Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.

Political Soft Shoe

It has been interesting to read about the political spin-off from President Obama’s announcement recently that he was in favor of gay marriages. Many a pastor around the country had to calm down enraged parishioners because they find in the Bible what they regard as clear evidence of God’s opposition to such an “unnatural” relationship.

But the spin-off has also affected other Democrats who are running for political office this Fall and they have been showing how adept they are at the old soft-shoe. In a recent Yahoo article Senatorial candidate  Tim Kaine from Virginia apparently supports Obama’s stand on gay marriage, but gets high marks for euphemism in coming out in favor of “equal relationships,” avoiding altogether the mention of the word “marriage.” “The underlying issue is: Should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal ‘yes,'” Kaine, the former governor of Virginia now running for Senate, reportedly told the media Tuesday. “I believe in the legal equality of relationships… Just say I’m for relationship equality.”

Let’s ignore for the moment, the candidate’s slick soft shoe. There are two separate issues here, at least. On the one hand, neither the Federal government nor the President can legislate on this issue: they cannot order the states to allow gay marriages. Obama himself made that clear. It is a question of states’ rights and the states in many cases have already spoken — including North Carolina that recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage (which should make the Democratic Convention interesting in Charlotte this Fall!). But the second issue is one of the legal rights of married couples. Whether or not one happens to think that men should marry other men or women marry other women, the fact remains that if there is no marriage contract, very often members of these relationships are denied the right of equal treatment. They may not be able to inherit and or have any legal claim to property should there be a separation or death, for instance. In addition, if there are adopted children, the status of the child is in legal doubt, though the evidence suggests that children raised in a same-sex marriage are as healthy and well-adjusted as children raised in heterosexual marriages.

But aside from these technical issues, there is the larger issue of tolerance. The fact that a sitting President took a strong stand on a controversial issue (whatever his motives might have been) is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room of contemporary politics where the political dodge and the old soft-shoe are the moves of the day.  As a nation, we pride ourselves on being honest and tolerant. And in many ways we are  — certainly more tolerant about the rights of women than, say,  Middle Eastern countries where women aren’t even allowed to uncover their faces in public or drive a car.

But we have little bragging room, since in issues such as the one before us at the moment we hear considerable outcry surrounding the president’s position on gay marriage and much of it comes from those who pride themselves on being the most devout members of the Christian churches in this country,  We read, for example, that Some churches were silent on the issue. At others, pastors spoke against the president’s decision Wednesday—but kindly of the man himself. A few blasted the president and his decision. A minority spoke in favor of the decision and expressed understanding of the president’s change of heart. I cannot for a moment think that the founder of that particular religion looks on with approval. But then the history of the Christian church in the West is a history of intolerance, including the Inquisition that went on in Spain for several hundred years, and the persecution of witches and other non-believers in this country by the Puritans early on. Perhaps it is time for those who call themselves “Christian” and cannot find anything in their religion about love of their fellow humans to read and take to heart the New Testament. In the meantime, we will continue to admire the politicians in this country who are most adept at the political soft shoe and the ability to say something without actually saying anything. We might at least get some entertainment value for our tax dollars.