Writing my posts lately, I've been distracted by a rant building in my mind. Like everyone else with access to the news and a rudimentary conscience, I've been brooding over the ongoing travesty that is happening on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Even tuning in, occasionally, to the live ecological snuff film B.P. is broadcasting.
Brooding? Well, sorta. More like, thinking about it off and on. In between appointments. Over coffee. While driving.
Even after all these weeks, my response is nothing like a well-proportioned argument. Nor is it, however, quite the eruption it wishes it could be. To be sure, it gears itself up. I want to thunder: Who is there who is, deep down, really surprised at this? Is there anyone, anyone at all, who thinks this wasn't bound to happen--who doesn't acknowledge that it was always, always, a question not of if, but of when.
I want to pound the table until it rattles the computer screen you're reading this on.
And yet. There's something deeply disingenuous about any such pounding. Why? Because I'm wrong? No, on the contrary, I want to say-- because I'm right. We did see it coming, or should have. There's no reason to be surprised. And, in my heart of hearts, I'm not surprised. And that's exactly why I've been driving to work, and life goes on, and somewhere at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Louisiana, a hole continues to hemorrhage petroleum, until the slick that has now risen to the surface may be seen from space.
Gradually, irrationally, inexorably, this slick has seeped into a broader context. The B.P. spill has become--for me--the latest in a parade of mortal shame, an impressionistic series of horror (impressionistic to me, the bewildered and frightened spectator, but not to the ones it is happening to). I suppose many people have such a roster. Mine includes: a Wal-Mart worker trampled to death the day after Thanksgiving by "shoppers" seeking "deals". A hooded prisoner, standing atop a crate, wires attached to him, terrified to move. Students gunned down by fellow students in high schools and colleges. Some may be able to see these each merely as separate incidents (which of course they are, particularly to those whose names are omitted here--the store clerk, the prisoner, the students), awful and perhaps mortally depressing, but not connected. I on the other hand look at such events and find myself stirred to a kind of vague paranoia, as hard to shake off as it is to defend, a sense that this is all symptomatic of something deeply festering and incredibly wrong. Something just under the surface and only occasionally (so far) rising into view, something we glimpse, shudder at, and then stop thinking about it because to really think about it would mean having to change how we live.
At times I want to say to whoever I can corner, "you don't understand! We are all implicated, submerged up to our crown chakras in this, it is not 'the bad people,' terrorists or rapists or CEOs or whoever out there, it's HERE (pointing to heart) inside us; school shootings, prison camps, and drowning polar bears are only the visible signs of something that is going on All the Time, and we all in our heart of hearts are just praying (to the god we don't believe in) that next time it won't be me, it won't be us, it won't be someone I love.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?So, famously, Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago. I'm leaving aside the vast problem of Solzhenitsyn's own thought--how antisemitic, how naïve, how etc. etc. Let the quotation, this one paragraph (the most many people ever know of The Gulag Archipelago) stand on its own for a moment.
But another voice in my head says: What does Abu Ghraib or Columbine or Wal-Mart have to do with the B.P. disaster? You're having an emotional reaction, a knee-jerk spasm of indignation at Everything That's Wrong, but let's hope cooler heads prevail when it comes to appointing judges or directing clean-up. The claim that everything is related and that the evils are systemic in nature is easy, too easy, to make, but what does it actually mean?
Does Solzhenitsyn mean that we are all responsible? And if so, is this why I feel such inertia? Or does this inertia simply find a convenient excuse in the sentiment that "we are all to blame"? In what measure is this a valid and real insight, and in what measure is it just another word for complacency and cynicism?
Tom Junod has said it very succinctly. Writing in Esquire of the oil spill, he said:
If it was seen as a threat to our way of our life, we'd know how to respond to it.This came to mind when I read Graham Harman's thoughts. Harman wrote:
But it's not a threat to our way of life.
It is our way of life.
even more depressing than the accident itself is the thought that it might not even prove to be a turning point– that even something this bad could give way to business as usual.I know what Harman means, I think; the creepy, creeping sense that outrage--not merely on the part of the President but on the part of the public--has just not been commensurate with the atrocity, leads to the depressing expectation that this, too, will prove to be just another "unfortunate incident." But my conclusion is a little different. Unfortunate incidents are business as usual. What is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is business as usual. It's not a threat to our way of life; it is our way of life.
But does this cynicism just paralyze?
There is passage from Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved that is sometimes quoted (for instance in ch. 42 of Jonathan Glover's sobering Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century) as a contrast to Solzhenitsyn:
I do not know, and it does not interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed...and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.A more recent victim, just as unwavering in her insistence on the objectivity of the difference between herself and her persecutors, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose righteous indignation--against the Islamicist bigotry she has herself endured (and still endures, as her bodyguards and death threats must every day remind her)--Paul Berman contrasts with the urbane and "slippery" accommodationism of Tariq Ramadan. I don't think much of Berman's indignation, but if we need a more current instance of the difference between the spirit of these quotes by Levi and Solzhenitsyn, one need look no further than Hirsi Ali's stern either/or, and the both/ands of her multiculturalist critics.
To be sure, Levi also acknowledged a "Gray Zone" in which even victims' and murderers' choices are not so easy to judge; he famously refused to depict war criminals as an inhuman "absolute" evil: "Such total barbarity did not exist." And, on the other hand, I think of the line Solzhenitsyn sent to a New York editor: "Remember, there is such a thing as good and evil."
That is, just as Levi, even as he distinguished between murderers and victims, could also acknowledge a blur or a complicity between them, so too Solzhenitsyn, in saying that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," nonetheless insisted that there was a line.
As a kind of parenthetical observation, I want to add that this intersects with the ethical/aesthetic question I see in the issue of eternal objects. This renewed Platonism was inspired for me by Levinas, whose philosophy of encounter, his hyperbolic insistence on otherness-- "each of us is guilty for everyone before everyone, and I more than the others," as he often quotes from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov--seems in one way close in spirit (despite its insistence on guilt instead of innocence) to Primo Levi. This is because Levinas is insisting on an asymmetry in the encounter between I and Thou, an asymmetry in which ethics is irrefutably a commandment, a Thou shalt; one may disobey this command, but not evade it. On the other hand, the stress on mutual interdependence, the Buddha's pratītyasamutpāda is (in this one way) very close to Solzhenitsyn. And yet, there is a complication--for after all, one might think that the spirit of Dostoevsky's quote is closer to Solzhenitsyn in saying guilt is omnipresent. Faced with this bewildering nexus of responsibility, of questions about where I end and you begin, where my responsibility ends and B.P.'s starts--is it any wonder that cynicism looks like a refuge?
It strikes me that cynicism (in the modern, not ancient, sense) is the inversion or refusal of philosophy. And if this is so, America is the least philosophical of nations. Americans across the political "spectrum," if that's what it is, all feel this cynicism; I suspect that this is what lies behind our collective failure to snap the neck of British Petroleum. It isn't some CEO's head we should be calling for, it's the whole damn body politic. In fact, we are cynical because we're buying--we need--what they're selling. And we're not about to stop anytime soon. Not until the oil is lapping at our front door.
I know this is an "overreaction." And I reach, I fumble, for something more moderate.
Perhaps, I want to say, Solzhenitsyn can say "it was... only because of the way things worked out, that they were the executioners and we weren't"; I cannot. I don't know. And Levi can say, "I was an innocent victim and not a murderer"; I cannot. I don't know. Because it hasn't been up to me to choose. It's still hypothetical.
But it is not hypothetical. We can't be surprised. It has always been, it is still, not a question of if, but of when.
And yet, when is not the only question. It is a question of to whom. We will continue to pray that it won't be us, that it won't be someone we love. But it will be. It already is.