Wednesday, December 16, 2009

murphy's hope

Can we all just get along?

-- Rodney King, May 1, 1992

Evil does exist in the world.

-- Barack Obama, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 2009

Murphy, they say, was an optimist. I’d like to think that’s so; in which case he would be a man after my own heart. Murphy’s grand strategy would then be revealed as hope, though protected by tactical pessimism. They say in the profession of showbiz that you can die of encouragement. Hope can kill us unless grounded in reality, and we only learn what’s real by successive exposures of falsehood. Murphy’s observations on human and cosmic perversity help us to be truly hopeful.

He has a lot of observations. I’ve perused them on a poster, in the basement room of Annie Moore’s Pub on East Forty-Third Street, just outside Grand Central Station. If you try to please everybody, he says, someone won’t like it. This is more than a joke.

Murphy doesn’t just mean that it’s hard to please everybody. He’s not urging us on to greater effort, to find and please that last wayward antagonist. Murphy’s optimism is deeper than that. A tragic philosopher, Murphy knows that there’s something in the project that destroys itself. It’s like the proverbial toy box with a switch on it – turn the switch on and a hand comes out to flip the switch off. Except that before the hand goes back in the box, you notice that it’s holding a gun. Try to please everybody and the intention itself will offend someone. It’s a good way to create a new enemy.

We liberals keep thinking that everybody is like us. We’re really good at discussion, so we keep thinking the world can be resolved in a discussion circle, and everybody wants to help out. If we could only do it right, that is. If we could find just the right language, just the right rules of discussion, just the right process to filter out all oppressions actual and hypothetical, past present and future – then humankind would come to consensus and history would end. But not everybody is liberal. Not everybody wants to talk it out. Not everybody wants to get along. Liberalism bears the birthmark of a particular manger, a very specific social location. We are a party to history, not its impartial judge. We’re well off, and well educated. Notice who it is, in our constantly elaborating imaginations of the Perfect Discussion, who set the rules.

This is not to say that we’re specially wicked. We’re no more wicked than those disgraceful rascals who don’t listen to us. But we’re just about as sinful as the usual run of humanity, with our own local besetting sins, and we inherit from our traditions the peculiar blinders of our faith, blinders that we don’t see because they enable our vision.

No one should be surprised that Obama believes there is evil in the world. If you didn’t know this before you voted for him, you deceived yourself. He said it during his campaign, at Saddleback Church. It’s one of his core beliefs. It places him in the middle ground of an older liberalism, from a time when fascism had been defeated at the sacrifice of sixty million, and communism (that succubus of intellectuals) had been exposed as a poisonous ragout of corruption and deceit. The tragic challenge that evil sets before us, the president says, is to oppose evil with necessary force but without descending to its level. There are no innocent choices.

Not everybody believes in the discussion circle. There are always some whose identity depends on stopping conversation. Their chosen role in a discussion is to throw bombs at it. There’s no pleasing them except by silence and submission.

“Peace! Peace!” cried Jeremiah’s false prophets, when there was no peace to keep. Orthodoxy is essentially aggressive. It’s not to be made peace with. In the present Episcopal agonies over whether to define Christianity by hatred of gays, it’s the liberals who want to “get along,” and the orthodox who refuse to sit at table with them. A century and a half ago we slaughtered the better part of a million young men because slave-holders couldn’t get along with the rest of us. Orthodox Christians have so often kicked Unitarians out of the church, that we no longer think of ourselves as Christians. Injustice knows it can never win the argument – it can only survive by violence.

The “liberal education” that I got in my prep school and my college was meant to equip me for good discussions, where everyone has a say, conclusions grow by evidence and rules of logic, and no one goes to jail or to the gallows for having spoken. These procedures are powerful. We think they are the uncontroversial way of seeking truth, but there is always someone outside the circle who doesn’t want to come in. He doesn’t want to talk, he wants to shut us down, and will do it by whatever means. We must not deform the discussion to suit him.

The liberal tradition contains much of what is good in the world, but someone always won’t like it.

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abselious said...

Thank you for this, Hollis. I guess I'm left wondering, however, how do we "oppose evil with necessary force but without descending to its level?"

Hollis Huston said...

I'm left wondering too. The tragic fact is, as Obama's favorite theologian Reinhold Niebuhr would say, all of our choices will harm someone. We have to make the best of it.