The other day, in the inestimable Strand bookstore, I found a tidy volume of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins. Edith Sitwell dissects Pride, W. H. Auden takes on Anger, and, what piqued my interest most, Evelyn Waugh writes about Sloth. What would this most vicious wit have to say about the least interesting of mortal sins?
Of course, nothing that leads to perdition can be all that dull, especially not in Waugh’s hands. Sloth, he says, is not mere laziness–”lying too long in the bath or postponing our letters of congratulation or condolence”–but rather “sadness in the face of spiritual good.” It is knowing what will lead one to success, joy, or salvation, but remaining inert because “the whole apparatus of salvation fills [one] with tedium and disgust.”
If this is the true face of Sloth–and Waugh argues deftly that it is–the Devil must be delighted by much of the political discourse he’s hearing these days. As Iraq moves closer to the elections that will cement its new democracy, the Left continues to slink from action into Sloth’s shadow, despair. John Kerry, faced with Ayad Allawi’s infectious and reassuring optimism, told the people of Iraq: “There are ‘no go’ zones in Iraq today. You can’t hold an election in a ‘no go’ zone.”
What Iraqis hear is: You can’t hold an election; your efforts will fail. Kerry has refused repeatedly to offer something besides doom-saying. The alternatives to despair are already as clear to most Americans as they are to all good Iraqis, but Kerry’s camp neglects them, opting to dwell on what has gone or might go wrong. That is Sloth.
What Senator Kerry fails to register is that, if Iraq is as chaotic and dangerous as he says it is, Allawi deserves great respect, not second-guessing. Every terrorist in Iraq today would like Allawi dead, and still he very publicly maintains that they are on the defensive, that their resistance will wither, and that democracy will take hold. Allawi has subordinated his safety and comfort to a difficult project. Can’t Kerry acknowledge that that project was and continues to be a worthy one–one that can and must succeed?
It should come as no surprise that Waugh, in his essay, comes around to military life and military enterprise as breeding grounds for Sloth:
There are…very near parallels…in those whose calling has a superficial resemblance to monastic life, the armed services…. I have seen soldiers in defeat who could not be accused of laziness. They were making strenuous exertions to get away from the enemy. Nor were they impelled by fear. They had simply become bored by the mismanagement of the battle and indifferent to its outcome. There were ill-found camps and stations in the war where men refused to take the actions which would have alleviated their own condition, but instead luxuriated in apathy or resentment…it found expression in complaints, just or unjust, against the higher command and the politicians.
John Kerry, if he would behave as commander-in-chief as he behaves now, is a perfect example of what Waugh calls a “browned-off” soldier. Bored, indifferent, mired in hatred of the “cowboy” George W. Bush–such is today’s pacifist crowd, Kerry included.
At times it seems that they resent Bush, Allawi (Bush’s “little puppet,” sneered the Times’s Maureen Dowd), and other participants in Iraq’s democratic project for nothing so much as their vitality. They suspect these players have ulterior motives–filthy lucre, oil, bloodlust, defense contracts, racism–and find it unthinkable that they might actually believe in what they’re saying.
Here’s one explanation for that parsimonious imagination: They can’t believe anyone would care because they themselves don’t care. It’s a harsh assessment, but nothing Kerry has said displays sensitivity to, or interest in, Iraq’s fate. Iraq has been abused shamelessly as a political expedient. Kerry has pointed to recent beheadings as a symptom of our failed policy–oblivious or indifferent to the fact that his insinuation will encourage even more beheadings.
It was the lowest point of what has been his tactless campaign. The message: John Kerry wants to be president, and Iraq be damned. From his supporters: We don’t want Bush for president, and Iraq be damned. These self-described pacifists, unmoved by a watershed moment in Middle East history, wallow in Sloth.
Though Kerry’s bad attitude may cost him the election, he isn’t the only one hurt by it. Perhaps the former altar boy remembers from his Baltimore Catechism that “giving scandal or bad example and inducing others to sin…may destroy the life of the soul…” The soul I refer to is the soul of this country, which has always had room in it for courage and magnanimity. There is also the new soul of Iraq, which one day will have to resist its enemies, as Waugh writes, “by the spiritual strength…husbanded in youth.” Iraq will find that strength, unless we tempt it to despair.
–Stefan Beck is assistant editor of the New Criterion.