Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Question of Who

The critical thing is not one’s moral principles: rules, after all, can be interpreted in endless ways; and it requires an excess of metaphysical optimism to believe that there is only one right course of action and that we’re always able to see it. What matters is the point of view taken up by the moral actor. Theological ethics make sense if we think of ourselves as servants or slaves, i.e. individuals whose task is to understand the orders of their masters and faithfully observe them. Kantian ethics, but also many versions of utilitarianism, are the ethics of free individuals who assume that it is their responsibility to make decisions. That’s why such secular ethical systems so offend the religious: the follower of the categorical imperative is guilty of the sin of pride since he takes up the station of the lawgiver that ought to belong to god alone. The religious also imagine that an ethic of autonomy is an invitation to arbitrary and perhaps murderous freedom, the creed of Columbine. Those who have thoroughly thought through the implications of human liberty will disagree: the recognition of one’s freedom is the coldest of cold baths. The dangerous people are those who attain the authority without accepting what goes with it: as the Greeks knew and every age learns again, a tyrant is a slave with too much power.

No Commercial Possibilities

Pederasty Deflated is a book that will never be written, though its general outline is easy enough to rough out. Such a text would point out that the obsession with sexual crimes against children is rather recent and that the salience of the issue is more than debatable given the fairly obvious fact that children are harmed far more by poverty and the lack of good health care than the ministrations of horny priests and peculiar uncles. Like the witch craze of the Renaissance and Reformation era, the SVU hysteria of our times is a clear instance of displacement, the refocusing of anxieties on a convenient target. It’s almost as if the need to get upset about other people’s sexual behavior has a constant mass and the pederast now bears a much larger proportion of this burden now that it has become socially unacceptable to hate homosexuals and cohabiting unmarried couples. The persecution of sexual deviance is also politically useful, as we see in the predictable way in which any person who threatens ruling interests will be predictably accused of sexual irregularities, often involving children. Just as the war on drugs has long served to erode everyone’s civil rights, the interminable campaign against child pornography is a crucial element in the state’s campaign to tame the Internet. There are, of course, people who prey on children, just as there really are people who want to blow up buildings for political and religious causes; but the response to both pederasty and terrorism is so ludicrously disproportionate as to call for an explanation in terms of the psychological, economic, and political utility of these inflated threats. Unfortunately, while various people have addressed the hyping of terrorism, it is a far more daunting prospect to confront the other great inflated monster.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Editorial

Somebody once told me that my essays sound like editorials by which I think he meant that they were measured, sound, and reassuringly dull. I suppose I’d rather have a reputation for daring, but you can’t escape your nature. Character is destiny, as Heraclitus pronounced long ago; or, to put it another way, even though an excruciatingly gradual vengeance would be the most terrible, no superhero is ever going to be named the Sloth. My thoughts are doomed, apparently, to drag their arthritic coils laboriously behind the gravity of my purposes. Might as well advertise this effect as dignity. Anyhow, there may be times when it is appropriate to take your time.

When Gabrielle Gifford was shot in Tucson last week, a great many people, myself included, instantly wondered if somebody had finally been inspired to action by Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and the rest, though I at least and I expect most of the others were also perfectly aware that we simply didn’t know. When it turned out the perpetrator’s motives were thoroughly psychotic, the assumption that right-wing paranoia was at fault was criticized even though it was surely, if silently shared at the time by most Republicans who must have felt they had dodged a bullet—nobody, right or left or center, is going to be surprised if Teabaggery eventually results in violence, after all. Thing is, what’s at stake in all this is not the impropriety of jumping to conclusions and engaging in a scholastic debate about the effect of the rhetorical environment on the behavior of paranoid schizophrenics is similarly irrelevant to what lies beneath the public debate. It is simply this: the scandal that it takes a multiple murder to get anybody to notice how screamingly pathological our politics has become. The crazy narratives retailed on Fox may indeed have nothing to do with one guy in Arizona, but they are extraordinarily crazy nevertheless. What does it take for the political nation (if there is such a thing) to respond to the fact that a large part of the population has convinced itself that the government is run by a Marxist/socialist/fascist/Nazi/atheist/narco/muslim/terrorist Antichrist?

Come to think of it, that last bit didn’t sound that much like the New York Times.