Friday, March 27, 2015

Moral syndromes, country music, 9/11 and Ted Cruz

We most often use the word "syndrome" to refer to symptoms of diseases. It has a broader meaning, however, and that meaning is worth recovering. A syndrome is a collection of things that tend to go together. It's never absolute. It just means that we tend to find them together. On the other hand, it has to happen that we find them together pretty often before we'd want to call it a syndrome.

That's why the word is so useful in medicine. When a new disease appears, we first become aware of it as a collection of outward signs that we don't know the causes of. If the same set of symptoms shows up in patient after patient, we know to start looking for a cause. The cause may be a germ, a genetic defect or a shared activity (they all work in the same building or they all play tennis). Or it may be multiple things that create a similar syndrome but the underlying causes are quite different. Or it may be that some thing in the syndrome doesn't actually fit with the others after all. It's a flexible notion and that makes it a useful starting point.

I find it's also useful in making assessments about how to live our lives. Which brings me to Ted Cruz.
"Music is interesting," he said. "I grew up listening to classic rock, and I'll tell you sort of an odd story: My music taste changed on 9/11. And it's very strange. I actually intellectually find this very curious. But on 9/11, I didn't like how rock music responded. And country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me. 
"And I have to say, it just is a gut-level. I had an emotional reaction that says, these are my people," Cruz said of country artists. "So ever since 2001, I listen to country music. But I'm an odd country music fan, because I didn't listen to it prior to 2001."
I picked this up from Ann Althouse who was puzzled and put off by what Cruz said:
What's Ted talking about? I think he uses words carefully — he's a languagemaster — so I'm taking his language seriously. I'm making it my business to understand the "Ted talk" (to coin a phrase). 
I'm queasy about his "these are my people." Cruz is a politician, so who's he trying to get in good with? And what exactly did he hear in country music that made him suddenly see himself belonging in that aural milieu? I'm thinking he's just posing for us on the theory that we're conned by that loves-country-music bullshit. He's one of the salt-of-the-earth folks. You know, the kind who actually intellectually find their own music taste very curious. The real America. 
This makes me think of that old line: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made" (Jean Giraudoux).
I think that Cruz is actually being charmingly straightforward, almost to the point of naiveté, here. Someone faking sincerity would insist that they'd always listened to country music and claim deep knowledge of and affection for the genre. Cruz tells us that he doesn't, in fact, know much about the music having only listened to it since 2001.

Think of a woman trying to convince her suspicious boyfriend that her love for him is sincere. She wouldn't say, "I used to like hard-partying types like Brian until 9/11 and then I realized I only wanted you because I noticed that serious math geeks like you had a more mature reaction to the events than my old buddies who were hitting the beer bong and partying as the towers went down." This may, in fact, be real the reason she dumped Brian but it's not what you say to someone you are, in Althouse's words, "trying to get in good with."

People who are keen on establishing their sincerity, thump their chests and bare their emotions. If anything, this is the opposite of that. Cruz is telling us that music isn't anything more than wallpaper in his life. Before 9/11 he didn't think much about the values that went with the music he listened to, he just listened to it the way someone who buys a car just as a way to get around doesn't much care about the colour and design. After 9/11, he became painfully aware that the moral syndrome that goes with rock wasn't him. Until 2001, there was no particular reason to care one way or another.

After 9/11, it was appropriate to reassess our values and the syndromes they fall into. I think Althouse is being disingenuous when she later goes on to say that she can't figure out what rock musicians did to put Cruz off. If anything, it was what they didn't do that probably triggered his reassessment. But the assessment was based on a larger set of considerations than just the reactions after 9/11. It's rather that he thought about sex and drugs and rock and roll and the syndrome of moral and political values that goes with that and asked himself did this fit into his life anymore.

Here's an analogy. Imagine Jimmy Buffet comes to your town and someone gives you tickets to the show. You've never cared one way or another about him but you like the song about the pencil-thin moustache and you don't mind Margaritaville so long as you don't hear it too often. In any case, your open to a little fun and you go. You get there and you see that there is an entire set of values that go with being a Jimmy Buffet fan, that they call themselves parrotheads and that the band is called The Coral Reefer Band and the drug reference in that isn't accidental. You might not care. But then a friend of yours might quit his job and smoke dope and drink Margaritas all day. And you might think, this isn't so harmless anymore. By doing that, you would have noticed that there is a value syndrome that goes with this music and that it doesn't fit your value set.

One of the things that really troubles me about baby boomers, and I am one, is that we have tended to do it the other way around. We settled on the cool music that we liked and then adopted the moral and political values that went with that music. And we taught the next generations to do the same. Too many adults still worry about being one of the cool kids and, therefore, assume the moral and political values that they think will get them membership in that club. Ted Cruz is a refreshing break from that.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"What kind of reformer is Francis?"

That's the question they are asking over at National Catholic Reporter. Well, not really. What they have done is written a piece intended to mollify those who are getting discouraged because Francis has been pope for two years now and so far has only made stylistic changes.

The key line in the NCR piece is this one:
Reform of the Curia, however, remains at a homiletic level.
That's a deliberately obscure way of saying that Francis has talked a lot but he hasn't actually done much. And that theme runs through the article: it discusses changes of style and not of substance. In fact, the only concrete reforms that the article can point to are the establishment of "meaningful checks and balances" for Vatican finances and the creation of committees. It pains me to have to say this, but those are the classic moves of a bureaucrat seeking to create the illusion of doing something.

And now he is preparing some sort of pastoral communication on the environment. You know, if I was a corrupt member of the Curia desperately trying to protect my entrenched privileges, I'd be strenuously advising him to busy himself about the environment.

Meanwhile, there is the job the cardinals elected him to do.
Francis was also selected by his peers to accomplish reforms closer to home, particularly of a Curia and a clerical culture that had become so distorted that leaders brazenly betrayed the community and the Gospel in crises ranging from the horrors of sexual abuse of children to more prosaic financial scandals.
Make no mistake: that is the only standard by which this papacy will be judged. There are two aspects here. The first is an internal concern: the cardinals are more and more embarrassed by the bureaucratic juggernaut that keeps undermining the church. They want the problem fixed and, please note this, the only meaningful way to begin such a task would be to make the bureaucracy a whole lot smaller than it currently is and make it a  whole lot easier  to actually fire people who mess up. The implementation of "meaningful checks and balances" is just style, firing people is substance. And not just in Rome: the church is overly bureaucratized right down to the diocesan level. The second is the thing that has us ordinary people in the pews exercised. We fully understand that there will always be bad people in the church. What we don't want to see is a church hierarchy that is more interested in protecting these bad people than it is in protecting children and earning the trust of the people who put their hard-earned dollars in the collection basket.

On both those fronts, Pope Francis has done nothing significant. Yet.

Yet! Nothing would please me more than to have to write a follow up post someday in which I have to eat these words and admit that I'd completely underestimated Pope Francis.

(I'd note in passing that the second issue of restoring the trust lost through sex abuse and financial scandals is tied to the vocation crisis. Yes, there was an existing clericalism and culture of secrecy that made the scandals possible but the fear of losing yet more priests from a rapidly declining base also played a part. The lack of vocations also helped create the bureaucratic juggernaut: when leaders can't depend on front-line decision makers, their own priests in this instance, they will expand the bureaucracy because that is the only thing they can do. )

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I am Harry Palmer 2

We need to face up to the worst moments in the Harry Palmer novels. I've admitted I like them but they have flaws and the Bernard Samson novels that Len Deighton wrote later in his career are much better novels.

One thing that, as a writer, I really have to admire about Deighton is that he just sat down and bashed them out. He just wrote The Ipcress File. He didn't sit around for days, weeks, months or years wondering what he should write. He just did it. And when he'd done it, he set about figuring out how to do it better the next time. And he succeeded.

It wasn't an even climb. His third novel, Funeral in Berlin, was a bit of a peak and it took him several others to get to that height again. But the long term trend is better and better and Mexico Set, a novel that revisits some of the themes of Funeral in Berlin some twenty years later in Deighton's career, is not only a better novel but a much better novel.

In the introduction to a reissue of The Icpress File Deighton wonders if the nameless hero of these books is just him. He allows that, in some ways, it is. In other ways, however it is not him. The nameless hero is a northerner and Deighton is not. The nameless hero is also Harry Palmer, which is to say Michael Caine.

The Harry Palmer movies were never the market success that the Bond movies were. They didn't have the same cultural impact either. But they had one huge advantage over the Bond movies and that was Michael Caine. Even the best Bonds couldn't hold a candle to Caine as an actor. And Caine left an indelible mark on Deighton's spies. There is a great audio version of Berlin Game read by James Lalley. The hero is Bernard Samson, a character Caine never played, and Lalley gives Samson intonations taken from Michael Caine. And it is absolutely perfect that he does so.

The other huge advantage the novels, but not the movies, have is that Deighton is critical of his aspirational hero. James Bond never changes. He's the same guy with the same, unexamined flaws. Sexually, for example, Bond is a buffoon with strong streak of masochism in him. It's there but never faced by Fleming or any of the actors who play Bond so much as face this aspect of the hero.

The great embarrassment

With that background, let's have a look at what I think is the most cringe worthy thing about the Harry Palmer novels. Here is just one example. In The Billion Dollar Brain, our hero is arguing about the arms race with a an eccentric right-wing billionaire named General Midwinter. Midwinter is a crackpot and Deighton has gone to great lengths to make him so. Let's pick the discussion right where Midwinter has argued for a huge increase in US military spending.
'I get you,' I said. 'It's that same America that broke away from George the Third because sixty thousand pounds was too much to pay towards the cost of the military. But even if what you suggest is a good idea, won't the USSR just go ahead and double her arms budget too?' 
Midwinter patted me on the arm. 'Maybe. But we spend ten percent of our gross national product at present. We could double that without suffering; but the USSR already spends twenty percent of her gross national product. If she doubles that, boy, she will crack. Get me: she'll crack.
It goes on with Harry arguing that this approach is dangerous and that intelligence is better than an approach based on brute facts and Midwinter saying that the west refusing to stand up to the USSR was only emboldening it. The problem, as I'm sure you've figured out, is that history vindicated Midwinter.

And that is worse than if Harry had simply been wrong about things. The problem is that Midwinter is a right-wing crackpot running a privately financed extreme right wing organization. He is a character Deighton created to be a nutjob and he has more real insight than his hero! The bugaboo in all the early novels is some weird right wing amateur with aristocratic pretensions.

In a sense, that's not surprising. Liberals of the time were obsessed with the notion that dark right-wing haters were a threat to civilization. Decades of wacky JFK assassination conspiracy theories came about because liberals of that era simply could not face the fact that a hate-filled, left-wing nutcase had shot Kennedy and not a conspiracy of right wingers funded by shadowy Texas millionaires.

It's also embarrassing that Deighton and Harry were on the wrong side of the computer revolution. It's embarrassing but not surprising. Cool liberals of that era were terrified of computers. Computers were a force for depersonalization—"They've given you a number and taken away your name"—and only big corporations could afford to buy them.  In the advertising and graphic arts industries, where Deighton worked at the time he began to write, electronic technology and computers were already starting to eliminate thousands of jobs. Computers looked like they could be use to analyze and influence the buying decisions of millions of hapless consumers. Neither Harry nor Len could see the day when the personal computer would empower millions of young men like them.

Now, I point these things out as if they were obvious but the truth is that they should be obvious. Cool liberals have only partly accepted these things. The reason why Salon is mostly raving lunacy is that the kids who write for it, people who weren't even born when Harry Palmer walked the earth, are still trapped in the "new" left of their grandparents. Their paranoid fantasies are still Harry's paranoid fantasies.

Deighton, to his credit, moved on. Colonel Stok, the KGB agent in Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain is an almost loveable character. He gets all the best lines. More importantly, he, like Harry represents the efficient technocrat who will replace the bungling amateur of the noblesse oblige era. By the time of Berlin Game Deighton clearly realizes that the situation is more complicated. There is a lovely moment where Giles Trent, an upper-class nimrod who sold out to the KGB, said that his KGB controller suggested that he has secrets that might embarrass the KGB. This sets Bernard Samson on a magnificent rant.

'Embarrass the KGB! Is that the word he used? They put sane dissidents into lunatic asylums, consign thousands to their labour camps, they assassinate exiles and blackmail opponents. They must surely be the most ruthless, the most unscrupulous and the most powerful instrument of tyranny that the world has ever known. But dear old Khlestakov is frightened you might embarrass them.'
Listening to it as narrated by James Lalley, that feels like it is said by Harry Palmer because he reads the way Michael Caine would have said it. The thing to grasp is that there is no reason Harry Palmer should not have made the same rant. He doesn't because cool guys in that era didn't like to look the truth about the USSR in the face. There isn't a single fact about that evil empire in Samson's rant above that wasn't known to Harry Palmer. The difference is that Harry was the sort of guy who'd rather not have known.

And that is different from his attitudes toward right-wing nutbars and the computer industry. There really were (and are) right-wing nutbars out there and some aspects of technology really were (and are) a depersonalizing force. We can forgive Harry Palmer for failing to realize that hate-filled, left-wing amateurs would be far more of a problem in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s than the right-wing groups that so troubled his imagination. We can forgive him for failing to see the enormous possibilities for personal liberation that information technology would ultimately give us. We can't forgive him for being willfully blind to the horrors of socialism.

That said, we can look past it now. This is a deep and serious flaw but we can accept it and move on just as we accept the flaws of Sherlock Holmes. And there is something about Harry Palmer worth emulating.

Monday, March 16, 2015

I am Harry Palmer 1

I love the Harry Palmer novels. His name isn't really Harry Palmer but it may as well be. Len Deighton, the man who wrote them, has admitted that he left the character nameless in his books because he couldn't think of a name for him. By the time he got to the end, he realized that he didn't need a name so he left his hero nameless. When they made movies out of the books, they gave him the name "Harry Palmer".

They aren't really spy novels. What they are is chick lit, sort of. That is, chick lit in which male characters dominate. Why do I say it's sort of chick lit? Because, they share a cluster of values that make chick lit chick lit with one, obvious exception.

For example, the novels have an aspirational hero. Decades before Helen Fielding, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin, Len Deighton picked up the trick of writing about someone who was just like him only more so. "More so" here meaning that Harry Palmer is a Len Deighton whose strengths are magnified so are his faults, who has more sexual partners but who makes bigger mistakes in love, who has a more interesting job but also is at greater risk of being fired or even killed, who is better at fighting but who also gets beat up more often and so on.

I say "picked up" because he obviously didn't invent it. Lots of novels and poems have aspirational characters. There is something about the context, however, that makes Len Deighton and later chick lit worth considering apart from all their precedents.

Why an aspirational hero?

The reason Pride and Prejudice and Emma work in a way that the other Austen novels don't is the outsize heroines are the sort of characters you might dream of being. You might read Mansfield Park and see yourself in Fanny Price, you might read Persuasion and see yourself in Anne Elliot and you might (I do) read Sense and Sensibility and see yourself in Elinor Dashwood. When you do this, you don't imagine you are exactly like the character (I'm a man and Elinor Dashwood isn't). But you see someone who is useful to you because she is sort of like you.

Now, imagine instead a hero who is something like you only she or he did things that you might have done but didn't. In the 20th year of her marriage, Maud wondered how her life might have been different if she'd married another guy. Or maybe she wonders what her life might have been like if she'd been a bad girl at university instead of the good girl she was. Christopher loses a whole lot of weight the year he is 35 and he wonders how his life might have been different if he'd done this at 19. Or he wonders what his life would have been like if he'd kept waiting tables instead of buckling down and becoming the lawyer his mother wanted him to be. He'd gotten a lot more pleasure out of working in restaurants than he has ever gotten out of the law and, while he might not be as rich or secure as he is as a partner now, if he'd skipped university and gone to chef school he might well have his own bistro now.  Or maybe the hero does exactly what you do only they figured out certain things sooner than you did.

That's an aspirational hero.

It's fun to read that sort of story because it allows us to exercise our moral imaginations by vicariously living a hypothetical through an aspirational hero. Critics, dour puritans that they tend to be, sneer at this. They want us to exercise our moral imaginations by reading realistic stories. I think realistic stories have their place but I also think that aspirational heroes have their place.

Rhetorical context

An aspirational hero tends to be limited to a certain cultural context. You could read the Iliad a imagine yourself to be like one of its heroes but you'll find it far easier with a detective story or even Fifty Shades of Grey because these stories share the same narrow and slightly artificial cultural context. That's worth dwelling on because the problem isn't that the Iliad isn't realistic and a spy or detective novel is. The premises and plot are every bit as fantastic and implausible as the Iliad, The Lord of the Rings or Frozen. Your chances of becoming a spy, solving a mystery or owning an Aston Martin are about as slim as your chances of being descended from Greek gods. But it matters that you and I live in a world where Aston Martins not only exist but have real cultural currency in a way that Zeus and Aphrodite do not.

Another thing that Harry Palmer has in common with Chick lit heroines is that he lives in  a consumer context. Harry doesn't just drink sherry, he drinks Tio Pepe and Tio Pepe was a huge branding success in the early 1960s. When he drinks scotch it tends to be Teacher's.

Now, you may think, so much consumerism but consider Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart. Consumerism (we should real say consumerisms because there are many varieties) doesn't just sell products, it sells values and every set of values implies a sociology. The sociology that goes with Ralph and Martha is one in which a certain kind of social mobility is emphasized. To embrace their consumerisms (and it is an "ism" just like liberalism or conservatism) is to desire a society where people like you and me can use the growing wealth that capitalism creates to live like aristocrats. Not to be aristocrats fully and truly but, yew, to be something like an aristocrat. You might say, partisans of this sort of consumerism want an identity based on an aristocratic ideal.

And it has to be an ideal because the vast majority of aristocrats never came close to it. And that shouldn't appall us, although many will be appalled, because the vast majority of Knights were nothing like the ideal, nor were the vast majority of Greek heroes, detectives, crusading attorneys, investigative journalists, pirates or spies. Truth be told, heroes are far more likely to be deranged personalities driven by narcissism, sexual obsession, self-hatred or envy than anything else.

An angry young man

One of the paradoxes of any and all consumerisms is that they have to be both inclusive and exclusive. To buy a product or service is to join a community of shared value. At the same time, the only communities we want to join are ones that are hard to get into because that confirms our belief that they are worth getting into.

In the period following WW2 until the present day, economic growth has made it possible for more and more of us to aspire to live a refined, aristocratic, gourmet, connoisseur, insider or lots of other adjective-defined lifestyle. You can these things if you want but it's good to sit back with a good book and a whiskey, or to linger after a good meal with someone you love and espresso and chilled grappa, to cast a fine fly rod or a vintage fly rod, to drive a sailboat up the beat, to drive a sports car on a winding road or to tie your own bow tie. And none of these experiences are nearly so satisfactory alone as they are when they are shared with others as part of larger cultural experience.

The angry young men novels of the late 1950s played on this new potential for social mobility. Wars always create possibilities for social mobility. Interestingly, though, the novels denied satisfaction to their heroes. In Room at the Top the hero gets to the top but finds it's an empty life and then rapidly crashes. In Lucky Jim the hero finds it's an empty life but gets in by accident anyway and then the novel ends before we find out whether he gets any joy out of it.

Len Deighton was a grammar school boy in a public school world. He has admitted several times that that is what his novels are really about. They don't have the literary pretension of the angry young men novels and they are highly artificial in setting and plot but they are considerably more honest about one thing and that is what it is like to rise in social class.

More to come ...

Friday, March 13, 2015

The advice they give: "It has an uneven, thick trunk with roots bulging out of it like strained veins."

I think Salon must be in trouble. Its page has become more and more embarrassing. The descriptions of the articles have become more lurid than the tabloids. The articles, like tabloid articles, are much less lurid than the teasers. The articles in tabloids, however, are at least about what the teaser says they are about even if the truth is disappointing. Salon articles almost inevitably turn out to be about the pathetic inadequacies of the people who wrote them.

The quote in the header above is from a piece in which a woman describes her experiences with a male sex surrogate. Good, trashy stuff. Any tabloid writer in the world could do something with it. Salon's writer cannot.

But indulge yourself. Don't read the original piece. Just read the bit I've quoted in the header. Where do you think that would fit into an article about a sexually inexperienced woman in her 40s visiting a sex surrogate and finding the experience physically thrilling and emotionally threatening?

Now read the actual context:
A. met me at the clinic, which is located on a quiet city side street. Most people walking past the clinic have no idea it is an oasis for the likes of me, because from the outside it looks like a law firm, or a dentist’s office. There is a huge, old ficus tree right in front of the entrance. It has an uneven, thick trunk with roots bulging out of it like strained veins.
From there, she talks about the woman who runs the clinic. She just drops this obviously sexual image into the text the way Homer Simpson drops radioactive material, utterly unaware of the power and potential in her own words. Did she not realize what she was doing when she wrote that description? It's possible. She wrote it after the sex, and she says she has had very little sex. She gets closer to describing what sex is actually about in that one sentence than anything else she writes. I'd judge her sex therapy a waste of time and money because all she seems to have learned is how to be evasive about her own experiences. 

If you want to make your own judgment, the piece is here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A little sanity

Imagine men sitting around in a circle talking about how she called him impotent and how she manipulated him into sex, how violated and dirty he felt afterward, how coercive she was, how she got him drunk first, how he hated his body and he couldn't eat for three weeks afterward. Imagine him calling this rape. Everyone feels the weight of emotional pressure at one time or another. The question is not whether people pressure each other but how our minds and our culture transform that pressure into full-blown assault.

Katie Roiphe has long been a voice of sanity for feminism. Read the whole thing.

From my perspective, the problem is that men are increasingly being encouraged into joining just such discussion groups. Not for rape, not yet anyway, but for lots of other things.

Repeat after me, "I am not a victim!"

Friday, March 6, 2015

None of us are free?

Here is a belief you might want to hold.
None of us are free, none of us are free
None of us are free, one of us are chained
None of us are free - Solomon Burke
I used to. It's a noble enough idea and the song it comes from is a soul-stirring experience. As a simple factual matter, however, it's nonsense. I could be kidnapped and kept in chains in a basement or cave somewhere for the rest of my life without affecting your freedom in the least. The reverse is also the case; you could be kidnapped and kept in chains for the rest of your life without affecting my freedom.

Much as I appreciate every reader to come here, I still feel my freedom more intensely than I feel yours. I hope that you'd defend mine and you hope that I would defend yours. It makes sense to fight for your own freedom. It makes sense to fight for someone else's freedom because that is the right thing to do. 

What do we make, however, of the argument that I make myself more free by fighting for the freedom of a particular group?

Suppose, hypothetically speaking, a whole bunch of white people got really excited about reggae artists from Jamaica, not just because they liked the music, but because they felt that the struggle for freedom they saw in these artists somehow felt like their own. I'm just making all this up, but suppose these reggae artists had all embraced a cult that connected a messianic figure based on Christianity and dope-smoking. And suppose that the white North American fans liked smoking dope and they could cross their own desire to be able to smoke dope legally with these reggae artists and their struggles.

I know, low comedy that couldn't really happen. But it did. 

The music was pretty good and it just kept coming. Until it didn't. Like all popular cultural phenomena of the modern era, it ran out of gas after a while. But the phenomenon was about more than that. White people dug Cliff and Marley and Tosh and Bunny and Toots and many many others because doing so made them feel like they were part of a more elemental struggle for capital-F freedom. Plus they wanted to smoke dope.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why do moral facts scare us so?

One of the top-rated comments over there begins "I find this entire argument specious from the start. The phrase 'moral facts' is deliberately provocative...." I agree. 
The second "I" in that is Ann Althouse. There may be some irony in her position. That is to say, she may agree that the phrase "moral facts" is deliberately provocative but think that's a good thing. (Why would someone putting an argument in a deliberately provocative way make it specious?)

It's a respectable position in philosophy to argue for moral realism and moral facts. There are people who teach ethics at universities who would disagree with you for arguing it but no would say you were being deliberately provocative just by bringing it up. That the person making the comment cited above does is telling. It's an attempt to delegitimize an argument so you don't have to actually argue against it. (Note also that the person who uses the word "specious" clearly doesn't have a clue what it means. To them "specious" is another way of saying this is obviously wrong and so are you if you believe it. That is bullying not argument.)

The piece that inspired the comment is (NYT link) here. Short version, the Common Core curriculum teaches children to treat all value claims as opinions. The writer pretty much demolishes this by showing that the distinction between truth and opinion behind this claim doesn't hold up.

The argument is advanced by Justin P. McBrayer who teaches ethics and philosophy of religion at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. You could say a lot about that. It's a liberal arts college away from Progressive Coastland. The people who teach and attend such colleges aren't conservatives but neither are they attuned to the Jesuitical style of argument that is so valued by the sort of people who read the New York Times. (I'm being deliberately provocative.)  Outside of that rather narrow cultural viewpoint, McBrayer's approach to ethics is something that would evoke no surprise or shock.

There is a philosophical position and, it's a respectable one, that argues that all moral views are just opinion. It's called emotivism. It claims that all moral views amount to, "I do/don't do this and think you should do/not do too". Or, as it is sometimes put, all moral arguments amount expressions of approval or disapproval: "Yay for compassion and boo for murder."

It's rather surprising that this one moral viewpoint is implicit in Common Core curriculum. I hadn't realized that one of the objectives of Common Core was to impose a particular kind of morality on every child. (I'm being deliberately provocative again.)

Emotivism is a respectable view, meaning no one in a philosophy department will call you crazy for trying to argue it, but it is also true that, for reasons that McBrayer exploits well in his NYT piece; it is impossible to argue emotivism without linguistic incoherence. I say "linguistic" rather than "logical" because the result of trying to argue emotivism is to render the key terms we use in moral argument meaningless. (There is a huge difference between arguing that it is very difficult to determine whether any or all moral claims are true or false and simply saying that there can be no moral facts.)

It's interesting then that emotivism has become the dominant moral view argument of the sort of people who read the New York Times. I changed "view" to "argument" because I'm pretty certain they are hypocrites on this. If an NYT reader was arguing with a rapist she would not accept even for a second his or her contention that her claim that "rape is wrong" was being just a matter of opinion and that claiming otherwise was deliberately provocative. She would treat it as an incontestable moral fact. Confronted with the example of countries where rape is not treated as a serious crime, no NYT reader would accept the claim that people in these other countries simply see things differently.

Why do intelligent people instinctively embrace a position that can't be argued for in any plausible way? I think we can get an answer to that by taking a little challenge. Open a file and type out a list of your moral facts. This isn't a test and no one is going to hold you to it. If you prefer, type out a list of things that you might consider as possible candidates to be moral facts but you are reserving your judgment about whether they actually are for now. I think you'll find that every single one of your moral facts is a rule combined with an explicit or implicit claim that anyone who happened to find your list and read it has a duty to obey that rule.

That's why the notion that there might be moral facts scares us.