15 May The Rules are the Rules
[T]here exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent….
It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be….
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
Russel Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles,” (Adapted from The Politics of Prudence (ISI Books, 1993)).
Not long after the murder of his son Santino in a trap set for him by Don Emilio Barzini on the Jones Beach Causeway, Don Vito Corleone calls a meeting of the Five Families (and all the other associates who came as far as from California and Kansas City and all the other territories of the country). They discuss the war among the families and, more pointedly, the cause of that war, “narcotics.” Don Corleone remains resistant to the idea of dealing drugs, because they’re “different” somehow from the rest of the mafia’s activities – gambling, liquor, and prostitution (which “are things that most people want these days but are denied to them by the pezzonovante of the Church.”)
The scene, obviously, plays a key part in the story. It resolves several immediate issues and lays the groundwork for Michael Corleone’s return from Sicily and eventual ascension to power. At the same time, though, it also provides a glimpse into the twisted logic behind the notion of “organized crime.” These are men who kill one another’s kids, who have no qualms about committing violence against their fellow men. They traffic in illegal gambling and prostitutes. They made their money and earned their power running and providing illegal booze during prohibition. Nevertheless, they believe that they are “honorable men.” They have a code of conduct, a belief system that enables their criminal activity while allowing them to believe that they are behaving morally. Don Joseph Zaluchi from Detroit goes so far as to say that he’ll accept the drug trade in his city but doesn’t “want it near schools” and doesn’t “want it sold to children” because that is “an infamnia.”
Gambling? Sure. Hookers? Why not? Liquor? Who’s it gonna hurt? Murder? You bet! But we just gotta have “No Drug” zones around the high schools. We just gotta! “Honor among thieves,” is, we believe, the term of art here.
Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a long piece on the social life of the recently murdered tech exec and founder of the Cash App, Bob Lee. Long story short, his social life was “sordid”:
In certain wealthy tech circles it is known as “The Lifestyle,” an underground party scene featuring recreational drug use and casual sex.
A successful tech executive named Bob Lee liked to hang out with that crowd, according to people who also participated. So, too, did Khazar Momeni, the wife of a prominent plastic surgeon, these people said.
On the afternoon of April 3, a Monday, the partying took a dark turn. According to San Francisco prosecutors, Ms. Momeni’s older brother confronted Mr. Lee about her. Was she taking drugs or doing anything inappropriate, he wanted to know. Hours later the brother, Nima Momeni, stabbed Mr. Lee with a kitchen knife and left him to bleed out in the street, prosecutors alleged. Mr. Momeni, who was arrested on suspicion of murder, is being held without bail….
Mr. Lee’s death has transfixed San Francisco. At first viewed by critics including Elon Musk as a symbol of the city’s increasing street violence, the episode instead laid bare risk-taking behavior in the upper reaches of Bay Area society, fueled by cocaine and designer drugs….
Mr. Lee was serious about his work in the tech industry, but he was also dedicated to having fun. He took ecstasy, ketamine, cocaine and attended all-night raves all around the world, including at Club Audio in San Francisco, according to his friends.
Once, a club offered to admit people for only $5 instead of $20 if they went in with no pants. Mr. Lee obliged, said his friend Harper Reed, the chief executive of General Galactic Corporation, a financial technology startup, who also went pantless.
You get the point. The guy was a super-rich, super-indulgent libertine. And speaking of libertines, the best part of this story comes early on, in the fifth paragraph, when the author notes:
Libertine though it might seem, the party scene is governed by an unwritten code of conduct, said Devon Meyers, a friend of Mr. Lee who saw him a few days before he died. “There is still an understanding of consent and boundaries,” he said, adding that, if someone gets drunk and handsy, “they get excommunicated very quickly.”
“Excommunicated” is an interesting choice of words, dontcha think? Later, we hear more about this “code of conduct”:
During the pandemic, with the San Francisco party scene largely shut down, Mr. Lee spent months traveling around Los Angeles and Mexico, said Gift Kerati, a friend of his from Thailand who said she spent much of that time with him.
Ms. Kerati, who met Mr. Lee at a private party in Acapulco, said that Mr. Lee had several girlfriends during that time and other women he was sleeping with, but that he was always respectful toward them.
“He is literally one of the best human beings I’ve ever met,” said Ms. Kerati.
First, we don’t doubt that he was “literally one of the best human beings” Ms. Kerati ever met. But that strikes us as more of a commentary on the people in Ms. Kerati’s orbit than anything else. Second, we don’t doubt that Bob Lee was a good person in many ways. But that’s not the point.
Rather, the point is that Mr. Lee, Ms. Kerati, the rest of the people in “the Lifestyle,” and even the reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Kristen Grind, all prove the point that Alastair MacIntyre made in the quote we used above the Oppenheimer piece we wrote last week: people today have no conception of what morality is or what it’s for. We know the language and the attitude (“code of conduct,” “consent,” “boundaries,” “excommunicated”). But “we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”
When MacIntyre speaks of the “practical” comprehension of morality, he means that people have lost their understanding of the fact that the rules are the rules FOR A REASON. The rules are the rules because, over centuries, our forefathers learned lessons – over and over and over again – until they understood what type of behavior was more likely to cause problems, trauma, and strife and what type of behavior was less likely to do so.
We don’t want to seem like we’re making light of Mr. Lee’s murder or, worse still, blaming the victim here, but here’s how we see what happened to him. We don’t have empirical data to back up this claim, but our suspicion is that you are less likely to be stabbed to death by the brother of the married woman you’re sleeping with if you don’t sleep with married women than if you do. Is it just us?
This is not to say that all of “the rules” are eternal and unfailing and must never be changed. That’s not the case. Flexibility and vigorous but incremental change are often required to manage changing circumstances. Still, the baseline serves a purpose. There are behaviors and attitudes that are deemed dangerous and “immoral,” not because they are denied by “the pezzonovante of the Church,” but because experience has shown that the outcomes of those behaviors and attitudes are almost always destructive. Gift Kerati talks about all of Bob Lee’s girlfriends and the other women he slept with and how considerate and wonderful he was to them. She doesn’t mention Lee’s wife, however, or his two kids, who are now fatherless because one of the women he was sleeping with had an angry and unstable brother.
This entire story of Bob Lee is tragic. It’s ugly and awful. Whatever he did, Lee did not deserve his fate. No one deserves such a fate. Still, if there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that “the rules” don’t represent repression or denial. Rather, in most cases at least, they represent wisdom and experience.