A Confession

I find myself these days between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I begin to feel the pressures the average German must have felt in the teens of the last century as Hitler began his rise to power. I see clearly that the man who recently won the U.S. presidential lottery is poised to take a path not unlike the dreaded German. He shows all the earmarks of an intolerant, insecure, paranoid, disillusionist — much like Hitler. And the types who adore him and salute his every move confirm this picture, with truly disturbing effect.

I desire, on the one hand, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, since with this man we really don’t know which way he will jump next. Further, I fully expect him to alienate the powers that be in Congress, including those who number themselves among the now crippled Republican Party. I simply don’t see this man getting along with anyone who disagrees with him. Thus I would adopt a quietistic attitude and try to ignore the absurd things this man is doing as he prepares to take the highest office in the land.

On the other hand, because these things appear so clearly to me, I feel the need to speak out and protest his every move, his every decision to appoint like-minded imbeciles to his cabinet and to important posts around the world. Like the character in Conrad’s novel, Under Western Eyes, I tell myself that “if life is not to be vile it must be a revolt, a pitiless protest — all the time.”  Albert Camus, who fought in the French underground during WW II, agreed: to have any real meaning human life must protest against evil wherever he finds it.  As thinking human beings who still have a deep sense of right and wrong, we must protest the wrong that surrounds us today.

The difficulty I have is that the problem is so immense and I feel helpless to effect meaningful change. How does one “take on” a powerful man surrounded by armed followers who are beginning to show themselves to be as bullying and as unconscionable  as their leader? How does one deal with this huge problem in light of the sure and certain knowledge that it will adversely affect his own health and well-being? The pressure to do something is great, but the stress that follows from the need to know what is going on in order to oppose it, and the sense of futility that attaches itself to every plan of action, is somehow is immense.

I try to close my eyes to what is going on around me with my futile attempts at quietude. Wait and see. But the sound and images are deafening and it would require that I move away from my computer and make no attempt whatever to keep up with the latest absurdity. I could do that but it seems cowardly and self-serving. I know that evil must be resisted in any way possible. But I know my limitations and have a real concern for my health, both physical and mental. I take these things too seriously. A cartoon making the rounds shows a young woman walking and talking with a friend. She says, ” My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” That puts it in a nutshell.

In an attempt to find a middle ground, to follow the lead of such thinkers as Aristotle and the Stoics, I seek to do those things that I am able to do, to speak out and resist where I can — knowing that it is almost certainly too little to be truly effective. But in order to do even this I must keep myself somewhat informed, read at least the headlines and follow those whose blogs are insightful and well-written — and deal with the stress that inevitably follows, try to find humor wherever it hides. My task is to undertake to do what I can and try not to worry about those things that I clearly cannot oppose effectively. Try not to dwell on the negatives; to soothe my frazzled nerves, reflect on the many benefits I enjoy and the beauty that surrounds me and those I hold dear. My protest may be too little to be of any real effect, but the need to resist evil is essential to one’s humanity, and that must remain of paramount concern.

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Justice?

Albert Camus, the novelist and member of the French Underground during the occupation of France by the Germans, died at the young age of 46 in an automobile accident. Throughout his life he was opposed to capital punishment. He sensed that his opposition would be ineffectual, but he thought it worthwhile none the less. Indeed, he championed the view that despite the absurd nature of human existence one ought always to fight against what one thought was evil. Once one stops fighting he simply takes up space. He thought capital punishment was evil.

A clue to the depth of that feeling is found in his autobiographical novel The First Man, which was published after his death by his daughter, working from notes scribbled in the margins of the hand-written manuscript. In that novel he tells of an experience his father had early in the child’s life when he went to a public hanging of a man who was reputed to have killed his employers and three children. There was widespread hatred directed toward the killer and the trial was quick and public hanging was the verdict. Speaking of himself in the third person, as “Jacques,” Camus describes the scene afterwards:

“. . . Jacques’s father was livid when he came home; he went to bed, then got up several times to vomit, and went back to bed. He never wanted to talk about what he had seen. And on the night he heard the story, Jacques himself, when he was lying huddled on the side of the bed . . . choked back his nausea and his horror as he relived the details he had heard and those he imagined. And throughout his life those images had followed him even into his sleep . . .”

I have written about capital punishment before though it is a topic that seems to be only of mild interest to people for the most part — perhaps because we don’t have public executions — yet. There has been discussion of such a possibility, but even in this blood-lusting culture so far it has remained only a dream in the hearts and minds of those who think justice is all about revenge. Because, in a word, that is was capital punishment is: revenge. It is assuredly not justice, especially in an age when we discover growing numbers of cases of false identity and miscarriages of the legal procedures that incarcerate (and execute) men, mostly black men, only to discover that they were innocent. Indeed, it is precisely the likelihood (and I stress that term) of human error that undermines any possible argument for taking the life of one human being because he presumably took another or other lives. If humans were infallible, which we assuredly are not, there might be a case for capital punishment. But because we are not and because we tend to let our passions and raw emotions dwarf our judgment, there can be no possible argument for taking a human life to avenge another life.

I have often thought about this on a deeply personal level: how would I react if my wife or my sons were killed and the killer was caught and brought to trial? Would I want that person executed in order to right a wrong? It’s hard to say, but I expect I wouldn’t be thinking clearly and would simply want someone punished and punished soundly for what they did. But that would be my emotions taking control. In my mind, when it is clear, I know that it would be wrong. Taking a human life under any circumstances is wrong and cannot be justified. It can be rationalized, we can find bad reasons for doing what we want to do on a visceral level, but it cannot be justified.