The Virtue of Selective Mourning

December 08, 2010

Multiple Pages
The Virtue of Selective Mourning

Funny things happen when you write for the public prints. One of them is that deep-browed pieces you labored over for days, with library visits and lengthy phone conversations with credentialed experts, disappear without trace, whereas offhand remarks you threw out while distracted or drunk stick in people’s minds forever.

Five years ago, in an idle moment without much to say, I commented on the human female breast’s ontogeny. I have been known ever since to large swaths of the populace as a frothing pervert.

On another occasion I confessed to not caring about a ship disaster in the Red Sea:

From the headline picture, it looked like a cruise ship. I therefore assumed that some people very much like the Americans I went cruising with last year were the victims. I went to the news story. A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.

This still seems a perfectly normal reaction to me. How many of us not directly concerned with the victims would bother to go on reading? There are disasters all over the world all the time. Buses in India used to drive off cliffs or into rivers so regularly that the British fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye ran “Indian Bus Disasters” as a regular feature.

But my throwaway remark stuck in people’s minds, and I am imprinted on some portion of the American public’s imagination as the guy who jeers at drowning Egyptians.

This came up last week in an indignant response in Commentary magazine to something I’d written scoffing at George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program—a typically Bushian scheme, utterly futile but endlessly expensive on the public fisc, to change sub-Saharan Africans’ sexual habits, as if those were any of our business. My indifference to those Egyptians’ suffering was, the writer averred, proof that I am a very, very bad person indeed, as heartless toward V.D.-afflicted Africans as I had been to the drowned Egyptians.

This baffles me. Who on Earth has time to enter into all the world’s miseries, to mourn and weep—or even to pause long enough to read about—the sick and dying in remote places? What, in any case, is the proper scope of human affections?

“Who on Earth has time to enter into all the world’s miseries, to mourn and weep—or even to pause long enough to read about—the sick and dying in remote places?”

In our imaginations, speculating on the pain we would suffer at permanent separation, we can measure our feelings for others on a scale ranging from the deepest grief to mild fleeting sadness.

Though human beings are capable of infinite variation, the modal position on that scale is to care most for our children, if any, and our spouse or lover. Behind that, our strongest secondary affection is to our siblings and parents. Out beyond that is our emotional “near abroad” of dear friends and secondary relatives—grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.

Whatever tenderness we can spare is scattered unevenly and not always aimed at individuals. Any healthy person nurses some patriotic feeling: the desire to see his nation do well and indignation when it is insulted or harmed. Below that are lower tribal affiliations: church, school, baseball team, ethnicity, or race. There are one-on-one personal affections, too, though not necessarily to living human beings. A favorite animal or even a beloved object might be down in the underbrush of our sympathies, or a celebrity, or some long-dead historical figure.

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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