Monday, March 10, 2008

Rage for order...

Bob is back, and with him, a host of good things. Here is a poem from one blogpost he links to, which triggered a train of thoughts:

Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.
You cannot be bought, but the lightning

Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.

Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?
Hear us then: we know.

You are our enemy.
This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration
of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.

This poem was written by a German Stalinist apologist called Bertolt Brecht. It is called ‘the Interrogation of the Good.’

Brecht's poem captured my attention, because of its bitter irony and frightening honesty. Frightening, because it so well climbs into the mind of a revolutionary, like Pasha Antipov, aka Strelnikov, the idealistic young student who turned mass murderer because his "rage for order overwhelms his moral values":

Pasha: The private life is dead - for a man with any manhood.
Zhivago: I saw some of your 'manhood' on the way at a place called Mink.
Pasha: They were selling horses to the Whites.
Zhivago: It seems you've burnt the wrong village.
Pasha: They always say that, and what does it matter? The village is burned, the point made. Zhivago: Your point - their village.

Hannah Arendt, a clear-minded, unsentimental philosopher, regards pity as “the perversion of compassion.” Pity, because of its traditional perception as the “spring of virtue”, has proved to possess "a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself”. By pitying the suffering of a certain group of poor, oppressed people, those who pity it view their pitiable objects as meriting exclusivity. This exclusive ownership over this particular suffering gives rise to a superseding feeling of beyond-moral indignation and pain, that fancies itself outside accountability to the basic norms of humanity. Pity defeats universal responsibility, becomes, as Arendt says “boundless”, and I would add, bottomless: pity for the deprived and oppressed poor led to the blood bath that was the French Revolution.

The authentic language of pity extols cruelty as the means for restoring humanity. “Par pitié, par amour pour l’humanité, soyez inhumains! ” is a sentence “taken almost at random from petition of one of the sections of the Parisian Commune to the National Convention” , and the remarkable thing about it is that it is “neither accidental nor extreme”.

As an example Arendt focuses on Robespierre, the great pitier of the French multitudes. Initially motivated by “the passion of compassion”, his compassion degraded into pity as soon as it found an open public sphere for its expression. As emotions and suffering welled over, he responded by losing a capacity for maintaining considerations of friendship, singularity, moral leadership or principles. “The evil of Robespierre’s virtue was that it did not accept any limitation”. The “pity-inspired” virtue, unleashed in Robespierre’s chaotic rule of terror, shook the foundations of impartial justice and its underlying principle of law, “the application of the same rules to those who sleep in palaces and those who sleep under the bridges of Paris”.

Arendt counters the ravages of political pity by presenting a challenging and constructive alternative in solidarity. Solidarity, anchored in reason, is capable of universality. Aroused by suffering, just like pity, it is nevertheless clear headed and tough-minded, maintains its power in cooler, abstract passion. This translates into the ability of solidarity to pursue the ideal of justice that will include the rich and strong as well as the poor and weak.

Political compassion is solidarity which, unlike the hot, bubbling sentiment of pity, is cold and aloof and can carry on its commitments to the “noble ideas” of humanity: greatness, honor, and, dignity. Dignity, in the public as well as in the private sphere, maintains and is fertilized by individual compassion and political solidarity.

Once the model of the symbiosis between pity and boundless bloody revolutions was established, it was adopted and emulated in later generations. Revolutions and rebellions can be genuine uprisings, or they can be stimulated by political agitation. One thing they have in common, and that is the period of intense incitement that precedes them, with a view to ferment and arouse in people as much of the exclusive pity reserved for their own kind.

When the pity-generating propaganda reaches a certain critical mass, it takes over the minds of people, suspends their natural historical political pity as valid an explanation as any of the others put forth by abilities for compassion, and becomes a warrant for wanton bloodshed and genocidal agendas.

Hannah Arendt’s comprehension of the ravages of pity helps explain, to a certain extent, the appeal of genocidal organizations to some of today's pundits as they attempt to decipher the meaning of Palestinian Hamas, Hezbollah, and other so-called martyrs.

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