Sunday, August 31, 2008

perfect systems

“ . . . systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.”
-- T. S. Eliot, The Rock

Rev. Rick Warren asked both presidential candidates whether evil exists in the world. Both said that evil does exist. By answering this way, McCain showed that he is a conservative. By answering in the same way, Obama showed that he is not exactly a liberal.

When I went to church in St. Louis in the eighties, my minister several times read from the pulpit Eliot’s prophecy against modernism – what nowadays goes as liberalism. Because I was born, grew up, now live and will die a liberal, I cannot shake Eliot’s criticism. True conservatism – as opposed to the temper-tantrum that usurps the name – reminds us that it is hard to be good, and if we are not good not much good can come of us. True liberalism – as opposed to the appeasement that usurps the name – reminds us that few will be good where good is punished, and a world that persecutes virtue cannot expect to encounter much of it.

Pronouns are crucial. The conservative is on solid ground when he speaks in the first person: my conservative self knows that “we” – in fact “I” – must be good, particularly when it’s inconvenient. When conservatives migrate to the second person, when they proclaim that “you” must be good – you who are so obviously different from “me” – they become something else. My liberal self doesn’t like the second person, doesn’t want to be caught telling “you” what to do. The liberal has seen too many surgeons who would extract a splinter from your eye without removing timbers from their own. So the liberal elides the second person into a plural and anonymous third: my liberal self hopes that if “they” will only be just, there will be no awkward evil in the world.

In the liberal kingdom no one is accountable; those who do monstrous things prove themselves to be victims. A criminal is not a sinner but a symptom of societal disease. If only the “system” were not so bad, none of this would have happened. The liberal imperative is to change “the system” so that bad things will no longer be done and, in the words of that other King, we will all “just get along.”

When Nancy Reagan said “Just Say No,” she made liberals very angry. We were angry because she was so wrong; and we were angry because she was so right. She was wrong because you can’t demand that people say no in a world that provides no alternative yeses. She was right because even where there are good yeses some of us reject them. Virtue is not always its own reward, at least not right away. A good person remembers where home is. Like Odysseus, one must strap oneself to the mast and sail past immediate sirens of real pleasure. Otherwise, no matter how well made the boat, it ends on the rocks.

The more fun we have in judging, the more corrupt our judgment. Judgment itself becomes a siren. Yeshua said, “The judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back. And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you” (Annotated Scholars' Version). Not an analgesic or an aphrodisiac, judgment is a bitter pill we must take ourselves as we dish it to others. For conservatives, judgment is too much fun; for liberals, judgment is so awful that we put it off until a better tomorrow that never comes.

I think these thoughts because in Knoxville five weeks ago we Unitarians were assaulted by an evil. By medical or forensic technicalities of assessment that do not always follow common sense, the assailant may be insane: I await the judgment of experts. But to the essential question of whether he is an agent or a victim, the most likely answer is yes – the man is agent and victim. The victim has a claim on our solidarity. The agent will be judged for his abominable act. The victim and the agent are the same person. It’s enough to make your brain explode. But we’re liberals; we’re the ones who promised to live with ambiguity. As Captains Aubrey and Picard would say, “Make it so.”

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