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The passion surrounding the so-called “social issues” in American politics, from reproductive rights to gay marriage, is exacerbated by the fact that to some degree “the issue is not the issue,” as the Sixties slogan held. In other words, what is really at stake is not merely the nominal subject of the debate, but also a clash of worldviews.

The United States, like other offshoots of Europe and Europe itself, is the heir to three distinct moral systems: custom, creed, and contract.

Custom is the source of one kind of traditional morality. What is right and what is wrong is determined by tribal tradition, as passed down by one generation to the next.

While customary morality in one form or another is as old as humanity, creedal morality — the ethical system of organized, scriptural religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is only a few thousand years old. Writing is a technology, and there could be no scriptural religions until that technology had evolved. Furthermore, scriptural creeds require at least some of the population to be literate. Only agrarian or industrial societies have sufficient surplus to support a specialized class or caste of clerics to serve as the guardians and interpreters of the sacred texts.
More… “The Clash of the Three Moralities”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine…it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

The birth of Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 was, for him, the least significant of all his births. Blount begat Bhlount and Bhlount begat Ra and Herman begat Sonny and Sonny begat… More…

The X-wing fighter has sunk, and only the tip of its nose shows above the lake’s surface.

LUKE: Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.

Yoda stamps his foot in irritation.

YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?

Luke looks uncertainly out at the ship.

LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.

YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

LUKE: (focusing, quietly) All right, I’ll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not!! There is no try….

The lines above are from the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the first trilogy of Star Wars movies, aka Episode V. Many of us who originally saw the 1980 film back in the theater fondly remember this scene in… More…

Imagine the school board meeting — the kids are reading some dangerous literature in English class. Murder, drunkenness, torture, madness, and not even a sliver of moral instruction. If the students weren’t already so resentful, they might even like what they’ve been given to read, it’s so cool. Imagine the class discussion about the theme of, say, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and that one boy with a heavy metal T-shirt in the back finally joining the conversation with his interpretation: “Some motherfuckers just have it comin’.”

2009 marks the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the most famed and influential writer in American history. Not only does his work entirely limn the culture, but he also created no fewer than two genres of popular fiction — mystery and modern horror — almost single-handedly. Virtually anyone in the U.S. can recite his poetry (a few lines here and there, at least)…. More…