Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a symposium sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal titled: “What’s the Big Idea?” Participating were every giant brain and dazzling wit of the conservative movement you could think of: William Kristol, Charles Murray, Francis Fukuyama, Princeton political scientist Robert George, pundits Michael Barone and David Brooks, blogger/talk-show personalities Hugh Hewitt and Tammy Bruce, and many, many more.
The idea, propounded by University of Virginia professor James Ceaser, was that the American political class is highly polarized between “true blue” and “deep red,”–and the blue side, the left, doesn’t have any big ideas anymore. Big ideas are what Ceaser calls “foundational principles” that underlie (or at least used to underlie) working civilizations, nation-states, and institutions.
Foundational principles are shared ideas and points of belief about fundamental things–the nature of human nature, the exisistence of right and wrong, belief in God– that unite people in a sense of common identity to work toward political goals, whether they are ending slavery, protecting a nation against military threats, or defining human rights. Ceaser’s theory is that there are plenty of foundational principles on the right (and the principles sometimes conflict with each other, depending on which faction of the right is propounding them), but the left simply has no foundational principles these days. The left has plenty of ideas–tolerance, diversity, individual freedom, especially when it comes to sexual expression–but has nothing to ground them in, since many on the left don’t believe in God and don’t even believe that human beings are different drom animals. In a recent paper (and I’m lifting this from Hugh Hewitt’s blog), Ceaser wonders how long the left can run on empty, without any principles in which to ground its ideas:
The non-foundational position represents a utopian experiment that has yet no basis in real political science. Nothing in experience suggests it could ever work, at least for a nation that is tasked with performing an important role on the stage of world history. Without a foundational principle, even more without the moral energy that derives from a concern for foundational principle, a community cannot exist in a deep or meaninglful sense. And without this energy, a community would be unable to extract from its mmbers the added measure of devotion and resolve that are needed for its survival and for undertaking any important projects. What is involved, ultimately, inthe shift to non-foundationalism is an evacuation of what makes a nation, When the illusion of a genuine nation existing without foundations is finally acknowledged –if it is acknowledged– political life will return to the real political question: which is not whether to have a foundation, but rather which one(s) to embrace and in which mixture. This conclusion only gets us back to where sensible political life begins, which is finding foundational remedies to the problem most incident to foundational thinking. On that ground, and that ground alone, let the polarization continue.
I’ve been thinking about foundational principles becuase I’ve been watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” the ABC doc series. It’s not your mother’s “Marcus Welby.” It’s not “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” It’s not even “E.R.,” in which the characters lead tormented lives but behave like heroes in the emergency room. “Grey’s Anatomy” is….well, “The O.C.” set in a hospital: two generations of beautiful people (young interns and parent-figure older doctors), soft-rock music substituting for dialogue, and much, much body-swapping.
The “Grey” of “Grey’s Anatomy” is intern Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) who’s sharing her anatomy with married brain surgeon Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Yeah, Dempsey makes me go weak at the knees, too, but um, morality of adultery aside, isn’t it sexual harassment to have sex with a younger person whom you supervise on the job? Is it really in the best interest of the patients to be using spare examining rooms to examine each other in? Other activities at “Seattle Grace Hospital” seem equally ethically unmoored. Another female intern gets a crush on a heart patient, so she manipulates his test results to move him to the top of the transplant list. Uh, what about the patient who used to be at the top of the list?
Indeed, patients die right and left at Seattle Grace, to the point at which the viewer has got to ask: Why bother with modern medicine? Why not try the neighborhood leech-woman? The flat EKG’s pile up like Lindsay Lohan’s weight-gain charts. In one episode all the characters decide to doff their scrubs, don tuxes and evening gowns, and hold a teen-style prom–right in the hospital while the patients are croaking!
The practice of medicine is a “foundational” profession. That is, it can credibly exist–that is, actually benefit people–only if it rests on bedrock ethical principles. The Hippocratic Oath, the notion of the physician as healer subject to higher moral standards than ordinary people–those are the groundings of people’s trust in doctors and why they willingly let themselves be drugged insensate so that someone can cut their heart out and lay it on a table.
The moral confusion and personal-life chaos in a show such as “Grey’s Anatomy” suggests a crisis of self-confidence in the medical profession that has parallels in other elite professions: the law (think “Ally MacBeal”), the liberal mainline clergy (think the short-lived “Book of Daniel”). The blue-voting cultural elite that these professions represent has lost its foundational principles and is trying to limp along on…what? Fancy education, memories, sentiment, the callings of their hearts, whatever. These professions can?t run forever on empty, and neither can nations.