Shut up loser, stop moralizing!

I cannot think of a single solid political activist who plasters his or her car with bumper stickers.

It is common for perceptive adolescents to feel disempowered and generally ill-at-ease. There are few institutions more arbitrary and trite than high school. So it is natural that somewhere between ninth and 12th grades, the constant surveillance and pious preaching by health and civics teachers gets to the adolescent and a sense of genuine impotence emerges.

Such was the case for me personally, approximately 20 percent the path of life that men pursue/ I found me in a darkling wood astray/ For the direct way had been lost to view.

And then, lo!, a voice did speaketh to me! It told me not to despair, for there was a way to rise above the evils of the world and the terrible people who perpetrated them. The voice told me that I should become very outraged, truly earnest and super moral – “a real normativo.”

I was told to advocate for some utopian future in which we would all be really, really nice to each other – forever and ever. Even if I could not change the world, I could still make moral pronouncements, issue-biting condemnations of the elites and all of their horrible crimes.

Things began to crystallize around 1998, when I was a freshman in college. I was a terrific liberal humanist, and as I was taking philosophy classes, my arguments kept getting better. (“You see, vegetarianism will maximize utility!”)

1998 was a good year for the terminally outraged: An abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed (one person killed) by a superstitious, right-wing yahoo, and Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming.

It was the year that Bill Clinton – wonderful Democratic president that he was – killed untold thousands in a vain effort to distract everyone from caring about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against a dreaded al-Qaida chemical weapons facility in Khartoum, Sudan, which turned out to be the primary source of pesticides and pharmaceuticals for that impoverished country.

Oh yes, my moral sensibilities had been truly offended – like, every day.

And so I did the obvious: I started writing letters to the editor. Then I one-upped myself and became an editorial writer. I dashed off letter after letter, editorial after editorial, railing against the above atrocities and many others.

Evildoer after evildoer felt the sting of my moral condemnation, and I urged others to follow my example and issue similar condemnations of the Powers That Be. I was on the prowl for the next offensive, ignorant, mean or (gasp) insensitive action to be outraged by.

True, no war criminal ever trembled at the thought of being morally eviscerated by Nick Woomer on the editorial pages. But that didn’t matter, because I knew in my heart (and my readers knew that I knew) that conservatives, homophobes, racists, polluters – that whole crowd – were BAD PEOPLE.

But then, lo!, another voice appeared unto me and spoke!

In fact, this is him.

Here he is – interrupting my righteous flow of words, before I can even get to my point. Right in the middle of my column. Speaking (well, sort of) to you, the reader. The nerve of this guy! What gives him the right to just steal my column away like this?

This outrageous! He can’t do this! But he just did.

Politics is concerned with the seizing, holding and exercising of power. The task for any political movement is to come to power without betraying its fundamental values in the process. Basking in, or pronouncing, your moral superiority is not effective political action – in fact, it’s not really action at all.

At best, expressing moral outrage is an empty gesture. But I think there are two good reasons for liberals and radicals to divorce their moral sentiments from their politics.

The first reason is that moral condemnation is expansionist. There is, for example, a lot of outrage directed at the Bush administration. The tendency among those of us on the left is to think of President George W. Bush and company as purely evil, totally unworthy of emulation in any respect whatsoever.

This is a shame, because – at least in the context of strategy – there is much to admire. Leftists should envy and respect, not disparage (and certainly not condemn) Karl Rove’s political ruthlessness.

Secondly, I suspect many people feel that moral condemnation is an adequate (possibly preferred) supplement to actually doing something. Personally, I cannot think of a single solid political activist who plasters his or her car with bumper stickers (for example “If you are not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” etc.).

Dwelling on the wickedness of one’s political opponents is unwise, ineffectual and threatens to distract from the actual goal: to wield political power and not be subject to it.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]