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Good, Nice, and Kind

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“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

It’s like one of those games they used to play on Sesame Street. You know, the one where they show you two red things and one blue thing, and ask, which of these things is not like the others? Except sometimes they’d screw up, and show a red triangle, a blue triangle, and a red square. And when six-year-old me goes “The square,” Grover (who they had running things before that punk Elmo took over) would say “The Red Triangle, very good!” And I’d get upset, start shouting at the TV, because it was OBVIOUS that those were two triangles. I mean, duh. I’m not saying this to indicate that at such a young age I was already ignoring color over substance, but to point out that even the best of intentions can be misread.

I like words. I hold the English language and its use in almost totemic awe, and I believe with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And yesterday, I tried to use the right words.

I don’t like directly addressing the comments. It is too easy for otherwise good blogs to become echo chambers for arguments between the commentator and the metacommentators. Slacktivist, who is very much my blogging idol, doesn’t often do this, and I don’t want to do it that much either. But in this case, I think its appropriate.

A lot of the comments (even from those who otherwise agree with me) seem to think that I am calling for us to be the nice guys. That I am issuing a call for civility and calm public discourse. This is profoundly not the case. And the confusion, I think, comes from my use of these two words, good and kind. And from the perception of those two words together to mean nice.

Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings. He was very polite, and loved kissing babies. He was a nice guy. He was also so profoundly evil that he has become a metaevil-a gold standard for measuring the evil of lesser madmen.

And in contrast, I’d like to turn your attention to two items. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You’ve seen them before, seen them analyzed, but look at them again. Lincoln calls for “malice towards none, charity for all,” without for a moment backing down on the fundamental rightness of his actions. In the same speech in which he calls for mercy to those had perpetuated a war for the continuation of slavery, he says: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” That is not a nice thing to say. That is not a conciliatory, compromising, “Oh, lets all just get along” thing to say. That is the hard truth. But at the same time, then man of all men who could have called for his enemies to be driven before him, and done it to thunderous applause, chooses to ask for, “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” This is a man being good. Being very, very good, as it so happens. And he is being kind.

Or let us turn our attention to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To those who would ask him to sit down and shut up for the sake of peace and quiet, he writes “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” That is being kind. Even generous.
But King is not being nice. King is calling for a transformation, a complete overthrow of the current system. King is saying that he will continue to cause a goddamned ruckus, and he won’t feel bad about it. King is saying to those clergymen “You are wrong. You are fundamentally and damagingly wrong.” Or look at this line: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Where I come from, that’s called calling someone out. It is not, by people who are focused on “nice,” considered a very nice thing to do. But it is a good thing to do, and in this case, it is done kindly. Because I think that being good and being kind walk hand in hand. Being kind does not mean never shouting. As King so neatly demonstrates, it does not mean never saying that the other person is horribly, terribly, and destructively wrong. It does not mean being mild mannered and gentle. King never was. King could let go with a blast of words that shook the foundations of the world. But he was always kind.
What it does mean is that you don’t judge them as people. What it does mean is that you don’t call them evil. You may call their actions and their beliefs evil, you may call the effects of those actions evil. (as I did. Multiple times.) But you do not call them, the person, evil. Because good men and women do not stand in judgment of others, save for transgressions so severe that the evil in their souls becomes apparent to all. When the charge of evil becomes not a judgment call, but an observation. And good people, the really good people, they know that there is a fundamental core of goodness in the human heart. They know that not as you know that 2 + 2=4, but the way you know the really important things, the way that you know your mother loves you. They know this because to not know this, to believe instead that people, even some people, are fundamentally bad, that they have crossed the line from good into evil not just in some of their actions but in their souls, is to admit that they have become monsters. And monsters cannot be argued with. Monsters must be fought, tooth and nail, lest they destroy us all.
So what I’m calling for isn’t for you to roll over and go, “Oh, ok Glenn Beck, you just go bebopping along your merry way.” I’m not calling for you to engage in some sort of extreme hippy-dippy bullshit, where everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m telling you to get out there and fight. I’m telling you to go out there and lay some mushroom clouds like Martin did, and like Mandela did, and like all the other big guns did. And I’m telling you that you should do it the way they did. Be good to those you fight. Be kind to those you fight. Fight. But fight with malice towards none, with charity for all. Because we do not wrestle with malign powers and principalities, but with otherwise good people who are, I know, not willfully and truly evil, but horribly, and painfully mistaken.
And I think sometimes, that we do the same thing Glenn Beck does, and we do it with the same reason. Presuming for a moment, that Glenn Beck does not actually believe what he says. Why then would he say it? Why call Obama a Nazi and a communist? Because otherwise Glenn Beck would look like a complete tool. To you and I, who know full well that Obama is nothing of the sort, he sounds like a total tool. But to those who have been deluded, and lied to, he sounds like a hero. If you believed Obama was a Nazi, Glenn Beck would not be a pompous asshole. He’d be goddamned Winston Churchill.
And let us look to our own backyards. I have heard many, many people comparing the Tea Party to the Nazis. To fascists. To the KKK, to the Nuremburg Rallies, to every sort of hyperbolic evil we can think of.
And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. And I think we are doing this for the same reason that Glenn Beck does. Because if we were to admit to ourselves that these people are not evil Nazi fascists who want to stick us in concentration camps, but simply a large block of people who, by shouting in an echo chamber, have come to some pretty weird ideas, we’d look a bit hyperbolic ourselves. We are using the same language, the same tactics, the same ideological warfare that Glenn Beck uses. And against who? Against one half the Republican party, a group that seems to be causing little more than a tempest in a teapot, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.
They. Are. People. People with some goddamned weird ideas, sure. But people. Not evil people, not saints. People. People who are doing bad things not because they’re cackling maniacs but because they’re scared, or they’re confused, or they’ve been listening to their own echos until it sounds like reason, or some combination thereof. But they are not evil. They are doing evil things, and that is wrong, but THEY. ARE. NOT. EVIL. And its not just me saying this. It’s Martin and Lincoln and Gandhi and everyone else you’ve ever admired. This is what the good guys had to say about their enemies, enemies whose malice was far beyond a Glenn Beck. So we can continue to shout and rage, and get the cheap adrenal rush of screaming and shouting. Or we can be the good guys. Not the nice guys, but the good guys. We can be kind, and good, and extend that open hand without backing down an inch from the rightness of our cause. Without easing up a hair on the firmness of our rhetoric. Without rolling over and giving up. Without giving in to the temptation to become the monsters that we fight. We can do it, because they did it. And because they won. It took time, it took effort, it even took blood, but they won. All of them. And we will to.

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Written by newscum

September 1, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses

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  1. They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.

    Well, except for Ann Coulter. And that guy who shot up a church. And that other guy who shot up a church. And probably whoever torched that mosque. And….

    Consumer Unit 5012

    September 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm

  2. Take the accountant’s view of death (as outlined by Mr Pump in the works of Terry Pratchett). You don’t have to lynch someone to kill them. Maybe you can just make it harder for a few thousand people to get the healthcare they need. Maybe you can just make it harder for women in abusive relationships to get out and get the help they need. And maybe if you do those things, everyone still lives, if somewhat more miserably that before. Or maybe some of them die, but we can’t be sure that they would have lived if we’d helped anyway. But we can take probabilities, add and subtract the spreadsheets, and figure out that little actions, here and there, give estimated results of 0.08 deaths in this neighbourhood and 0.52 deaths in that county, and add them up and be reasonably certain that there are people who are dead because of the ideas that got support.

    The argument that there’s some kind of cutoff point delineating ‘evil as a judgment call’ and ‘evil as an observation’ is not particularly compelling, simply because we have no consensus on where that point lies. They’re all judgment calls, all based on observation.

    People who support evil ideas are actively doing evil – you keep hammering home ‘people’ as if that’s an exclusive and distinct option from ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I would tend to agree that pure good and pure evil are extremely uncommon, and that few of the things people do can be neatly categorised as one or the other. But it does not strike me as hyperbolic to state that the immiserating actions of such people are evil, particularly when they take positions that cannot be justified by any evidence found in reality.

    Will Wildman

    September 1, 2010 at 6:10 pm

  3. Isn’t that the same logic Glenn Beck uses about Muslims? “Oh, these muslims did this, these Muslims did that, therefore they’re all stupid and evil.”

    newscum

    September 1, 2010 at 6:28 pm

  4. Did I ever say their actions aren’t evil? I’ve repeatedly said they are. This isn’t about their actions. This is about how we respond to their actions, and how we view the people beyond the actions.

    newscum

    September 1, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  5. Then it’s not clear to me what the meaningful difference between a person and their actions is supposed to be. The Lincoln quote you opened with only applies if calling a person evil for doing evil things is a malicious thing itself. I agree that Gandhi, to my knowledge, did not get bogged down in discussions of whether the people he was resisting should be labelled ‘evil’. But I also think that this question labelling is only relevant if you think that there’s a substantial difference between what a person does and what they are. And it seems like ‘you are what you continually do’ is a reasonable assertion.

    I’m not seeing a lot of people turn malice on these individuals, in spite of their ongoing evil. I’m not seeing anyone say that all right-wingers are irredeemable monsters. I’m not seeing crowds insisting that conservatives should be denied citizenship for their awful beliefs, or that registered Republicans should all be shot. (On occasion, admittedly, someone will say such a thing, at which point I will tell them to shut up.)

    If you want to convince me, then I need to see how telling a person “You will continue to be evil for as long as you keep doing evil in the world” is a cruel and harmful thing. So far, it has not been made clear.

    Will Wildman

    September 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm

  6. “And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. ”

    Yet. Some of the stupid and hyperbolic speech is crossing the line to incitement, and more of it is doing so implicitly. (Kind of like the Imam I saw on TV, I think it was 60 Minutes, who said to the reporter that he did not advocate violence, but then was filmed giving a young man justification for strapping on a bomb — but without ever explicitly saying that he should do so.) I have heard, personally and one-on-one, statements that I took to be suggestions that, should their side not prevail, armed insurrection of some sort would be justified. (e.g.: “I sure hope we can vote a bunch of these guys out this fall, because it is all we can do short of planting bombs.” Yes, someone, who assumed I would agree with them, said that to my face.) I do not agree that this threatening language is occurring on both sides. Only one side sees it necessary to bring guns.

    The last time this kind of “hyperbolic speech” ramped up, McVeigh parked a truck bomb in front of a day care center. This will not end well.

    coolhandl

    September 1, 2010 at 8:37 pm

  7. “And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. ”

    Dr. Tiller would like a word with you.

    R-Tam

    September 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm

  8. Fortunately, Ahmed Sharif (the taxi driver who was stabbed in the neck for being Muslim) survived. But I don’t think it’s safe to dismiss worry about lynching and killing as “stupid and hyperbolic speech” considering we’ve seen actual throat-slitting.

    ako

    September 2, 2010 at 10:16 am

  9. I clicked over to your site about a week ago after you left a comment there. So far, I like what you have to say and I am looking forward to your commentary on Atlas Shrugged, a book that I could not finish nearly 40 years ago because in the 100 pages or so that I read, I didn’t find any evidence that a single character had any altruistic traits or nobility to their personality.
    Now for my big complaint—your link to your reader comments leave a lot to be desired. Could you include a second link at the end of each blog article?

    jam

    September 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm

  10. You had a problem with the lack of altruism? I had a bigger problem with the total absence of character – as opposed to cardboard cutouts being manouevred for philophical effect. (for generous values of philosophical)

    firefall

    September 2, 2010 at 6:58 pm

  11. “Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings.”

    Well, only to the extent that they did the things for him that he wanted them to do. Otherwise, he had a tendency to appoint people to positions of overlapping responsibility and then sit back and watch them try to stab each other in the back as they curried favor with him. Maybe not the most evil thing that he did during his regime, but also not the most efficient way to run a country.

    reynard61

    September 2, 2010 at 7:23 pm

  12. "A big hug from the inside": The Mini Master Chef Challenge with Victors Food…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    Inner West LIVE

    September 3, 2010 at 7:46 am

  13. OK, by accountant’s standards, I daresay Beck hasn’t killed nearly as many people as Gandhi.

    Ben Standeven

    September 3, 2010 at 4:34 pm

  14. This was damn good. I loved the distinctions. It was fair and balanced without giving an inch. I think it is the strawmen that we create for other parties that allows us to stay on the right and the left and the middle, without actually finding the right angle for a better future.

    jodajo21

    December 31, 2010 at 6:02 am


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