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Pray for the Sneetches that Persecute You
In the 1980s, the belief that God was inflicting a horrible, deadly disease on people as a punishment for their sins and to make an example of them was the kind of thing trafficked in by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other low-rent bigots of that kind. Today, it is an idea put forward by, among others, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and the comedy writers of Saturday Night Live.
About 700,000 people in the United States have died of AIDS since the beginning of the ongoing epidemic some 40 years ago; COVID-19, which has been with us less than one year, has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and it is not unlikely that it will outpace, perhaps even far outpace, AIDS in its body count, though it is possible that new treatments or a vaccine will prevent that. One of the people suffering from COVID-19 is a 74-year-old man who is, for the moment, president of these United States. “In a moment that feels biblical,” Dowd writes in her invariably banal New York Times column, “the implacable virus has come to his door.” Imagine having written that about, say, Michel Foucault in 1982 or Freddie Mercury in 1987.
Saturday Night Live reveled in Trump’s being shown up by a partnership of “science and karma,” which is a strange pairing. Alec Baldwin, who frequently appears as Trump on the sketch show (it is his second-best performance in the role of a New York City–based Republican), explained that it was all in good fun, because the White House had insisted that the president was in no real danger and — get this! — Alec Baldwin apparently now takes statements from the Trump administration at face value. That’s no less silly and contradictory than “science and karma” (whatever you think of karma, it is not scientific), but the writers of SNL don’t take such propositions any more seriously than Maureen Dowd does the adjective “biblical,” which she seems to take as a synonym for “poetic” or “ironic.”
About that karma: Westerners cut off from Christianity — and, hence, cut off from the main stream of Western civilization — have an especial weak spot for vaguely understood Eastern concepts. Karma may be the most abused of them, but zen is in the running, too: When I was living in Manhattan, I used a very good housekeeping service that called itself Zen Home Cleaning. I doubt very much that Japan has a Benedictine Maid Service or that China has a Carmelite Laundry. (Trappist brewers, though.) The culturally deracinated may not entirely understand the nature of their predicament, but they cast about instinctively for a paradigm within which to organize their prejudices and sensibilities, and so sundry exotic spiritualisms come into fashion because they provide the illusion of an organizing principle without all that yucky “Thou shalt not!”
Christianity has suffered many insults in the West, but none so great as that inflicted upon Buddhism, an intellectually and spiritually sophisticated religion reduced by the aspirations of the middle-class middlebrow to a style of interior decoration. Walk through an affluent neighborhood in Austin or Palo Alto and see how often the Buddha himself appears as a garden gnome, usually in a yard with one of those signs reading: “In This House, We Believe Love Is Love, Science Is Real, Black Lives Matter, No Human Is Illegal . . . .” The little Buddha in the shrubbery is not the Buddha but an advertisement reading, “In This House, We Are Star-Bellied Sneetches!” It is a marker of self-satisfied self-regard, one that — like any item advertising the tolerance, kindness, or empathy of its owner — tends to be displayed by the most vicious and vindictive kind of person.
Zen is a category of housewares on Amazon, and karma is how American cowards say, “He had it coming.”
No one would think of entering into a serious dispute in science or engineering with no preparation or education (oh, almost no one), but most people feel perfectly at ease shoving their ignorant little noses into religious, ethical, or political issues with which they have no real familiarity, one of the many unfortunate consequences of generalizing from democratic procedure to a more general ethos of equality in democratic mass culture. And so political commentators end up writing and talking like sophomore humanities majors who become fascinated by the evocative words in “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” or “General Relativity” without understanding very much about the actual concepts associated with those magical-sounding phrases, clumsily wielding ideas that are too heavy for them to handle.
In the matter of Trump’s coronavirus infection, this brand of willful moral illiteracy finds its full expression in essays such as Dan Kois’s offering in Slate, “How Should We Feel About the Suffering of This Man?” Kois, a human “Coexist” bumper-sticker of a writer, slaps together a half-assed manifesto for hate, and he recruits the usual assortment of sympathetic victims to gussy up his own well-off-white-guy hatred in borrowed robes of victimhood: “The summer of 2016,” he writes, “was the summer of learning to hate Donald Trump: for his racism, for his horrific treatment of women, for his cozying up to dictators, and—undergirding it all—for the possibility, however remote, that he could take all these qualities into the White House.” This is an example of self-righteous hatred, which says: I don’t hate for my own sake but hate selflessly, on behalf of the deserving.
This is a fairly common kind of thinking for the Left: On Friday, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara wrote: “I think killing little Romanov children was justified.” The socialist dream dies hard: The killers lionized by Sunkara and likeminded American leftists were incompetent but persistent executioners, who shot the Romanov family but failed to kill the two teenage girls, whom they then attempted but failed to kill with bayonets, finally shooting them at point-blank range. The executioners, as Edvard Radzinsky put it in The Last Czar, “had no fear of heaven.” And so it is with their epigones.
Sunkara’s chef’s kiss to child murder came in the context of a discussion of Trump’s illness. His interlocutor, Alex Colston, wrote: “Obviously, you should want the bastard to die. How is that controversial. [sic] . . . Maybe justice demands more than being sentimental about Trump’s humanity when he bears significant responsibility for over 200,000 deaths.” And, if that is not categorical enough: “I hope he dies, and so far as we are wishing, I hope he realizes the country wants him dead.” Note, again, the cowardly recruiting of “the country” to the cause of private hatred.
(I suppose I must go ahead and note here that Sunkara is a sometime contributor to the New York Times, which published some frothing and foaming calls for your favorite correspondent to be fired and shunned for the purported harshness of my political views, and that Colston labors at Basic Books, which shortly thereafter offered to acquire a book from me and then backed down under internal criticism. My shocking view is that children should not be murdered for political purposes, or other purposes.)
Kois, in his Slate essay, brings up the issue of reciprocity. Some people, including the president’s political rivals, have comported themselves with at least some degree of grace and decency during his sickness. “Would Trump have behaved similarly under similar circumstances?” Kois asks. “It’s hard to imagine.” It is not hard to imagine, but it is impossible to believe. It is harder still, apparently, to understand that this is irrelevant — unless you see the world more or less the same way Trump does.
Because Trump is an emotionally stunted and intellectually immature man, reciprocity is his moral North Star, because reciprocity is simply another way of asking, “What’s in it for me?” Trump in fact frequently and explicitly frames his moral outlook in terms of reciprocity: If they’re nice to me, then I’ll be nice to them. He famously said of federal coronavirus aid to the states: “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also.” His tweets are full of “treated me very well” and “treated me very badly” — he’ll use “us” if he’s feeling particularly presidential — and he once went so far as to say “reciprocity” is his “favorite word.”
The evolutionary biologists tell us we are evolved to practice and expect reciprocal altruism. We have that in common with fruit flies and baboons. What is unique to us is the ability to transcend the narrow narcissism of self-interest, including the narcissism of collective self-interest. But that has to be learned.
Trump isn’t a self-consciously wicked man. He isn’t the Marquis de Sade — he’s a child, and, like all children who have not been taught, he believes that if a certain course of action benefits him, then it is good, and if it causes him discomfort, it is bad. (And what is true of Trump is true of Trumpism, which insists that the president’s dishonesty and cruelty are virtuous.) That was what Trump was telling us when he was mocking John McCain for his time spent as a prisoner of war: McCain’s ordeal — which he himself could have relieved at any time with no expense to anything other than his honor — caused him terrible suffering, inflicting on him injuries from which he never fully recovered. Trump evaded service when his nation called, inventing some transparent horsepucky about bone spurs. McCain spent years being tortured and confined, and Trump spent his pre-bankruptcy years spreading his inherited wealth around New York in Eighties Playboy style — and, from Trump’s point of view, this incontrovertibly demonstrates the rightness of his course of action. How could McCain have been doing the right thing if it cost him so much?
From that point of view, Trump embraces fundamentally the same moral philosophy as Kois, Sunkara, Colston, et al., in which “justice” — or “karma” — means “I get what I want,” including, as Kois so directly puts it, suffering for those whom one hates.
There is an alternative approach, that we might extend the grace and love we would have for ourselves and our families not only to the stranger and the rival but to the enemy, that we would bless them that curse us and pray for them that despitefully use us, even those who persecute us, from whom no reciprocity can reasonably be expected. That we would not reserve grace and charity for those who deserve it and return it but instead extend it without hesitation to those who don’t. This requires something more than what Colston dismisses as “sentimentality.” It requires a radically different way of thinking about how to be a human being, one that cannot be learned from the New York Times.
Among the many desirable qualities of such an approach is that it would distinguish us from the baboons.
Words About Words
I wonder whether the editors are paying attention over at NBC. Reporting about sexual-abuse accusations against Dallas pastor Rickie Rush, the local NBC affiliate writes:
“[Dallas Morning News reporter Miles] Moffeit said he did not deny the charges but said through a statement from his lawyer the claims appear to be specious and without evidence.” And the very next sentence is a quotation from the pastor’s lawyer: “Pastor Rush vehemently denies these accusations.” What we have here are two claims that cannot both be true: Either he denies the charges or he does not. Attributing the non-denial to a third party, in this case the Morning News reporter, doesn’t remove the problem or the question.
You see something similar sometimes with beginning reporters or amateurs who believe that inserting the word “allegedly” into a sentence magically dissolves questions of fact. What they neglect is that it matters a great deal who is doing the alleging. If an anonymous person calls a reporter on the telephone and says that the mayor is an embezzler, you can’t just call the mayor “an alleged embezzler” without doing some work — some, you know, journalism. That’s one of the problems with anonymous-source Washington reporting: It is a useful and valid form of journalism, but you have to be pretty careful with it, because any halfway decent reporter can find somebody who will claim almost anything about a public figure. Think about what the QAnon nuts say about Hillary Rodham Clinton or George Soros. You can’t just slap an “allegedly” in front of something and call it a day.
If, on the other hand, the mayor is indicted on embezzlement charges, then he’s “an alleged embezzler.” Or, if a member of the city council accuses the mayor of embezzling during a public meeting, or does so on the record, then you can write “the councilman alleged that the mayor is an embezzler.” The word “alleged,” with no real reference to who is doing the alleging and under what circumstances, confuses rather than making plain.
“Did not deny the charges” has become a kind of cliché, one that often sits there on the page begging for some reporting to be done. But much journalism is a prisoner of cliché: A headline in the Daily Mail says, “Video shows moments after cop was struck by gunfire while responding to Breonna Taylor’s apartment.” Police-beat reporters often end up talking and writing (and thinking) like the cops they cover, which means they will give you such examples of journal-ese as “responded to the scene.” Unless the officer in question says, “Holy crap! Look at that scene!” or pukes or faints or something, “responded to the scene” is not what you want. Officers may arrive at the scene, secure the scene, etc. In this particular case, the police were not “responding to” Breonna Taylor’s apartment but entering it, guns drawn, in the dead of night — facts that matter to our understanding of the story.
Some ways of writing illuminate. Some obscure.
A reader points out this sentence on The Corner: “In August, there were a slew of pieces accusing Florida governor Ron DeSantis of manslaughter.” He asks if it shouldn’t be “there was a slew” or “there were slews,” and, of course, he is correct. Slew, from the Irish sluagh, means “multitude,” and it is singular. This is a pretty common error, one I make fairly often myself. I’ll write something like, “A school of fish swim across the bay,” when I should write “a school of fish swims,” because the subject of the sentence is school, not fish. “A team of mules were hitched to the plow,” instead of “A team of mules was hitched to the plow,” etc. I think that what happens (to me, anyway) is that when I am writing I sometimes get to the end of a sentence without remembering the beginning of it, in which case my tendency is to want to match the verb to the nearest noun, which is not necessarily the right noun. Because I sometimes write very long sentences, I am more vulnerable to that error than many others are.
Question: So why does “One dozen eggs was broken” sound wrong?
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Home and Away
You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. The date of publication has been moved back a couple of weeks because of epidemic-related interruptions at the nation’s presses, and it will now be coming in mid-November.
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The religiously inclined rock singer and songwriter Edward Kowalczyk wrote a very simple line that has stuck with me for a long time: “We all get the flu, we all get AIDS.”
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