Well, almost 50 years have passed since I’ve apologized for being cynical. A savvy, older guy I knew, who later drank himself to death, rejected my apology, back then. “Oh, no, my friend” he said, “you’re not a cynic in the least. You are a disappointed idealist! You want the world to be a better place. That’s why you’re angry all the time.” He polished off his 6 oz.
glass of Scotch. Then, pointing wryly to himself, he said, “I am the cynic. I lost all hope two dozen years ago.”
In February’s PRT, my colleague (and my friend) Bob Brandt, wrote an excellent opinion piece decrying today’s undignified political discourse in general, and my vitriol, in particular. I think it deserved to be said. The current atmosphere is neither cordial nor polite, and most of us grow weary of the nasty, spiteful partisan debate. No dialogue undertaken in an antagonistic spirit can produce any serious gain. So, yes, Bob’s right, up to a point. My column this month considers what may lie beyond that point.
Annoyance is normal when you’re roughly startled awake. As Beatle J. C. Lennon said, “The truth will set you free. First it will piss you off. Then it will set you free.” The lion eats the
lamb, it’s true, and it’s never the other way ’round. Can you accept that as a part of God’s Plan? Can the lamb? Should we emulate Jesus and Mahatma G., responding to aggression with refusal to react, while keeping only kindness in our hearts? It’s a lovely ideal, but it’s hard to enact. If what J.C. and Buddha did were not exceptional, by now we’d have forgotten both their names.
Civility is valuable when times are good, no doubt. In times of war or dire threat, it makes more sense to shake your fist and shout. (Should Paul Revere have whispered on his famous midnight ride?) When history flips you the murderous bird, civility becomes absurd. If the house is in flames, or a bear’s in the yard and he’s hoping to snack on your kids, or vile narcissistic thugs in tailored suits (with small cute patriotic pins on their lapels) dismantle our democracy, should we maintain a gracious, civil tone? Or is it more effective, and, thus, wise, to bang some pots or break some glass and even scream out loud? How spacious is the middle ground between polite civility and outrage – even violent revolt?
Obey, conform, be nice; remain polite; and then “go gentle into that good night” without a fight? Umm, Thank you, No. Just think of all the docile slaves and Warsaw Ghetto pawns who did and died. (Each thought he’d just lay low till things cooled down. Things didn’t cool down.) I’d rather perish poking Satan in his lying eye than yield to evil without giving vitriol, or maybe even violence, a try.
We humanists are pretty slow to face reality. The world is not as we would have it be. We don’t like to be negative. We won’t think ill of anyone unless we’re really pushed, including those who hate or threaten us. We give them all the benefit of our extensive doubt. We care about democracy and work to safeguard human rights and are not often known for starting
fights. By the time we wake up and get out of the house with our boffers and capsicum spray, the other side has leveled city hall with planes and tanks. By then, the tiger is within the gate; so once again we liberals must swallow our grim fate. In God we trust. Gulag
At last, when it’s too late, we would-be pacifists will fight. Back in the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigade consisted of idealists from all over the world, including many artist/
poet types. They had no material stake in the game but loathed and feared the fascist threat enough to risk their lives and even die. In spite of the high cost, the good guys lost.
I marvel at our dopey inability to learn; our cordial reluctance to see or react. Our wishfulness and laziness incline us to deny until the truth pokes out our eye. When will we so-called “decent” people finally ever learn? Next time the world goes up in smoke,
will we wake up and face the truth or just “be nice” and let the sucker burn?