I’m not sure what is more interesting, historical events or people’s reactions to them. Since I am hopelessly addicted to observing human nature, I regularly subject myself to the teeth-grinding torment of reading the “comments” section on Yahoo News reports. I am regularly enthralled by the vitriolic misspelled arguments, in a train-wreck sort of way. “You are such a moran” – “modern pop singers are imoral and aliterate” – that sort of thing. Fortunately, I know enough about history to realize that this is not a New Low. We’ve always been idiots; the internet just allows us to flaunt our idiocy.
This drive for justification – by whatever misspelled means necessary – is possibly something new, however. I keep seeing reports on the narcissism of contemporary culture, and I am inclined to agree. Modernism introduced heightened self-consciousness (calling oneself “Modern” with a capital “M” and discussing what this means is pretty self-conscious) which is reflected in the huge advances made in psychology during that period, as well as in the development of such trends as the internal monologue in literature. T.S. Eliot’s “anxiety of influence” is a symptom of a painful consciousness of self as the weary tail-end of history. The modernist Self is aware of immersion in as well as disintegration from the world and time.
The post-modern narcissistic self doesn’t seem to have any anxiety of influence – no worry about “how am I going to write a good poem, in light of Homer and Dante and Milton and Keats and Eliot?” If the narcissistic self takes the time to write a poem (which it probably won’t) it’s enough that it be MY POEM. Should anyone attempt to criticize the poem (dude, mixed metaphor! what’s up with the scansion?) the narcissistic self will be ready with a defense.
Unfortunately I see this in some of my classes. Many students are ready to accuse those vague “others” out in the world of ignorance, selfishness, materialism, “aliteracy” and “imorality” – but it does not seem to occur to many of them to be embarrassed that they have not read the Bible or Augustine or even C.S. Lewis. They are not ashamed of their misspellings; they just want to know what they can do to get an “A” because it’s “very important” to them. What mystifies me with this class of student, particularly, is a constant clamoring about their own orthodoxy, when they have not bothered to find out what the Church actually teaches on a single issue. If they know that Catholicism says abortion is wrong, it’s probably because they heard it from a cutesy pop speaker. (N.B. Certainly not all students are like this. I have had the pleasure of teaching many bright, independent, impressively well-read kids who have humbled me with their wisdom and abilities, and who are a LOT less insufferable than I was at their age).
And that sort of smug ignorance is not exclusive to conservative religious circles. I see it also in leftists who are eager to accuse Republicans of being “morans.” Why can’t any of these folks just be refreshingly honest and say “look I’m a dumbass, and I like being a dumbass, so shut up and let me eat my cheetos”? They want to have their cheetos and their “A” grade, too.
When I read about the death of Osama bin Laden, my first reaction was “I’ve got to see what people are saying about this.” This was followed by a series of other reactions including “finally” and “if it’s not all a conspiracy” and “may God have mercy on his soul” and “actually this isn’t going to make much material difference in the War on Terror” and “I suppose in fact this is going to make the volatility even worse.”
Reactions I expected included: “we should never rejoice over the death of any person” and “may his soul rot in hell” and “this is purely symbolic” and “it all sounds a little fishy” and “yay George Bush” and “yay Barack Obama.” When I logged onto Facebook I saw that my predictions were pretty accurate.
What did surprise me just a wee bit was the number of people who posted on the theme of the first sentiment. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people, whether Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Independent, whether Christian or otherwise, expressed sentiments of humanity and decency. Needless to say none of these folks were writing that bin Laden was actually an all-right dude who didn’t have it coming. What they pinpointed was the right relation between an emotion and its object. What are we cheering for? We should be cheering if something good has happened. But what good has actually come of bin Laden’s death? An end to terror? The soldiers being able to finally come home? No more fear? No more airport friskings? The conversion of bin Laden’s soul? Honestly, this last one is the only one we can even remotely hope for. Maybe, in the last few seconds of the firefight, he had a chance to repent.
If you are hoping he did not, if you are hoping he is rotting in hell, well, just be aware that your hope is in no way in line with Christ’s desire for every human soul to be saved.
Granted, of course, forgiveness is not natural. Our natural impulses as human beings drive us to want to have sex with anyone we find attractive, to eat meat when we crave it (screw fasting), and to destroy our enemies and vaunt over them like Achilles (or in this case to rouse ourselves from our stupor on the couch and vaunt because someone else has killed our enemies).
I am not sure, if I had actually lost someone close to me in terror attacks, that I would be capable of forgiveness. I know that it is almost impossible to imagine what such bereavement would feel like, but I do know it probably would not express itself in the “America, fuck yeah!” sentiment. People who are grieving deeply are doing so as individuals, and for individuals; they are not so susceptible to the superficial orgy of nationalistic celebration.
A number of us posted the Vatican’s official statement on the death of Osama bin Laden:
“Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end. In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”
I posted this because I felt that it summed up eloquently what I was in a far more muddled way thinking. The Vatican has certainly made diplomatic errors in the past, but as a two thousand year old organization it has a responsibility to think long-term, and not just to succumb to the impulses of the moment.
Not surprisingly, another “statement” quickly appeared on Facebook, in which the following claim was made about those of us who posted the Vatican statement:
“I don’t know what the posters’ intent is, or what it’s meant to say, if anything, about the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in our country last night and today when Americans heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. But I can say, to post the Vatican’s statement without any explanation, following these celebrations, strikes me as a shallow act of moral snobbery. It appears–appears, if it’s not intended–to criticize these celebrations, as if rejocing about this momentous event is somehow un-Christian.”
I’m sorry. What was vague about the Vatican’s words? What I meant to say was what the words said. What further explanation is required? If you are celebrating because you think innocent people will be safe in the world today, you may be politically naive, but there is nothing un-Christian about your celebration. If you are actively rejoicing over the death of an individual as an end in itself, well, your celebration is not Christian.
Go ahead and try to say “hey, I can hate my enemies and be a Christian too” but that reminds me too much of the student who wants the A without having to work for it.
Christianity demands an awful lot of us, and I am not always equal to it. Few of us are. The example of Christ forgiving his enemies while he was suffering on the cross is a hard one to follow. And I do think it would be intolerably snobbish, as well as smug, tasteless, and inconsiderate to tell anyone who had actually lost loved ones to terror attacks: “do as Christ did.” I’m not holy enough to get away with that.
But for those who have not directly suffered, I have to ask. What are you celebrating? An end to terror? Someone brought up the image of the Hydra; cut off one head and two more grow in its place. I don’t think this is going to end the war on terror. The fact that bin Laden himself can no longer personally cause any more violence? The man was sick anyway, probably dying. The fact that justice has been done? It is my belief that only God can enact true justice, because only God knows the actual condition of any soul; only God truly knows what each one of us deserves. The fact that the job is done? I think those who had the job to carry out do have a right to feel relief at having finished it, but I hope that their celebration is as thoughtful and sober as the situation demands. Killing someone is a serious business.
I suppose there is something snobbish about posting the Vatican statement, something snobbish about Christianity commanding us to transcend our natural impulses. A lot less snobbish to just run with the mob, enjoy mass instincts, not try to be better people. Just as good spelling and decent hygiene are also sort of snobbish. But considering the fact that plenty of non-Christians have the ethical sensibilities to transcend emotional contagion, it’s not THAT snobbish. It’s not too much to ask, of most of us. Actually, it will make the world a better place.
I am curious about whether the author of the statement accusing me of snobbishness would be logically consistent enough to say that it is equally snobbish to quote the Vatican’s statements on contraception to a poor, struggling young couple barely getting by feeding their children…or to quote the Vatican’s statements on homosexuality to two mature, responsible individuals who want to spend their life together.
To quote Bloom County (is that snobbish?): “sneaky inconsistency keeps me awake at night.”