk marathons like Howard Stern's.

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Each generation tends to believe the decline in taste in its own era is more blatant than ever, perhaps because it is. (In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking/Now, heaven knows, anything goes . . ./The world has gone mad today/And good's bad today/And black's white today/And day's night today . . . — Cole Porter, "Anything Goes," 1934.) I myself can sympathize with the Victorian gentleman who felt the world had started to go to the Other Place in a handbasket when women began riding astride instead of side-saddle.

In this definitely post-Victorian year 2004, when John Kerry became identified as Hollywood's candidate, he became the un-candidate of a lot of folks out here in the red states, or just of a red-state of mind. To quote Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia: "Every time that John Kerry brought another Hollywood star to campaign with him, he increased Bush's votes."

It's not as though you have to be a card-carrying, tithe-giving member of the Religious Right, or very religious at all, to be uneasy about the general vulgarization of American society. Or even a Republican. Many's the good Democrat who must also be generally dismayed and regularly disgusted by the pollution of the cultural environment.

The only remarkable thing about this cultural backlash was that Democratic strategists seemed oblivious to it. At least till the election results arrived like Judgment Day. ("'Moral values' weight hit/Democrats out of blue" — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nov. 7, 2004.) A working definition of Moral Values could be: what the Democrats didn't know hit 'em November 2nd.

My own personal theory about the meaning of Moral Values is that, besides being cloudy, it's a whole greater than the sum of its single-issue parts, and cannot be easily broken down into discrete political stances. It's more an attitude than an agenda.

The voter who is uneasy about the whole idea of Gay Marriage, or who reacts strongly against either destroying or custom-designing human beings in utero ("That's just not right!") is also likely to be against any retreat in the war on terror. And a strong believer in supporting American troops and their commander-in-chief once the enemy is engaged. No matter what war we're talking about at the time or how we got into it.

To such a voter, all these Moral Values are of a piece. Which is why the pollsters' asking him to choose between the War on Terror and Moral Values may not make much sense. How dissect a worldview?

Immediately after the election, various Democratic Deep Thinkers suggested that repackaging was the way to go: Just sell the same old ideas, they suggested, "under the rubric" of moral issues. As if these Moral Values voters could so easily be fooled. It won't do just to improve the party's image. ("Democrats' image needs reworking, Clinton suggests" — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nov. 6, 2004.) To change the image, the party will have to change the reality. But the Democrats may not be up to it.

Strangely enough, the president's more condescending critics never accuse him of insincerity when he starts spouting Godtalk. On the contrary, it seems to be his very sincerity that appalls and alarms them. Call it a lack of tolerance. Especially for any sign of Moral Values.

As long as our sophisticated politicos dismiss voters concerned about Moral Values, then "simplistic" Republicans will prosper out here in what Scott Fitzgerald called the dark rolling fields of the Republic. Actually, the folks in the pews may understand the neo-pagan society all around them in this televised, computerized and generally vulgarized culture better than the Hollywood cognoscenti understand them. A lack of familiarity breeds contempt, too.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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