Sunday, September 18, 2011

Of Method and Madness

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

So what difference does it make if Republicans –as a class –espouse a pack of malicious lies? So what?

The sane and insane alike act upon what they believe to be true and those actions invariably affect us all. What good can come of actions premised upon lies? Arguably, this is history's greatest lesson: that mankind's greatest atrocities, crimes, and inhumanities invariably followed from ignorance, bigotry, and superstition i.e., the irrational belief in lies.

Some people are merely ignorant and act upon beliefs that can easily be shown to be misinformed, misunderstood, or just plain wrong. More disturbing, however, are those people who simply refuse to confront evidence contrary to their beliefs and prejudices and even worse-- continue to act upon them though they know them to be false. What, for example, is to be said of Southern bigots who gleefully hanged, burned, and "barbecued" innocent black people throughout the South?

Charitably, there are, perhaps, some poor ignorant folk just don't know any better, But this cannot be said of all them. Many know better and many more are in a position to educate themselves. There are few increasingly fewer excuses for ignorance. It is important to keep in mind that this did not happen deep in the Teutoborg Forest of the Sixth Century A.D. –but in the American South in the 20th.

Crimes of similar magnitude and effect have taken place even more recently. What is to be said of Jaspar, Texas bigots who dragged a black man at high speeds over back country roads until very nearly nothing was left of his body? What is to be said of Saudi terrorists who think that Allah will reward them with virgins for killing Americans?

Polonius, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, said: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it." There is an inexorable logic in madness, murder, and malice; would-be killers justify their crimes transparently after the fact: black people, it will be said, are inferior; homosexuals, it will be maintained, are an 'abomination to God'. Perhaps every crime is similarly justified after the fact. This is the "brave new world" of our own absurd making.

Though she is a somewhat more sympathetic figure than ignorant, malicious bigots, fanatics, and fundamentalists –both Islamic and Christian –Andrea Yates' delusion came to no good. Five innocent children are dead because Andrea believed a lie! Perhaps Andrea is not responsible or perhaps she is –but what is to be said of the jury, which found her guilty, based upon a belief that insanity means not knowing right from wrong. That, of course, is the "legal" standard in Texas. Like Dickens' Mr. McCawber of David Copperfield, I submit to you that if that is the law, then, "...the law is a [sic] ass!" The standard should be whether the offender is responsible not whether the offender knows right from wrong. If history is any guide, then NO one knows right from wrong. Certainly not the churches of any religion who have committed innumerable crimes against humanity in the name of God, Allah, and ÆÖwëmathúooh! Certainly not nations, states, or governments that have kept apace of the various churches and religions in the number and magnitude of their crimes and sins. Are entire nations and entire religions to be judged "insane" by the Texas legal standard?

I make a distinction between a purposeful Hitler and those who merely make mistakes. Unless he was incredibly stupid, Adolph Hitler must have known that the racial myth upon which he justified the genocide of some six or seven million Jews in Europe was a lie –a black-hearted lie. Yet, he acted upon it. Ronald Reagan, a dimwit by any reckoning, may not have known that "supply side economics" was a bogus rationalization that would throw millions of people out of work, but his clever scheming cabinet and Machiavellian manipulators certainly did. If I should hear another disingenuous Republican swoon about how "Reagan made us feel good about ourselves," I may puke. Some people ought not to feel good about themselves. Some people ought to lose sleep at night. Some people ought to have bad dreams and night terrors –a phenomenon that recent studies have shown is commonplace among Republicans.

In medieval times, the European Continent was an unlikely birth place for an enlightenment that would not come for another 1,000 years. A trial, for example, was based less upon evidence or witnesses than upon the outcome of an ordeal in which it was believed God would assert his powers. Disputes were resolved by combat; it was believed that God would favor whoever was in the right. Suspected witches were often subject to trial by water in which those found innocent were no better off than those judged guilty. Those who survived did so because the "pure" water had rejected them. Found guilty, they were later burned; those who sank and drown were, thus, found innocent but eventually just as dead.

The purpose of the trial may have served but one purpose: that of assuaging an inquisitors' guilt and that of a delusional community. It doubtless made them feel better about themselves! Shared guilt seems to be better tolerated. The insane logic behind this may be forgiven a primitive culture, but can the same perverted logic be forgiven modern demagogues who smear innocents with the incredibly insane and medieval assertions that no evidence is, in fact, evidence of guilt? Perhaps Republican malice and ill-will might have been satisfied if Gary Condit and Bill Clinton had been subjected to trial by fire, water, or joust where only by death is innocence proved!

The standard defense will be: but Democrats do it, too! By that logic I should kill a Jew! Nazis did so! I should drag a black man to his death because Jaspar rednecks did; I should hijack an airliner and use it as a weapon because a fundamentalist Saudi did so; I should disrupt elections because Bush minions did so in Florida. I could justify a panoply of crimes and horrors.

Perhaps, if I believed that tax cuts for wealthy people would not aggravate the growing disparity between rich and poor which, in fact, began under Reagan and has continued, might sell out, compromise the last vestige of integrity and then get in line for my share. Perhaps, if I believed that people could depend on Enron-like retirement plans and the stock market, I would support raiding the Social Security trust fund to pay for a Star Wars defense shield rendered moot by the events of 9/11.

The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were significant for several reasons. They affirmed a standard of personal responsibility –not knowledge of right and wrong; the trials discredited the defense: but we were only following orders. Shared guilt is still guilt.

Secondly, it was a study of the very face of evil. Dr. Gustav Gilbert, the psychologist assigned the thankless job of counseling the rogues' gallery of Nazi criminals, thugs, and perverts, said that as a result of his interviews, he arrived at what he thought was the very source of evil: a complete and utter lack of empathy. I can only add that it is only empathy that prevents us acting upon our worst motives and impulses, and upon the lies we cite to make us feel better about ourselves when we have done so.


War Crimes Debate


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