WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WORLD is proud to present this essay by Kenneth W. Bickford, Looisiana developer and Director at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Ken is also a personal friend of the Editor, who has importunately harassed him for copy ever since they attended a Cajun tailgate before the LSU football game at the Georgia Dome last September.
No guest is more unwelcome in the modern mind than fathomless evil.
On the occasions when the effects around us cannot be immediately linked to a cause—as in, for instance, when we see a magic trick, or when we discover an unexpected genus or phylum of plant, or, when we contemplate what came before the big bang—our mind accommodates those effects by classifying them as, in this case, entertainment, scientific or metaphysical puzzles.
To the ancient or primitive mind, mystery was a natural part of human existence—one with which one could comfortably coexist. To the modern mind, puzzles are nothing more than embarrassing speed bumps which give the temporary appearance of effect without a cause—even when that cause stands, transcendently, outside of our space and time dimensions.
For practitioners of the modern faith, then, every pit must have a bottom.
Which makes the hole left by the handsome, intelligent Anders Breivik, so discomfiting, for the pit he dug is bottomless and there isn’t enough memory, reason or imagination in the world to fill it with an explanation.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew a thing or two about bottomless pits—for he spent nearly one-sixth of his adult life in Stalin’s gulags. His reflections on the causes of fathomless evil in The Gulag Archipelago are worth recalling today:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The risk in explaining Breivik’s fell act is also the risk of excusing it.
Of equal risk, however, is failing to question whether or not society had unwittingly provided a favorable setting for evil—indeed, whether evil had in fact found a comfortable home in which it was free to stretch itself, make itself comfortable and gambol about on a whim.
In this, the actual home life of Anders Breivik has proven instructive.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, former British prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple plumbs Breivik’s depthless evil as well as anyone:
The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects—one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don't feel about people's good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, "because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed," by which he means that "we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural."
For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.
"Most people," Dr. Dalrymple says, "now have a belief in the inner core of themselves as being good. So that whatever they've done, they'll say, 'That's not the real me.'"
Nearly a century ago Chesterton produced his own marvelous rendering of essentially the same thought:
Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street.
In a story that appeared on NPR, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg grimly vowed "But I hope and I believe that the Norway we'll see after will be a more open, more tolerant society than the one we had before."
It is difficult to imagine how such a thing could be accomplished.
My own take—armchair psychologist as I am—is that tolerance is the wrong virtue upon which to build a society. If I am correct, then the expansion of tolerance in Norwegian society will only serve to exacerbate the further isolation of individuals like Breivik. And it wouldn’t be the first time that social ills have been treated with medicines that inflame, rather than cure, the problem.
Nor is it likely to be the last.
I find it fascinating, but hardly surprising, that the modern political class tends to engage in theories of cause and effect which reflect egoistic preferences rather than what is known to actually succeed. An old prescription for sore throat in Ireland consisted of putting the head of a live gander into the invalid’s throat and persuading it to quack. The persistence of the sore throat didn’t shake the confidence of a country doctor anymore than the persistence of sociopathic murderers seems to shake the confidence of a Norwegian.
In a perspicacious essay entitled “Hospitality as the Gift Greater than Tolerance,” Ralph Wood, professor of literature and theology at Baylor University, posits that the true virtue for a society is not tolerance but hospitality. Consider the following three paragraphs:
That the religiously indifferent Chesterton first became a devout Anglican and then a Catholic convert indicates his early discernment that the liberal project would not suffice unto itself. It had a canker at its core, and the worm eating at its heart was called “tolerance.” For while liberalism could offer protections against common evils, it would have an increasing difficulty defining common goods. Chesterton was among the first to recognize that his own inherited liberalism would issue in an unprecedented secularism, rapidly displacing religion from the center of human life. The movement that began with the aim of setting people free would threaten, in fact, to empty the public sphere of those virtues that alone might prevent a return to the brute and slavish state of nature that Thomas Hobbes envisioned: the “war of all against all.”
It was concluded that into this vacuum where common goods were once held in common by people of faith, the tolerant state alone must now establish a true commonwealth.
From such sentiments there emerges the modern individualism that values untrammeled liberty above all else—whether negatively defined as doing no harm to others, or else positively interpreted as constructing one’s own life without let or hindrance. No longer is freedom understood as obedience to a telos radically transcending ourselves and thus wondrously delivering us from bondage to mere self-interest. Rather does liberty come to mean a life lived according to one’s own individual construal of reality. At its extreme, such individualism holds that we can make up our identity entirely out of whole cloth, that we can strip away all bothersome particularities that locate us within concrete narrative traditions, and thus that we can be free only as we rid ourselves of the troublesome commitments and obligations that we have not chosen entirely for ourselves. In sum, we may and must become autonomous selves immunized from all moral and social obligations except those that we have independently elected.(Emphasis added.)
Is there any doubt that the “moral and social obligations” of Anders Breivik were of his own particular election? Is there a superior avatar for the Hobbesian “war of all against all” than Anders Breivik?
How, then, are those who hold to radically opposing construals of reality to deal with each other, if not by a polite tolerance that obscures the power arrangements underwriting it? Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross suggests that hospitality is a more excellent way. Hospitality of a Christian kind does not entail a smiling kind of niceness, a prim-and-proper etiquette, nor even a gracious capacity for party giving. The word derives from hostis, a locution originally meaning not only “host” (as in “welcoming and providing for”) but also “stranger” and even “enemy.” Hospitality thus becomes a Christian practice and discipline, a fundamental responsibility regarding those who are alien and perhaps even antagonistic toward us. It requires, among other things, the willingness to welcome the gift that others represent—not the gift that we expect or desire from them, but their often surprising and troubling gift, especially when others have convictions that are fundamentally hostile to ours. The word “tolerance,” by contrast, originally meant “to endure pain or hardship,” and it eventually came to signify “putting up with the opinions and practices of others.” There is a decisive difference. Tolerance somewhat condescendingly declares that we will “put up with” others, even when their views and habits are noxious to us. Hospitality, by contrast, offers to “put them up” in the old-fashioned sense: we will make even our enemies our guests and thus our potential friends. Hospitality thus becomes an earthly analogy to the Gospel itself. Just as we were once strangers and enemies whom God has patiently taken into his household (Rom. 5:10), so must we be willing to offer hospitality to those who are alien and hostile to us.
Standing alone, Hospitality won’t mean much out of context with the other virtues. As Chesterton pointed out: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
This is why individual virtues are only fully at home in a larger family of virtues—something which is only known to occur within the ecology of family and its larger cousin community. Community, however, is an increasingly rare thing.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam discovered the (for him) disquieting fact that there was an inverse relation between cultural diversity and social capital in a 2006 paper which, coincidentally, was published by the Nordic Political Science Association. The abstract states:
Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.
What is perhaps missing from Putnam’s “long run” hopes is the fact that—unlike today—early examples of “successful immigrant societies” to the U.S. consisted of peoples drawn from the same Western Civilization, or who shared a common religious or military telos.
For my own part, I am convinced now more than ever that another aspect of the debilitating isolation felt by the Breiviks of this world is the loss of subsidiarity. Burke’s famous passage regarding the “little platoons” neatly captures what’s missing in the average city in Europe and America. Those little platoons served as spandrels between the lone individual and the apparatus of the state.
A nation comprised of political units which scaled upward from the individual to the family, from the family to the community, and so on up to the level of the state allowed a coherence and cogency to the conversations had within each political unit. The spandrels between these political units gave the Breiviks of this world a humanly scaled conversation space—a means of talking with someone other than themselves. (It is characteristic of both the evil and the insane that they should favor conversations with themselves over and above conversations with others.)
Such conversations can give both positive and negative feedback to the larger units in society. In our multicultural world conversations tend to be restricted to inoffensive, pretty platitudes. Taken to its argumentum ad absurdum, multiculturalism silences the expression of dissatisfaction. Where conversation—even prejudicial conversation—is allowed, the subsidiarity knows the mind of its membership in a way that allows engagement with the good and the bad.
In the absence of such conversation, the sociopath makes plans and society remains oblivious to the fact.
A recent story in the Daily Mail regarded the young man who murdered his girlfriend on a bet and who made numerous online boasts about his intentions. For some reason, though, internet statements about murder plans are almost never taken seriously. As a father of three girls, I am already contending with the unreality of internet conversations by little boys who send requests for racy photos. So far the girls have put them in their proper place, each in their own unique way.
To their amusement, I’ve told the girls that in my day if I had actually dared to ask a girl for a racy photo, I would have had to approach her and politely say “Look, if you don’t mind, would you please take this Polaroid camera home with you tonight, and then, in the privacy of your bedroom—again, if you don’t mind—would you please remove your top and take a few photographs of yourself. Then—and this is very important—bring me the photographs tomorrow morning when you come to school.”
My inability to do such a thing was based, in part, on the fact that none of the girls in my high school were anonymous persons. They were not easily treated as instruments to satisfy my base desires. Conversations with real persons were—and to some extent, still are—subject to real consequences.
How curious it is that crude viewpoints should be silenced in the public realm and amplified in the private.
It does, however, explain the thinking of a congressman.
This is so, I contend, because the public realm has become too large and the private realm too small. The nastiness of our private thoughts and the banality of our public pronouncements are of one piece.
A psychological distance seems to be the sine qua non for both. In the one, the boy is free to lust without being called to account, whereas in the other, the subsidiary is not free to express its fear of outsiders—a fear that is as real as a boy’s lust and which, like the boy’s lust, is never required (perhaps the better word is “allowed”) to account for itself.
Theodore Dalrymple’s recent observations about England’s garbage-strewn highways evidence a sympathy with this view:
The virtual world has become more real and all-encompassing to us than what used to be called the real world. Those who toss rubbish from cars are in a bubble, and in a trance; separated physically from the world, bathed in music, usually trance-inducing, they glide past everything around them like ghosts in haunted houses.I have noticed that much of the malignancy in modern life arises because of man’s spatial dislocation in the world, by which I mean to say his unfortunate faith in technology’s promise to enlarge both his reach and his grasp have inspired him to use space in a way that is physically and socially unsustainable. It can even lead to the belief that fathers can adequately fulfill their roles as fathers from a distance—from a foreign country even.
Hospitality is a virtue best practiced by a socially cohesive community—a condition which is incompatible on its deepest level with shared multiple understandings. A stark choice must be made: You may have multiculturalism, tolerance and openness, or you may have community and hospitality. You may not have both. In neither case will you eliminate evil, but there is a reason for preferring a community, for it is community which fruitfully engages evil with persuasion.
Neither the lusty boy nor the lecherous public man are persuasively engaged—the one because he will only talk with himself and the other because he is only allowed to converse with those unlike himself. In either case, dialogue and persuasion become a gossamer vapor—to the extent they exist at all.
Modern man tends to cover a geographic space that spreads him thin, waters down the power and magnitude of the local institutions which support him, and which then necessitates the replacement of such institutions either by transferring their functions to corporate interests or to government itself. A spatial commitment to a particular place and the persons inhabiting it is a beginning step in solving such problems.
A commitment to place could lead to a home that is less than tolerant of evil—an intolerance that is based on the love one has for one’s own place and the logical refusal to see that love damaged by evil. It is the sort of commitment observed by Wendell Berry when he wrote: “I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here.”
Man’s problem is not only dislocation, nor can it be the case that men who properly locate themselves in relation to kin and kith will eliminate the possibility of evil. But they could limit it because men who are tied by culture and by space would have in their favor checks and balances against their sinful tendencies that modern spatial usage eliminates. Community accomplishes this by minimizing the anonymity upon which the radical individual depends, and simultaneously maximizing contact with others of a like heart.
In a debate with Amitai Etzioni in the City Journal from 1997, philosopher Roger Scruton saw a historic turning point:
The effect of the liberal agenda has been to corrode the social order that makes it possible to be a liberal. At a certain point an equilibrium was reached—the equilibrium that you can perceive in the early novels of Henry James, say. Then, the cement of community held firm, while the liberal freedoms, grafted upon society by urban life and held in place by the Constitution, created a unique and widespread habit of toleration.
I note in passing that, contemporaneous with Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady, the solitary serial killer first made his appearance on the world scene. Jack the Ripper, as well as America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, both appeared during this time, and a large part of their success is attributable to evil’s enlarged home—a climate in which it was possible for murder victims to go unmissed. To go unmissed, a person must be able to live in a place without being of it. Both London and Chicago were experiencing a sociological first: Droves of young women with no social ties to those cities had suddenly appeared among them.
It is a sine qua non that getting away with murder requires that the missing should be unmissed—spatial dislocation, then, is noticeable at the very beginnings of modern social corrosion.
The efficiency of the modern murderer is possible not simply because of an improvement in killing methods, but also because evil’s natural home—a disconnected and solipsistic society—has been enlarged.
Which means that restoration must consider the actual substratum required by culture for its very existence: Shared physical space.
Josef Pieper claimed that leisure was the basis of culture, and he was right. But leisure had antecedents in the commonalities of climate, economic possibility, language, religion, history, shared dangers and so on. And none of these could have created a common way without man’s occupation of space with fellow man. When we no longer live together, nothing else really matters. In fact, when we no longer live together, there is no longer a “we.”
What an odd circumstance our modern times are when we can live within a dozen feet of the same person for decades and never meet them.
We do not know when it was, exactly, that some ancient forebear came up with the idea for a word with the meaning of “first person plural,” but one thing is dead certain, he had to be referring to folks who were sharing the same cave.
An ancient common way has been rent by modernity’s credulity in cultural elasticity. We have unrealistically required that our common way stretch over the space of an entire continent, to cover all the untold millions with whom we share a tectonic plate—and believe that we have succeeded. Into such a fell place, the wonder is not the existence of a Breivik in Norway, but rather the (thus far) non-existence of a “state of nature.”
Scruton’s observation in a City Journal article from 1996 that “No communitarian has yet come to terms with the fact that the strongest communities in the modern world, and those that give the most reliable moral and material support to their members, are also closed communities” speaks to a sense of self which is primal and humanly scaled. To believe that human culture is, in the words of historian Wilfred McClay, “infinitely extensible” is to believe in something that is simply untrue.
And there is always a price for ignoring reality.
Functional subsidiarity won’t fully eliminate the sociopaths in our midst. We shall always have sociopaths among us. Historically—Attila the Hun comes to mind—their murder sprees have occasionally overwhelmed functional community.
Still, I can’t help but think that Breivik was lacking a properly scaled home—most particularly the corporeal presence of a father, but also the proximity of closely knit kin and kith—that was at one time an ordinary part of human existence. It was the sort of context that brought judgment to a boy’s natural aggression, directing it to bring harm to enemies and protection to loved ones.
The walls of modernity’s home are expansive and roomy, tolerant even. But they fail to direct or shape.
Breivik’s aggression was never shaped or directed. In the end, he had no way to discriminate between good and evil—all he was really good at was killing.
— KENNETH W. BICKFORD
AUGUST 4TH, 2011