I was hanging out with Doc in Santa Barbara the day after the UCSB CITS Forum on Digital Transitions, when he threw away one of his many throwaway lines. “Most people go wrong because they fall in love with their own rectitude. It keeps them from being practical.” Our usual scatological riffs began, so I immediately labeled him:
Doc Searls, Practicologist
I’m not sure what kind of scope we can use to peer up each other’s rectitudes, but we sorely need one. In Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine, Peter Beinart offered The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal, suggesting that old-school cold-war liberals can provide a circumspect model to lead America out of our current long days journey into right:
In America, no less than in the Islamic world, the struggle for democracy relies on economic opportunity. To contemporary ears, the phrase “struggle for American democracy” sounds odd. In George W. Bush’s Washington, such struggles are for lesser nations. But in the liberal tradition, it is not odd at all. Almost six decades ago, Americans for Democratic Action was born, in the words of its first national director, to wage a “two-front fight for democracy, both at home and abroad,” recognizing that the two were ultimately indivisible. That remains true today. America is not a fixed model for a benighted world. It is the democratic struggle here at home, against the evil in our society, that offers a beacon to people in other nations struggling against the evil in theirs. “The fact of the matter,” Kennan declared, “is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.” America can be the greatest nation on earth, as long as Americans remember that they are inherently no better than anyone else.
In other words, we are being hoisted by our own rectitude. This is a theme that many have tried to teach us. Just the other day, Musician Neil Young offered a clue when interviewed by Showbiz Tonight’s fabulously big-haired Sibila Vargas. Forgive a moment of ad wominem carping: I swear, as David Weinberger reports, these words actually escape her collagen-blessed lips: “You’ve got one song, called ‘Let’s Impeach the President’ What is this song about?”
A question so colossally dumb that Young hardly knows what to do with it.
She goes on to ask if he’s concerned that he’ll be considered unpatriotic, suggesting that “cynics” might say that Neil Young is capitalizing on the Bush backlash to sell more records and that he might not be justified in saying these things because he’s a Canadian (who has lived in the US longer than Sibila Vargas has been alive. If this made-for-TV hottie had a triple-digit IQ, she might have better questions.
Neil Young: “If you have a conscience, you can’t go through your day without realizing what’s going on and questioning, and saying, ‘Is this right?’ We have to be cognizant of the fact that we can make mistakes. That’s part of freedom. We don’t all have to believe in what our President believes to be patriotic. . . No one, George Bush or anyone else, owns the 9-11 mentality.”
She still didn’t get it. “Are you concerned about any backlash?” Young: “I’m not in the least bit concerned. I expect it. I respect other people’s opinions. That’s what makes the United States and Canada great is the fact that you can differ from your friends you can still sit down at the same table and break bread with your friend.”
Don’t miss the Anchor’s heated, pointed retort to the surprised Sibila: “It’s terrific hearing Neil Young speaking out on this very controversial subject, and, on the theme of what he said, anybody who feels that the themes of this album are motivated by the need for publicity, I think that‘s ridiculous.”
As Victor Frankel put it:
Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camps influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. I remember how one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me – the word and look which accompanied the gift.
“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
“Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good and evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
Al Solzhenitsyn Chimes In
Then there’s the Alexander Solzhenitsyn viewpoint, troubling to absolutists because he’s an even more famous concentration camp survivor, in his native Russia.
“The universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations, not between parties, not between classes, not between good and bad men: the dividing line cuts across nations and parties, shifting constantly. . . . It divides the heart of every man.”
“The Pharisees, in an attempt to discredit Jesus, brought a woman charged with adultery before him. Then they reminded Jesus that adultery was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law and challenged him to judge the woman so that they might then accuse him of disobeying the law. Jesus thought for a moment and then replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” The people crowded around him were so touched by their own consciences that they
departed. When Jesus found himself alone with the woman, he asked her who were her accusers. She replied, “No man, lord.” Jesus then said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.”
“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
Yep, we need to guard against our own rectitude and its codependent, Certitude.