Facing The Entertainment of Chaos; or Spreading Guilt As Loaves and Fish
“The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”
-Jonathan Edwards, Discourses on Various Important Subjects.
The embarrassing joys of the aloof. It's a strange form of privilege to be able to watch with sincere interest and excitement an event which one is in some sense 'against' or contemptuous of. It is certainly the lowliest and least honorable kind of privilege. It's like jumping the fence to watch an execution, or at least a bullfight. Without admitting to complicity, without 'condoning it!', one can see the story unfold – as easily as anyone else - as though it were a novel. Though as with any good novel, real events have the tendency to draw us in unknowingly, into a state of grace or guilt. On waking up in the driver's seat of a moving car, suddenly one's hands are full.
At the moment, I am afraid that some of us who are firmly set against many of the directions which right-wing politics in our country has recently taken are in some way benefiting from a free admission. The current national election is the most obvious example, although there are many conjoined others. We must briefly acknowledge the strangeness of watching excitedly – not of course without horror or disgust, but not without a certain thrill either – events which we officially want nothing to do with.
A dimly-related tangent: Modern television, and audio-visual media is quite good at coaxing this sense out of us, as though we were charmed snakes. Watching a terrible, popular police procedural show the other day, I have to admit to being surprised by the graphic, psychological and even sadosexual nature of it. ('And this, on during the day!' I heard an elderly voice within myself chirping.) In fact, the police procedural in general seems to be the ideal vehicle for this kind of indulgence. At no point in my viewing was the audience invited to feel any guilt over what they were watching. Happily enough there is a whole team of Righteous investigators – truly dull moral crusaders – who frequently express their stilted outrage at the killer, torturer, or rapist (or why not all three at once!) to themselves or their colleagues. And by then we should already be nodding. We are allowed access to the thrill of the violence from a morally safe perch. Although the posture does make us look absurd.
Now it doesn't really matter what people watch; it matters how they behave in the actual world. And yet the line between fantasy and reality in our media isn't 'blurred,' it's just not there anymore. If you follow politics because you find it fun and interesting, eventually, without having run into any orientating sign posts, you will find yourself a participant in an event that affects real people, really. It takes no time at all, and hardly any effort, to roll one's eyes. Why are we - those of us who have lived largely outside the 'troubling' headlines - the ones that most resent having to even know the headlines exist? How often I hear grumbling of this kind. Is there a way to make ourselves engage voluntarily with events that give us these unearned feelings, or do we only act when they are suddenly upon us, and the choices have been whittled down to one?
There are people through history – a lot of people in fact – who have had to reckon every day of their lives with the logic of an ideological enemy, usually an enemy with a physical advantage; a big one, like state power. Europe in the last century, likely because of my particular place and time (and interests), comes to my mind first, as a repository for this kind of person. Writers as various as George Orwell, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jessica Mitford, and Hannah Arendt left behind enduring records of wilder and more violent times than ours. They were not inoculated against their own demise, and offered their lives as collateral, although some of them needn't have struggled at all. They were somehow able to see the long arc of their future with a combined sense of purpose, irony, and dread. The list of those who in recent generations participated in this way is probably many millions of names long.
And they didn't much complain about it either. They didn't allow the point of their humanism and reason to be blunted by sighing or self-pity. They didn't wonder aloud when it was all going to get better, or marvel at how something unpleasant could ever have happened to them. Some feature of an earlier time, possibly, or just something they ate, seemed to prevent them from dwelling much on the subject at all. It was a matter of course that times of great tension and gnashing of teeth would occasionally come along, and the only sensible thing to do was to face at it, talk about it, and act as best one could, using the talents they happened to have.
Far be it from me - sitting comfortably at home, lights on, internet swift, angels ring'd above in song - to point this out in a superior tone of voice. There is a reason why the thought to write about this occurred at all. Watching a dangerous thing from the safety of distance is no foreign experience to me. And so, I don't particularly have any demands apart from that we ought to steal any moments we can to hear the elusive though enduring call of conscience and self-criticism. The hope here simply being that eventually such a thing ends up being motivational, and a source of action. But maybe at heart we all know that, for the most part, the only real cause of action in a person is a reaction to a growing discomfort in that person. In that case at the very least we should no longer complain about having to live in the world, or know what goes on in it. If we discover that the events happening in our society make us deeply uncomfortable, then all the more reason to face it. It's perfectly clear why horrible things continue to happen. Our own remoteness from seeing the reason is the reason itself.