Zeitgeist

The Virtue of Selective Mourning

December 08, 2010

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By this point, a normal person’s emotions have been reduced to a trickle. The saintly ideal of love for all humans, let alone the compassion for all sentient creatures that the Dalai Lama urges upon us, is a hopelessly unrealizable ideal and far beyond our emotional capacities.

Worse yet, those who attain the ideal tend to be distant, unsympathetic figures. There is no doubt that Karl Marx loved humanity in general. Actual particular human beings did not fare so well in his presence, still less so”€”much less so”€”under the his followers”€™ rule.

Perhaps the strongest expression of universal benevolence in modern Western culture, most particularly American culture, has been the 19th and 20th centuries”€™ missionary movements. Whether they accomplished much good is still disputed. Mark Twain was a famous scourge of the American missionary enterprise in China and of missionary work in general:

Wherever the missionary goes he not only proclaims that his religion is the best one, but that [his hearer] must now desert his ancient religion and give allegiance to the new one or he will follow his fathers and his lost darlings to the eternal fires. The missionary must teach these things, for he has his orders; and there is no trick of language, there is no art of words, that can so phrase them that they are not an insult.

Storytellers, notably Somerset Maugham, turned the missionaries”€™ superhuman pretensions into commonplace human weaknesses. More casual passersby just mocked them. Here is George Orwell explaining why he quit the British imperial police service:

I remember once when I was inspecting a police station, an American missionary whom I knew fairly well came in for some purpose or other….One of my native sub-inspectors was bullying a suspect….The American watched it, and then turning to me said thoughtfully, “€˜I wouldn’t care to have your job.”€™ It made me horribly ashamed. So that was the kind of job I had! Even an ass of an American missionary, a teetotal cock-virgin from the Middle West, had the right to look down on me and pity me!

Those teetotal cock-virgins are still with us, as my Commentary critic demonstrates.

It ought to be a key tenet of our national political life to keep the teetotal cock-virgins far away from the power levers. The harm they do as private actors is probably balanced out by the amusement they give to our literary observers; but when the missionary impulse has access to the public purse, nothing but folly and disaster can ensue. George W. Bush’s sad, failed, extravagant presidency is testimony to this truth.

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