After the disturbance and the murder in Charlottesville, I saw more than one demand that anyone who considers himself a conservative or in any way on the political right make a public denunciation of the Klan, the Nazis, and all others of their ilk. I have not done this, although I do detest their views and was shocked by the murder. There is something in me that resists making such public announcements, and I've been asking myself what it is. It would cost me nothing, really, so why not do it?I think my reluctance has two components.
The first, and strongest, is that it is a bullying accusation, saying, in effect, "You resemble certain people whom I consider to be monsters, and so I suspect that you may be a monster, too. I'm generously giving you an opportunity to prove to me that you are not." (Not very generously at all, actually, because the demand tends to come from those who already consider conservatism to be next door to fascism. I know someone who seems to believe very sincerely that the Republican Party is the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan.) The demand for a public statement of correct opinion is not made of those who are not already suspect. It's a variant on the ancient rhetorical trap of the loaded question: when did you stop beating your wife? Most people who recognize the game refuse to play it. I do.
Not very long ago at all a progressive activist took a rifle and a pistol and plenty of ammunition to a softball field where a group of Republicans were practicing for a game. It seems that he would have killed them all if he had not been himself killed by police. As it was, he only managed to injure gravely one congressman, and give a police woman, Crystal Granger, an ankle wound. It didn't occur to me to demand that my friends or anyone else on the left prove their good faith by formally denouncing the shooting. I assumed that at the very least they did not approve of it, even though this fellow apparently is generally of the same mind as they on politics, which is not the case with me and the Charlottesville demonstrators. Probably I could with a few minutes' searching turn up some leftists who did approve, but I would not take those as evidence that all did.
I expect the same courtesy to be extended to me. And if that's naive, there's not much point in my trying to demonstrate my good faith; it's already presumed bad, and the burden on me to prove otherwise, and what argument will succeed in that? I deny that my political views bear any resemblance at all to those of Nazis and Klansmen, and do not deign even to argue the point because arguing with a loaded question is a losing game, and meant to be.
But there's another and more fundamental reason that I tend not to make public statements of grief or outrage about events like the Charlotte mess. This is mainly a matter of personal temperament, but I generally find such statements a little unconvincing when made by other people, and in making one would feel whatever I said to be unconvincing. The reason is that any words I might come up with would be so vastly inadequate to the thing. What, for instance, can I say to what happened a few days ago in Barcelona, which as of right now has killed fourteen times as many people as the Charlottesville attack? To write a few words expressing shock and horror, perhaps to add, on Facebook, a few emojis signifying weeping and/or prayers, would feel absurd, almost offensive in its triviality as compared to the horror.
I don't mean to mock or belittle anyone who is in the habit of making such statements. If you do, I assume that you are expressing what you actually feel, and that you are not merely engaging in pro forma gestures. But it feels that way to me when I do it. And so I generally don't. If that makes me seem indifferent or callous, I regret it, but don't intend to do differently. Person to person, in the face of someone's grief, I'll say words that I know are inadequate, because I know that as a rule in those situations any gesture of sympathy is worth something; it is truly the gesture that matters. But publicly, in a matter that has nothing directly to do with me, and addressed to the world at large rather than to those who are actually suffering, it feels insincere. It feels like cant.
Samuel Johnson's "Clear your mind of cant" was said in a somewhat different context, but it's relevant:
BOSWELL: “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”—JOHNSON: “That’s cant, sir. It would not vex you more in the House than in the gallery: public affairs vex no man.”—BOSWELL: “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’?”—JOHNSON: “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dog on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”—BOSWELL: “Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”—JOHNSON: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”
(I copied and pasted that directly from Bartleby.com.) As often with Johnson, you have to remember that he delighted in verbal combat, and not take everything he says as the last word on the subject. I believe we all these days sometimes experience real anxiety caused by the times, and may in fact sleep less, or eat less. But for the most part it is our private joys and sorrows that really affect us, for better and for worse. As Johnson also said:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia : that's a Washington Post headline. It's a pretty disheartening contrast to the wild cries of "This is Trump's America!" that have been the progressive reaction to Charlottesville. Guilt by association is forbidden where Islam is concerned, but required toward Trump-supporting Americans.
Something else that I've seen more than once since the election: anti-Trumpers declaring their intention to cut Trump supporters entirely out of their lives. This really rather shocks me. Political differences, and even more so religious differences, can certainly, and in fact have, come between me and people I know, to the point that we don't much enjoy each other's company, and so have little to do with each other. But it's certainly not, on my side and I hope not on theirs, a deliberate act of rejection or excommunication, just a sad consequence of having too little in common to sustain the relationship. But to those for whom politics has taken the place of religion, Trump is a blasphemy, a sacrilege, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. I suppose the effect is especially brutal since he succeeds a man who was a sort of saint to them, the philosopher-king Barack the Good.
I was at a gathering of my wife's family on Friday night. There were twenty or thirty people there, and I never heard a single word about politics. I know there was at least one avid Trump supporter there, and at least a couple who oppose him, though maybe not passionately. I think this is more typical of Americans as a whole than the obsession with politics that results in the sort of animosity I described.
Yesterday afternoon I was browsing the news and, naturally, found myself thinking "How can people be so stupid?" Then I went outside and mowed the lawn in flip-flops.
I don't understand the coloring of this picture. It's the late afternoon sun a few weeks ago, but where are the colors? It does have some hints of color, so I didn't just change it to black-and-white. I use the now-obsolete photo editing tool Picasa to fiddle around with pictures, but it saves a history all modifications, and there's no record of any change to this one. Some quirk of the no doubt overwhelmed iPhone camera, I guess.