Freedom and community

September 19, 2014


Two powerful impulses propel the modern soul.  One is the wish for an ever-expanding circle of personal freedom.  The other is a craving for authentic community among like-minded persons.

Immediately, trouble arises.  We walk the earth twitching with tension, bent under the weight of a terrible contradiction.  My ideal dispensation would make of life a canvas of infinite possibility and experimentation, over which I am supreme, an artist-tyrant, attended all the while by friends and neighbors whose behavior I have scripted to careful specifications.  I must be free – all others, authentic.

I suppose most people today would shrink from using the term “artist-tyrant.”  And of course, realistically speaking, they are right to do so.  As a rule they only crave a little adventure, nothing more:  a temporary release from the rigors of social existence.  A week at a nudist beach, say.  Or a grotesque tattoo.  Or milder still, the loud public embrace of one of those moralistic causes, like gay marriage, that absorb our neo-Victorian minds.

The difficulty is that these tiny assertions of freedom take place in an empty theater.  I crave applause.  In the way of all humanity, I require validation, which can be delivered only by a community working under shared rules, but everybody else is at that nudist beach alongside with me.  We are all together, but nobody’s there.

Most of us would also probably deny wishing to script the human race into a supporting cast or approving audience to the exercise of our freedom.  We just ask for a little companionship.  We love freedom, but hate loneliness.  But this resembles the argument of the cheating husband who demands that his wife remain faithful.  It’s morally false.

So let me make the point very plainly.  Freedom and community are not rights to be claimed, or virtues to be internalized, or even conditions to be achieved, whether by luck or willed effort.  They are problems to be wrestled with, painfully, at every level of human existence, from the personal to the cosmic.

Freedom is a problem because it’s empty.  It must be filled with something.  To be sure, I can decide to fill it with community.  But what exactly does this mean, and how does one go about it?  The path to community, it turns out, is twisted and steep – mortal mistakes are possible along the way.

The problem with community is that it can’t be produced or tailored on demand.  It can only evolve on its own terms, over time.

From a certain perspective, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be viewed as the political and economic liberation of hundreds of millions, who nevertheless felt lost, cheated, and enraged by their new condition in life.  Many abandoned the old faiths and ideals, without having a clue about what to put in their place.  Such people, whose numbers were legion in Europe, hungered after a messianic future or an invented past:  hence the cult of authenticity preached by Martin Heidegger and his intellectual brood.  Authenticity condemned liberal democracy, capitalism, industrial life – the present order, with all its confusions and compromises – to oblivion.  It justified nihilism now for the promise of community, maybe later.

Given the temper of the times, it was probably inevitable that these existential cravings would assume political form.  The mass movements of the last century failed to reconcile the tension between freedom and community, but were highly successful in identifying culprits.  For the proletarian, it was the kulak and the bourgeoisie.  For members of the Aryan race, it was the Jew and the gypsy.  Happiness was possible only after the extermination of these selfish troublemakers.

Fraternity, converted into political action, invariably ends in holocaust.  This remains as true in our day as it was during the horrors of the twentieth century:  President Obama, who seems to think that mere passage of time has lifted the human race above such irrationalities, is perpetually shocked by events.   Today a seeker after an invented Islamic caliphate (offspring of Heidegger rather than Muhammad) must begin his quest with the elimination of troublemaking groups:  Yazidis, Shias, Christians.

It is sometimes maintained that mass movements represent a flight away from freedom, to a more childish and obedient state.  I can imagine a different motivation.  The mass movement offers freedom of a peculiar kind:  that of the criminal.  It holds the faithful together by a powerful bond:  the knowledge of having spilled rivers of innocent blood.

The new millennium has stumbled on a new manner to organize community:  the (mostly) virtual network.  These are freely chosen, egalitarian, and clustered around an object of true interest – computer games, say, or some political predilection.  One joins the network at will, participates as much or as little as desired, and departs without penalty.  Networks lack the intrinsic virulence of the mass movement.  None has ever built an extermination camp.  Yet they, too, in their own way, are problematic.

The problem with networks lies precisely in their openness, in the extraordinary degree of freedom allowed to participants.  There are no headmen, no fuehrer principles, no hierarchies or ruling castes – but also no rules, no plans, no programs, not even the outline of an ideology to guide positive action.  The network grows up and blows up at the speed of light.  Only a powerfully persuasive shared point of reference can keep it together:  almost always, this has meant being against.

The community that sprang up around the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page in opposition to the Mubarak regime in Egypt demonstrated the power and the problems of networked action.  The page, managed on inclusive and interactive principles by a few individuals – notably Wael Ghonim – mobilized hundreds of thousands to participate in the street revolt of January 2011.  An authentic loathing of the regime held this network together.  Members lacked a shared ideology or program, but were united against the status quo. Once Mubarak, object of their loathing, was shoved offstage, neither the site, nor any of its members, nor Ghonim, had any positive contributions to make regarding the future of Egypt.  Power devolved first to an old-fashioned mass movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and later to the same institution that had produced Mubarak – the military.

Eternal negation is the price of online authenticity.  To retain the (short) attention of participants, the political network, much like the mass movement, will end up slouching toward nihilism.

Entry into a network is easy.  All I need is an opinion and a cell phone.  I can cash in my freedom to oppose this or that – capitalism, say, or President Obama, or a dictator like Mubarak, or a semi-dictator like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.  But the path to community, I repeat, is torturous and often painful.  At the end of the day, much more than opposition is demanded.

Initiation into a traditional community was never comfortable, never easy.  Terror and pain guarded the gates to adulthood.  Many reasons have been given to explain the harsh ceremonies of traditional societies, but the simplest answer works best for me:  the higher the cost of entry, the greater the value of membership.

The same principle holds true for contemporary life.  Something must be yielded before something can be gained.  In this regard, the oath administered to new US citizens, which requires that they “renounce and abjure” past allegiances and “protect and defend” the Constitution against all enemies, is a true rite of passage.  The Europeans have struggled to develop a similar process.  At one time, the Dutch asked immigrants to watch a video showing naked women and same-sex lovers, to test their Netherlandish tolerance.

The English, having absent-mindedly become “British,” can’t articulate what that means or what the penalty should be for renouncing and abjuring – witness the panic around the vote for Scottish independence.  Today twice as many supposedly “British” Muslims fight for the Islamic caliphate than for the British armed forces.  These are not immigrants but the children of immigrants:  young people lost to crime and violence on that twisted road to community, beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition.  I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation.  But what am I saying when I use those words?  Conversion, properly understood, means revelation:  it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life.  The experience is always traumatic.  Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

The agony endured is every bit as physical as it is spiritual.  St. Paul “fell to the ground” and became temporarily blinded by his revelation on the road to Damascus.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James records cases of conversion attended by “unconsciousness, convulsions, visions, involuntary vocal utterances, and suffocation.”  Community at the cosmic level can’t be achieved simply by knocking on the door of the right fraternity house.  Something – sometimes everything – must be yielded, if something is to be gained.

In a sense, such transformations are a consequence of personal freedom and choice:  but that’s not how it feels.  The convert feels chosen by a higher power.  The path to spiritual community appears to run through what James termed “self-surrender.”  The abiding paradox of personal freedom is that it often achieves the most complete individual regeneration by forsaking the individual’s will and its desires.  My freedom to alter my life in some wished-for direction becomes more potent the less I concern myself with my life and plans and directions.

I think this paradox throws light on our present condition – on our conflicted hunger for more freedom and more authentic community.  Freedom, on the moral plane, is not about personal achievement or private satisfaction.  The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson well understood, is identical to the practice of virtue:  insofar as I possess human dignity it is because I freely choose to act in ways that benefit my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my church, my town, even my country, no less than myself.

Sartre said that hell is other people.  Granted that French philosophers, like children with disabilities, should be treated in special ways – but that is still a remarkably obtuse and wrongheaded judgment.  Authentic community is other people.  There is nothing else that can stand in their place.  Personal freedom is the basic unit of moral information in my interaction with others.  And it may well be that, at the psychological level, we as a species have been selected to feel satisfaction in the exercise of generosity and justice toward the people around us, and to be penalized with tension and unease when we allow our private cravings to consume our freedom of action.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

June 9, 2014

I have just published a book dealing with some of the themes that are discussed in this blog.  The title is The Revolt of the Public, the subtitle is The Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, and the link to Amazon is below.

I hope readers of Vulgar Morality will find it down their alley…

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

Buy from Amazon

The great adventure

November 1, 2011

Most people I know feel endlessly fascinated by the lives of others, yet consider their own existence to be little more than drudgery and toil.  This is a peculiar but universal trait of our species.  We are obsessed with what others do – and how they do it, and why.  Television, with its reality shows and crime documentaries, profits greatly thereby.  YouTube pretty much exists to meet this need.

Other lives hum with the background music of drama and adventure, while ours, alas, plod on in the cadence of dull prose.

It doesn’t matter if the lives are fictional so long as they are “not me” – in fact, as Hollywood and the book publishing industry know, falsehood may actually enhance our interest.  The most intriguing person who never lived may well have been R. R. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment.  At least I think so.  Objectively speaking, it sounds pathological to weep over a naked lie:  instead, it’s all too human.

I don’t know why we find other people so fascinating.  Mostly they aren’t, at least not any more than we ourselves are.  We probably succumb to a combination of empathy and fear.  We are hardwired to connect emotionally to the inner lives of others, and to predict their behavior relative to our own survival.  People also learn largely by example, so all the peeping, gossiping, and story-telling may have a didactic purpose.

I have no problem with snooping into my neighbor’s business as a sort of hobby, an idle sport:  but I want to argue, against the odds, on behalf of my own life and yours.

There’s nothing strange about the feeling of drudgery.  Life, all the proverbs and commercials tell us, is short – but the day is long.  Duty and necessity fill up most of the hours.  We yearn to find meaning, to impose a grand theme, uniquely ours, on the passing of time, but instead we feel like that feather in Forrest Gump, blown here and there by external forces.  Helplessness and boredom turn us against our own life’s tale.

I have lived long enough to understand how tactical and moment-driven, and therefore mistaken, this perspective is.

Human life is a range of possibilities derived from the circumstances of birth.  Some encounter hardship and suffering.  Some are privileged and pleasurable – the existential equivalent of a stroll in the park.  But all entail choices, and the consequences are unknowable in advance.  I may drop out of college and become Steve Jobs or the dishwasher at Chili’s.  I may marry the girl of my dreams and experience a nightmare or joy to old age.

Every life is a mystery even to itself.  My life is a mystery to me.  I make choices and things happen which force yet more choices on me.  The connections seem unclear.  Causes and effects are nebulous.  Hamlet called death the undiscovered kingdom, but that description pertains to the living future as well.

Each of us is Columbus, sailing into the unknown.  All of us must discover the world anew.  The keepers of culture and tradition labor to keep our lives bounded, but each of them is an individual, each has made a choice and internalized, in a personal and subjective way, a set values and moral directives meant to guide a community, an entire civilization.  The most timid and hidebound human being is a discoverer of continents.

If we embraced a sense of adventure commensurate with the uncertainty of the future, I suppose we would all drop dead from excitement.  However, a bit of buzz in the bloodstream about the surprises which lie ahead is justified at every age.  Kids must stare down monsters in the shadows.  The young must bump into and stumble around an alien world crowded with adults.  The middle-aged – likeliest to forget life’s adventure – share decades with spouses in uncertain intimacy, raise children with yet-untold stories, navigate careers with unknown destinations.

For the old, death permeates all calculations:  every action is taken with a mysterious final reckoning in mind.

The doors to adventure stand open, even to the end.  The worth of a life, the measure of the man, is his relation to the adventure which happened to be his lot.  None is important in itself.  None is insignificant either.  This is not a matter of egalitarian principle but of mathematical complexity.  Abraham Lincoln and Jonas Salk may have had the power to free or to heal, but their achievements rested on an infinite number of obscure circumstances caused by anonymous individuals.  The latter are the wings of the butterfly which bring about the hurricane.

Greatness depends on smallness:  no human life is so mean or deprived that its adventure isn’t big with consequences.

Here I might be accused of playing the glad game, portraying the world in a Panglossian light.  Some lives, it might be argued, are too brief to matter.  They add nothing to the store of our experience.  Others are contemptible.  Others still are vicious, morally depraved.  What is the worth of their adventure?  Wouldn’t we be better off if these hadn’t taken place?

Excitement about tomorrow, too, may be proper for a well fed, well educated, well-to-do character – for me:  maybe not for the Alzheimer’s patient, though, or the mother of a dying infant in Somalia.  To endow the latter with the emotional life of the former, my accuser might claim, can only be the product of bourgeois romanticism.

But I am not playing the glad game.  This is not a glad season of my life.  I’ve lost people close to me, family members and neighbors – and it is precisely their loss, the pain of it, but also the appalling arbitrariness, which led me to wonder why we fail to value the story of our own lives.

When I say adventure I don’t mean a Disney World ride.  An adventure is a test.  Most of the time, we fail.  That is the way of the world.  The excitement I feel arises in the determination to endure, even advance, in the face of failure.  I would not judge the suffering Somali mother by the same standards I judge myself, but every moment she maintains her integrity is a triumph, even if she falls apart the next.  The adventure is a test of truth:  when truth is lived, we are redeemed.

Adventure makes a single demand:  that we become worthy of it.  Once we perceive life in these terms, we must engage in a struggle to measure up.  Most of the time (I repeat) we will fail.  The contemptible and vicious fail systematically.  They deny the adventure.  They are unworthy of the lives they were given.  Their fall into the abyss serves as a terrifying reminder of the stakes for which we are playing.

The last temptation is to escape into falsehood.  If I’m consumed by the drudgery and triviality of my days, I may deny who I am.  I will then lie to myself about myself, and to all around me about my place in the world.  This is a form of suicide.  I disintegrate into a shifting shadow, a specter of deluded vanity, visible only to those in the same condition as me.  My ruling emotion will resemble a criminal’s:  fear of being exposed.  My unforgiving enemy will be the truth.

I expect most people lie to themselves in moments of weakness.  I have done so often enough.  But when I think of the people I love who are now gone forever, I don’t want to lie to myself about them, I don’t want to falsify or prettify their stories:  I want to honor their truth as I understand it.  My life’s adventure is bound with theirs, and the whole crew of us, living and dead, belong with the sweeping self-willed trajectory of the human spirit, a cosmic migration to a strange land.

We may deny ourselves in fear and weakness, like St. Peter, before the cock crows, but can’t escape the truth in the light of day.  We are headed somewhere unknown, at an uncertain pace, for mysterious reasons – and we might as well enjoy the ride.

Deep thought

August 27, 2011

“At some level, we accept that the future is unpredictable, but we do not know how much of that unpredictability could be eliminated simply by thinking through the possibilities more carefully, and how much is inherently random in the way that a roll of the dice is random.”

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious

On the moral imperative of knowing what to know

August 19, 2011

Not so long ago, the universe of knowledge was limited.  A single person could cover it – indeed, every educated person was expected to cover it.  Outside a few esoteric corners abandoned to cosmologists and German philosophers, knowledge was said to be held in common:  shared.

In that lost world, authority ruled.  I use the word in the most benign sense.  Knowledge must be separated from nonsense, and someone had to do the job.  The educated public felt grateful.  Its work was simplified.  Whatever disputes or uncertainties occurred within the ranks of authority caused hardly a ripple elsewhere.

The situation today is almost entirely reversed.  Knowledge pours down like a monsoon, day and night, in every place.  As it multiplies beyond comprehension, the word knowledge loses its descriptive value:  it’s really information, a cosmic explosion of random bits.  Only when we string the bits back together inside our heads does it reassume the form of knowledge.

In this vast chaos of information, one person can only grope.  The most brilliant and best-informed can know little of the whole:  for practical purposes, almost nothing.  The whole is unfathomable, as if designed by a deranged quantum physicist or a drunken disciple of Hegel.  All of us are ignorant of even the most salient features of the landscape we traverse.

Those vested with authority stand rattled and confused.  They can’t help us.  They can’t help themselves.  The lucky ones squat on well-funded specialized islands of knowledge, participating in quaint hierarchies, behaving as if the accreditation which props up their self-image rests, or at least should rest, on universal law.  But most have been swept away in the deluge.

We can debate whether the present moment is favorable to democracy:  but it is fiercely anti-authoritarian.  The public has awakened, and found authority to be no guide to the way forward.  To reasonable questions about the blizzard of bits within which all of us must now function, authority – government officials, scientists, academics, journalists, artists and poets, billionaire financiers – return transparently hackneyed, defensive, unknowledgeable answers.  Those who represent authority seem rather to impersonate it.  Basic facts and principles are objects of loud, indecisive disputes.  They don’t know.

The public has awakened, and is in open revolt.  Threatened in their livelihood and stung by the collapse of their prestige, those vested with authority have used the organs of mass communication to preach a cataclysmic vision.  With no one to separate knowledge from nonsense, the public, they claim, will be free to indulge its fractured prejudices, its contradictory appetites, degenerating finally into warring barbarian bands.  The rise of the public means the end of civilized social life.

Such claims come from wounded pride, but have a grain of truth in them.  In nations as distinct and well-established as Egypt and Britain, the foundations of society appear to be tottering.  Here at home, mobs of young blacks have attacked whites for no particular reason.  Apparently, the militant rage of the public can be ignited by sociopolitical grievances of long standing or by simple boredom with the established order.

But these are signs and omens, not evidence of a demonstrable trend.  There remain in the new dispensation enough shared points of reference that we can easily talk to one another across partisan, ethnic, and class lines.  Some shared topics are generated by the world:  the brute facts of nature.  Many more are produced by culture.  Others crystallize mysteriously within the digital storm:  the phenomenon of virality.  One job of education in the new environment will be to teach those shared points of reference which, in the public’s view, sustain and enrich social life.

In fact, education – always of strategic importance to a democracy – will be revolutionized.  The old ideal of covering all general knowledge must necessarily be abandoned.  Accredited teachers and professors who cling to their authority will either die in place or be shoved, ungently, out the door.  They will be replaced by global talent which must compete for the public’s attention.

Given a near-infinite universe of information, the new educational approach will focus less on content and more on navigation skills (including search and research), source assessment, and tools.  The task is to make members of the public, who are also citizens of a democratic nation, capable of finding data bits and stringing them together inside their heads to create knowledge.

Once we attain this capability, the obvious question is how it should be applied:  what knowledge each of us ought to seek.  And here morality, which has been lurking in the wings of this story, at last takes center stage.

Superficially, many responses are possible to the question of what knowledge to seek:  but morally only two matter.  One answer is to abdicate personal responsibility for knowledge.  A person can stand pat, or put himself in the hands of some other person considered an authority.  In the first instance, the mind will be tyrannized by the environment:  mental life will feel like a series of accidents, void of knowledge, adrift among the random bits churned up, arbitrarily, by the chaos.  In the second instance, one surrenders autonomy to specialists who, though masters of minutiae, at best have no clearer vision of the big picture than the public itself – and at worst abuse science, or pseudo-science, to promote anti-democratic projects.

The alternative is to choose the domains of knowledge we wish to create:  to forge a purpose, wrestle with boundless chaos, impose our will on information.  These are acts with profound moral consequences.  They imply a new freedom, unavailable under the old authority-driven system.  They endow the seeker with a certain majesty.  The subjects chosen are of course important, but only in the moral sense.  A nihilist who seeks to learn methods for blowing up innocent people is evil.  A student of manga or computer games, so long as he is imposing himself on his subject, in terms of human dignity is no different from an expert on Renaissance art or a practitioner of atonal music.

The production of knowledge by an autonomous public will appear eccentric, because beyond the shared points of reference our current hierarchies of intellectual value were erected by authority, and mirror the esoteric products of accredited professionals.  By the same token, the possession of such knowledge by amateurs, and the abolition of ancient hierarchies, will transfer moral responsibility on every question of importance to the many from the few.  This in turn places a burden on every individual member of the public.

In a world drained of valid authority yet drowning in informational chaos, we must each choose to choose:  and we must know what to know.

Bill Gates, meet Francis of Assisi

April 12, 2011

Our values descend from two very different sources, calling for opposite types of behavior.  It shouldn’t be wondered at, therefore, that we who live in the wealthiest, most successful country in the world often suffer from a bad conscience.

The Greeks gave us a love of excellence, defined as worldly success.  Christianity preached the supreme merit of spirituality, defined as renunciation of the world.  Like all raised in the civilization of the West, we Americans are caught in the grip of these irreconcilable commandments.

In practice, we go after success, and – like the Greeks – we idolize the hugely successful, although we tend to focus more tightly on money and fame.  We can’t get enough of Bill Gates, despite his goofy looks and anodyne public personality, because of his stratospheric level of worldly success.  Nothing else about Bill Gates calls to our attention:  only that he’s a billionaire many times over.  But that’s enough for us.

At the same time, we find the disproportion between his wealth and success and ours somehow sinister if not downright evil.  Bill Gates is a plutocrat, a monopolist, a bully to everyone smaller than himself – which, in the context of money, includes the entire human race.  We recall the Gospel saying about the camel and the eye of a needle, and allow ourselves to feel morally superior to Bill Gates.  He’s a bloated materialist:  a worshipper of Mammon.  We abide by purer values.

This struggle occurs at every level of success in American life.  In Europe, it’s even more intense, but far less interesting:  Europeans restrict bloated materialism to the sphere of the state, and appease their consciences, insofar as they have any, by identifying the state with the community.  In America, it’s personal.

I said that we are a successful country.  Every last one of us who has enjoyed any degree of material success at length comes to a dark night of the soul, when he must ask:  what is it for?  Is my striving after money worthy or shameful?  Can I simply enjoy the fruits of my labor, or am I going to hell like the Gospel predicted?

Americans are religious but practical:  we lack a tradition of spirituality.  The most we have ever mustered have been momentary spasms of revivalism and idealism.  These were emotionally satisfying, but – except for the occasional failed commune – didn’t amount to much in the way of renunciation.  Thoreau, for example, had to purchase his shack from an Irishman who was really poor.  His life in the woods was a romance funded by the commerce-minded nation he so deeply despised.

True renunciation belongs to an older tradition, embodied in the life of Francis of Assisi.  Born (it should be noted) into a wealthy commercial family, Francis stripped naked to signify his contempt for the worldly vanity of his father’s ways, and embraced dire poverty, humiliation, and self-torture as his own.  He was, like Thoreau, a romantic, and served as a model to the writer in his love of nature – but he was in earnest in his craving for spiritual attainment, and never walked away from his own harsher version of the Irishman’s shack.  He died in his mid-forties, worn out by mortifications.

The Church never knew what to make of this strange character, at once rebellious and otherworldly.  It seemed hard to dispute that Francis had behaved as Jesus prescribed:  whether this was good or bad, the spiritual lords of the time were uncertain.  In the end, the Church compromised by making Francis a saint while taking over his order, which by then, in any case, had become quite successful and un-Francis-like.

A mythic Francis has lived on in Western literature and film, portrayed as the ultimate bohemian, living refutation of the West’s material strivings.  In this guise, his main influence over the rest of us has been to ruin our peace of mind.

High achievers in America end up unloved and unhappy.  They have won the race only to wonder why it was run.  Most of them, with various degrees of self-awareness, wish to edge toward spirituality, and given their characters and our culture there is but one path for them to follow:  they must give back their money to some worthy cause.

The two sources of our moral descent, interestingly, also provide two modes of giving.  One goes back to Rome and the idea that the great men of the republic are expected to pay for its public buildings, aqueducts, and highways.  This is called magnificence, and it’s done publicly, for show and to earn the admiration of the populace.  The other mode was called love by St. Paul, and charity by the Internal Revenue Service.  It’s private rather than official, modest – often anonymous – instead of ostentatious, and earns no credit or admiration unless one believes in heaven.

We can see that Bill Gates, in his later life, has been much preoccupied with his money:  he desires, after making so much, to give some of it away.  His mode is blatantly Roman.  It would be tough for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to operate anonymously.  He travels in poor countries offering the contemporary equivalent of aqueducts:  cash grants.  The causes are no doubt worthy, and while all this is to the greater good, our admiration is somehow restrained if not altogether curdled.  We appreciate Bill Gates’ magnificence but we understand its mixed motives.  It really is the case that money can’t buy love, either in St. Paul’s sense or the typical American’s.

What of the silent givers?  They are by definition invisible.  The impact of their gifts is unknown.  The secular benefit is null.  Yet countless Americans who aren’t particularly religious give anonymously.  They don’t look to heaven, or to any other reward.  Maybe, in their hearts, they feel they have balanced the ledger:  they have succeeded materially, and shared the wealth in secret.  Maybe in this way they fortify their consciences, or attain some small measure of spiritual grace.  But still:  to give without hope of reward.  That’s curious.  It begs a question, and any answer must involve a moral judgment.  I find it impossible to explain this large group of Americans unless I endow it with a certain nobility of character.

The great moral structure of the world

March 6, 2011

I am troubled by a word President Obama kept repeating in his recent statement on the Libyan uprising:  “accountable.”  The president said he intends to “hold the Qaddafi government accountable” for its atrocities.  He said it again:  “Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable.”  He used the word four times in all.

This is not a new rhetorical device.  In earlier remarks on Libya, the president made this sweeping generalization:

Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities, and face the cost of continued violations of human rights.

“Accountable” is a deeply moral term – and, indeed, the president’s use of it is in the context of Qaddafi’s barbarities against his own people.  But I would like to know what he means by it.

Webster’s International Dictionary defines “accountable” as “Subject to giving an account:  answerable.”  Answerable to whom?  Webster’s provides a helpful example:  “every sane man is accountable to his conscience for his behavior.”  Muammar Qaddafi’s sanity is a topic of controversy these days – my take is that a lunatic rarely hangs on to power for 42 years – but his lack of a conscience is beyond dispute.

Asked about the violence in the country he rules, Qaddafi responded, “My people love me.  They would die to protect me.”  This is not a man who is going to hold himself accountable for his behavior.

Of course, there’s a simpler explanation.  When the president of the United States asserts, “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave,” it’s reasonable to assume American power will make it so – that Qaddafi isn’t accountable to his own forgiving conscience, but to us.

Yet nothing in the president’s statement suggests the slightest exertion on our government’s part to help see Qaddafi off.  When asked about US military intervention, the president spoke vaguely of contemplating the “full range of options” and having “full capacity to act” – but seemed to imply that any action would wait on the development of a humanitarian crisis, and on “consultation with the international community.”

President Obama does not sound like a man who will personally hold Qaddafi accountable.

A transgressor who won’t answer for himself must be held accountable by a higher authority.  It is notorious that, among sovereign nations, no such authority exists.  The UN is just a theatrical stage where nations scuffle for advantage.  As Ortega y Gasset observed, there isn’t even such a thing as international law, because true law would require a higher court of appeal, and that would require a surrender of sovereignty – something no government on earth would willingly contemplate.

President Obama is in no way a fool.  He must know all this.  If he isn’t willing to give the order to bring the Qaddafi regime to account, then in what sense does he believe the man will be held accountable?

I believe I know the answer.  It’s speculative, but I’ll stand by it.

The world, according to President Obama, is contained by a moral structure resembling a powerful gravitational field:  all human events are embedded in this force, and are driven to their inexorable conclusions by it.  The great moral structure of the world is like fate with Judgment Day attached.  It acts as the impersonal author of history, rewarding certain actions, punishing others.  Only the wisest perceive the flow of the moral structure – and they have deciphered the course of history.

That the president counts himself among the wisest should not be in doubt.  He warned Qaddafi’s henchmen to heed the “way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Qaddafi” – and there followed another assertion that they will be held accountable for violence against the population.  In defending US inaction, President Obama argued:  “The region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history…”

“The region will be watching,” “The whole world is watching,” “violence… will be monitored” – an abiding feature of President Obama’s view of the world is fear of being caught out while on the wrong side of history.  That is what he believes has happened to Muammar Qaddafi.  Qaddafi’s goons are on YouTube killing unarmed civilians.  He thus “has lost legitimacy to lead.”  The great moral structure of the world, rather than any person or nation, will hold him accountable.  He will have no choice but to step down.  “It is the right thing to do.”

If I’m right in my interpretation, the president is about to commit a tragic error.  It’s an error because morality doesn’t pertain to the world but to human action.  And it’s tragic because, in the face of turmoil and suffering, he has found a pretext for doing nothing.

The president is like a lifeguard who sees a man drowning in the middle of the river, and walks away thinking, “The current will bring him safe to shore.”  But inactivity is an action:  if the man drowns, the lifeguard will be accountable.  Personal responsibility, not public exposure, is the engine powering morality in the real world.

Each of us is accountable for those actions within our power to do:  nothing more, but nothing less.  The Libyan people are being tormented by a moral monster, whose grip on power is slipping and who is fighting back without scruples or restraint.  Qaddafi’s defeat is not predestined.  His victory would set a grim precedent in the area.

The United States has it within its power to intervene in this bloody scene.  We aren’t duty-bound to overthrow Qaddafi – just to do our best to preserve decency and protect our interests.  To stand by brandishing words and proclamations is to play a game of chance with human life.  If that is President Obama’s policy, let’s pray that luck is on his side.

Otherwise, the Libyan people will – rightly – hold him and us accountable.


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