December 9th, 2017

old whig

A la lanterne

Revolutions -- by which I mean, not just abrupt changes of governments, but social upheavals that change everything into Before and After -- follow a pattern. An ugly pattern. As the old order topples and falls, the forces of change often go in for summary justice. Sometimes, that takes the form of lynchings and mass shootings. Sometimes, it merely means that careers are ruined and politicians sent packing. But when the deep-buried fault finally moves, a lot of people get caught on the wrong side of an issue.

That's what has happened in our country, I think, beginning with the fall of Harvey Weinstein - over whom I shed no tears -- and many others, creeps all. Good riddance. Every day brings a new accusation against some pillar of the establishment in politics or entertainment, journalism or academia. Most of these are well-supported, even if decades old. There is a cleansing feeling to what is going on. But it is a cleansing fire, and the Old Whig in me is distrustful of the fire.

For if we look back to the French Revolution, we can see where social upheaval can lead. Where unsupported accusations can wind up. For in the first wave, there is merely the pent-up anger of generations of injustice breaking forth. It's hard to say anything against this movement, because there is so much to say for it. It's long overdue. But even as this continues, and grows, a second wave begins to swell.

This happens when people begin to organize to Go After Them. Laws get written, sometimes, and laws written in anger are a problem. Sometimes laws aren't written so much as just that certain people are put in charge of pursuing malefactors. Eventually, you get the Terror. Institutionalized vengeance. And that institution begins, eventually to eat its own. Never forget that Robespierre died on his own guillotine. Republicans are learning that they can't just point to Democrat abusers, and vice versa. So our leaders start saying, we need to do this right. And that leads to the third wave of the movement.

In the third tremor of the earthquake, people start using the righteous anger of the people to target others. Maybe those others were evil-doers, but there are degrees of evil, and the same punishment doesn't fit every crime. Every evil isn't a crime, either. But people dredge up old stories in order to get people they don't like, or who belong to the Other Side. Informers spring up spontaneously -- or are recruited. And the Purge begins.

It happened in France, it happened in Soviet Russia. It's the way these things work. Being America, I don't see us stringing people up on lampposts or disappearing people or whatever. But just because our summary justice wears a smiley face doesn't mean it won't ruin as many people's lives as it gives belated justice to.

The creeps deserve their scorn. And those who have built careers and achieved power along the way need to be dumped from their boardrooms and pedestals. But we need to remember that though the law is slow, the law protects the innocent as well as the guilty. "We must show them that The Law is king in Massachusetts," said John Adams, in defending the British soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre. And we need to remember, also, that though the past needs to be accounted for, it can't always be fixed, and reconciliation beats revenge. As much as I deplore William of Normandy and all his works, it's too late to hold anybody accountable for the loss of Anglo-Saxon England, and the Normans wound up contributing much to British society that the people of today justly remember with pride. And though there is still a lot that needs to be done in our country about the deplorable situation of Native Americans, calls to "give the country back to the Indians" cannot be taken seriously. We should, indeed, have given reparations to the freed slaves after the Civil War, but calls for reparations today are a mere shake-down racket.

Eventually, we need to figure out how to live together. We shouldn't bury the past, but we need to learn how to overcome it and seek to live in righteousness and peace with each other.

Lead us not into temptation

The Pope has said that people are mistranslating and misunderstanding the Lord's Prayer. He says we shouldn't say, "lead us not into temptation," for God tempts no one. I'm surprised at Father Frank. But let us consider the matter.

The following is a quote from Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, "Chapter III, The Lord of the Rings (2): Concepts of Evil." Through an examination of Tolkien's use of wraith and shadow combined with Twentieth Century concepts of addiction and psychological persuasion, Tolkien compares and contrasts two view of evil which have been discussed for many centuries, and which are supposedly mutually exclusive.

One is the Christian view of Boethius, that evil has no real existence, being merely spoiled goodness. The other is Manichaean, that evil is very real and must be opposed by the good. Both have things to commend themselves to our consideration, and Tolkien emphasizes first the one, then the other, in his presentation of the power of evil in the world. These come to a climax in the scene in the Sammath Naur. Shippey picks up the argument:

At that moment, standing on the very edge of the Crack of Doom, Frodo gives up. His words are:

'I have come . . . But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.'

With that he puts it on for the sixth and final time. it is a vital question to know whether Frodo does this because he has been made to, or whether he has succumbed to inner temptation. What he says suggests the latter, for he appears to be claiming responsibility very firmly: 'I will not . . . the Ring is mine.' Against that, there has been the increasing sense of reaching a centre of power, where all other powers are 'subdued.' If that is the case, Frodo could no more help himself than if he had been swept away by a river, or buried in a landslide. It is also interesting that Frodo does not say, 'I choose not to do,' but 'I do not choose to do'. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him.

The question becomes an academic one, of course, in that the result is achieved by Gollum, fulfilling Frodo's own words a few moments before, 'If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom'. But Tolkien was an academic, and academics often see importance in academic issues where others do not. Is Frodo guilty? Has he given in to temptation? Or just been overpowered by evil? If one puts the questions like that, there is a surprising and ominous echo to them, which suggest that this whole debate between 'Boethian' and 'Manichaean' views, far from being one between orthodoxy and heresy, is at the absolute heart of the Christian religion itself. The Lord's Prayer, which in Tolkien's day everyone knew, and which most English-speakers know even yet, contains seven clauses or requests, and of these the sixth and seventh are:

Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Are these variants of each other, saying the same thing? Or (much more likely) do they have different but complementary intentions, the first asking God to keep us safe from ourselves (the Boethian source of sin), the second asking for protection from outside (the source of evil in a Manichaean universe)? If the latter is the case, then Tolkien's double or ambiguous view of evil is not a flirtation with heresy after all, but expresses a truth about the nature of the universe denied to the philosopher Boethius, and possibly even to the rationalist Lewis.