Andrew Klavan over at PJ Media has a thoughtful piece prompted by the sight of the reinauguration as president of the fellow who may be the most viciously anti-American, anti-Western, grossly in-over-his-head demagogue in public life. The man’s political instincts are — proudly, and self-proclaimed — straight from the gutters of Chicago, a place that’s become a metaphor. Back in the mid-1800s, they raised, physically raised, the city by about four feet in order to get it out of the slime of the lake-side swamp where it had been built. They may as well have saved themselves the effort. We as a nation have now twice wished that man, who has enthusiastically embraced the Chicago ethos, on ourselves as our leader.
Klavan — correctly, as I would suggest — sees the explanation for Dear Leader’s comfortable win after a campaign that strenuously avoided any discussion of his actual performance in office not in the usual analysing-the-horse-race of the television talking heads, but in something deeper, something much less comforting. He sees it in human nature itself, and more particularly in the nearly universal craving for personal validation. I’m good. I want what’s right. I am virtuous because I want what is virtuous. These are ur-motives of modern human existence.
Klavan spins his ruminations on this drive for validation in the context of thinking about a new(ish) play, The Party Line, written by PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon and his wife, Sheryl Longin. [Note: I haven’t read the play. Yet.] The play is an interwoven tale of two stories, both taken from events which actually happened. The first is Walter Duranty, Stalin’s lick-spittle, whose cover-up of the Holodomor earned him a Pulitzer which The New York Times still has not repudiated. The second is of Pim Fortuyn, who had the poor manners to point out the implications of the Religion of Peace permeating Dutch society, and was assassinated for his troubles. Both of those stories and, just as important, the reaction of the people Thos. Sowell describes as the Deep Thinkers to them, are what gives Klavan pause. The play, so Klavan, is about “the triumph of credo over truth, the ferocious commitment that decent, intelligent, educated people make to virtuous-sounding ideals and well-intended programs that are, in fact, the sure road to atrocity.” He concludes: “I’m embarrassed to say it, but in my youth I thought humanity stumbled slowly but surely toward the light of truth. Now I believe that we cling desperately, even violently, to the sense of our own virtue — and that the light of truth, which reveals us as we are, is our natural enemy. We would rather destroy the world than know ourselves.”
He’s right, of course. We do cling violently to those things which we think make us virtuous. The less effort and sacrifice it imposes on us, the more we like it. This phenomenon is something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his notion of “cheap grace,” grace which asks little from its claimant. Some — including some of my near acquaintance — have taken this idea and from it derived a duty of Christians to embrace socialistic preferences in public policy. I admit I have difficulty making all the dots in those arguments connect. As near as I recall, the injunction was to give one’s own property to the poor and follow Jesus oneself, not plunder one’s neighbor and give his stuff away, and imprison or beggar one’s fellow citizens if they do not follow Jesus, all the while standing around in evening attire drinking expensive liquors, eating fine foods, and enjoying the frisson of superiority with one’s equals. I also must admit I do not fully understand how Christianity can be not merely consonant with, but can actually make obligatory, policy choices which can be mathematically shown to increase misery, want, and encroachments on humanity’s moral agency which is the very essence of our nature’s as God’s children.
It is, you see, that moral agency which alone separates us from the beasts of the forest in any meaningful sense. We are not the only creatures to use language (whales communicate over vast distances with aural methods). We are not the only ones who use tools (other primates do). We are not the only ones who are socialized into intricate and closely bound organizations for our mutual benefit (most canids are, ditto lions, elephants, and other species). We are not even the only ones which engage in warfare (chimpanzees and, if memory serves, bonobos as well do). Now, it’s true that thanks to opposable thumbs we have very advanced fine motor skills across a whole range of activities, but in terms of the basic locomotions of existence, whether running, swimming, or flying, we are out-classed by enormous numbers of animals. No. What makes us as humans special among the beasts is our moral agency; we alone have the ability to choose between virtue and iniquity.
What makes marxism and socialism so monstrous is not the mere fact of the heaps of corpses which those ideologies have piled up in less than 100 years. What makes them abominations is that in their determinism, both as an historical understanding of human history and as prescription for action, they negate the moral agency of the person. I am not good or bad, my existence is not a blessing or a curse to my fellow men, based upon what I do but upon my “membership” in something they call a “class” the existence, extent, and characteristics of which is defined by something they describe as “production.” I am not to be dealt with, either by my fellow citizens individually or by the state in which we exist, as an independent moral actor, attempting in the flawed way of human nature to discern the Truth, the Right, and act upon it in my daily existence. No: I am to be allocated, slotted, constrained, confined within channels that others have chosen for me based upon what they determine — at the level of millions of individual humans — to be abstract “justice”. This nirvana-like end-point of their thinking shows how sloppy it actually is. Marxism and its milque-toast bastard daughter socialism proudly describe themselves as being objectively materialistic. “Justice” is, however, not an external material state but an internal moral condition that is inherent, present or absent, in the human being and his conduct. Justice is not something you have but rather something you do.
Klavan’s musings put me in mind of a film I saw a couple of years ago, Good. The protagonist is a professor in 1930s Germany. At the film’s beginning the Nazis have just come to power and, in the middle of a class, there is a disturbance outside. He goes to the window and it’s the students piling up books to be burned. If I recall the scene correctly, all his students but one, a drop-dead gorgeous girl, go streaming out to join in. He’s horrified.
The rest of movie takes you through his evolution. Of course he gets involved with the girl, and it’s she who, during a walk in the park, suggests that maybe they attend a function just to see what it’s like (or something of that nature; I’ve slept since I last saw the movie). The professor also has a mother who’s in the advanced stages of senility and must be Dealt With; a book of his speculating on the subject of euthanasia is picked up on by the authorities and he’s invited into the orbit, so to speak. Eventually he becomes what is spun as a “consultant” to the SS, which works out to be what you’d expect: about as independently affiliated as an “adjunct” member of the Gambino family. At some point he protests (feebly) when someone identifies him as associated with the SS that he prefers to be known as a professor. Ho-ho, the viewer is tempted to say. And of course being a professor he starts the movie with a very learned, very successful Jewish friend. By the end of the movie he’s looking for what happened to his friend, and all he can find is that he was deported to a specific camp on a particular date.
But that is, as they say, only the plot. Several reviewers at IMDb.com take the movie to task for showing the supporting characters as being too one-dimensional, too wooden, too stock. I suggest that the subject of the movie is the progressive degradation of one specific man’s soul from righteous outrage to willing if unthinking bureaucrat drudge pushing papers into files, across desks, into drawers, heedless of the fact that it’s people he’s destroying. It’s not about the character development of the others; in the universe of the movie they are not loci of action but functional devices. The girl is of course a siren, a beautiful woman who softly purrs into Our Hero’s ear that, oh come on, it can’t hurt just to look. The Jewish friend is not just A Friend; he’s the human face of a catastrophe. He’s the face, the voice, the soul, the human connectedness which the protagonist must abandon on his journey into savagery. The professor does try to help his friend Get Out; even fraudulently buys him train tickets to leave. Of course it doesn’t help and the friend is swept up in a pogrom; it’s the professor’s new wife who’s ratted him out.
The professor lamely tries to hold onto his identity as such, and both his interlocutor and the viewer know it’s much, much too late in the game for that. One of the reviewers at IMDb specifically mentions that line, but doesn’t give it the dramatic weight it deserves. You have to understand that “professor” in Germany means something quite a bit more than “I teach at a post-secondary institution.” This is a culture in which “professor” is not just an academic but a social rank as well. When greeting a senior academic and a junior academic in each other’s company, do not dare address the elder and the younger both as “Herr Professor”; that would be perceived as grossly insulting. The elder is “Herr Professor Doktor,” and the younger would be simply “Herr Doktor.” If writing to someone who has doctorates in multiple areas (not at all uncommon in Germany), one would address the envelope to “Herr Professor Dr. Dr. So-and-So.” Thus it’s extremely significant when the Good Professor vainly tries to clutch on to his pre-Nazi identity. You understand that his boat has long since pulled away from the pier, and there is no way back. The poor sod doesn’t get it himself until the last scene in the movie.
What Good is about is the ease with which we humans adapt ourselves to, internalize, what is convenient, what is aggrandizing to us, what we are told is Truth and The Right, rather than what we know to be true. The professor starts the movie understanding the repugnance of the Nazis; he knows it without engaging in any complex critical exercise. By the end he’s just one more cog in a machine that grinds out dead bodies at a rate unmatched anywhere outside Stalin’s domains. And each step of the way there was someone with him to usher him onwards, someone to pat him on the back, someone to compliment him on his learning and erudition.
So Andrew Klavan is, I’m afraid, terribly, awfully, depressingly right. The worst of it is that I’m not sure that, having climbed down we as a polity can ever rise again. It’s much easier, after all, to blow up a building than it is to erect it. At 10:00 p.m. on February 13, 1945, the Frauenkirche in Dresden was one of the architectural treasures of Europe. Thirty-six hours later it was a very tall pile of smoking rubble, and so it stayed for 45 years. Having embraced a principle of social and political organization that panders to the most corrosive instincts of the human soul, can we truly expect the broad mass of humanity to turn away from it? Can we un-ring that bell?