Monday, July 16, 2018

"God be merciful to me a sinner"

From Kevin Williamson's review of The Death of Stalin
.... Man is a bag of appetites and urges, not all of which are conducive to his own happiness and well-being or that of those around him. Beria, Uday and Qusay Hussein, Mao and his endless parade of virgins, Jack Kennedy and his girl-a-day routine, Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski. What kind of men become monsters?

One possible answer: Those who get the chance.
For the thoroughgoing materialist (“dialectical and historical materialism,” Stalin called it), none of that should be surprising. If you believe that H. sap. is only time’s favorite monkey — that man is meat — then there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the kind of behavior we’re talking about, and no need to justify it, since there is nobody to justify it to. If you believe that man ought to be better, it implies that he can be better, and that “better” means something. And here materialism fails us, which is why Marxism became an ersatz religion. Christianity is a fortunate religion in the sense that the endless moral failings of its leaders (and followers) keeps illustrating, generation after generation, the fundamental facts of the creed. The creeds based on human perfectibility, which is the romantic notion at the heart of all utopian thinking, have as their main problem the countervailing example of everybody you’ve ever met and ever will.

It is tempting to make like the Pharisee rather than the publican and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It is unpleasant to meditate on the truth at the center of Christianity, and perhaps at the center of all wisdom: I am like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous. (I have never been guilty of collecting taxes.) We must sympathize with the victims and care for them, but we must also identify with the malefactors, who are made of the same stuff as we are, cut from the same crooked timber. In the black comedy of The Death of Stalin, we see men — extraordinarily powerful men — who mainly are acting not out of malice or inherent wickedness but out of terror. The survival instinct is even more powerful than the libido. It is tempting to think that you’d comport yourself with more integrity in those circumstances, but would you really? Down in Beria’s dungeon, with the gunshots audible from the room next door — would you really? (One of history’s little ironies: The Lubyanka was originally the headquarters of an insurance company.) Would you be so brave with your wife and children being held in another cell? Or would you beg, connive, lie, simper, degrade yourself, and, if necessary, murder to keep yourself and your loved ones away from those gunshots?

Can you ever really trust a weak man? Is there another kind?

To understand power, one must understand weakness, especially the weaknesses that are particular to men. Human weakness is what necessitates that we constrain power—political power, especially, but also other kinds of power. We are not governed by angels, and there aren’t very many of those in the boardrooms, either. The advice that we put not our faith in princes applies to princes of the church and captains of industry, too. All that we have — culture, technology, civilization, democracy, the rule of law, government — is provisional. What’s permanent is what the publican knew. .... [more]