The Virtue of Selective Mourning
If you write for the public prints for a few years, funny things happen. One of them is that deep-browed pieces you labored over for days, with visits to libraries and lengthy phone conversations with credentialed experts, disappear without trace, while offhand remarks you threw out in the course of writing about something else entirely, or while distracted or drunk, stick in people's minds for ever.
I once, five years ago, in an idle moment without much to say, passed a comment on the ontogeny of the human female breast. I have been known ever since to large swathes 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 seemed to me, and still seems, a perfectly normal reaction. How many of us — non-Egyptians, I mean, or not otherwise directly concerned — 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 the British fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye ran "Indian Bus Disasters" as a regular feature.
But again, this throw-away remark of mine stuck in people's minds somehow, and I am imprinted on the imagination of the American public, or some small portion of it, 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 massively and endlessly expensive on the public fisc, to change the sexual habits of sub-Saharan Africans, as if those habits were any of our business. My indifference to the suffering of those drowned Egyptians was, the writer averred, a sure sign that I am a very, very bad person indeed, every bit as heartless towards Africans afflicted with venereal disease as I had been to the unfortunate Egyptian boat passengers.
This kind of thing leaves me baffled. Who on earth has time to enter into all the world's miseries, to mourn and weep — or even just 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?
In our imaginations we can measure the depth of our feelings for each other by the pain we would suffer at permanent separation, on a scale from the deepest intensity of grief to mild fleeting sadness.
On that scale, though human beings are of course capable of infinite variation, the modal position is to care most for our children, if any, and our spouse or lover. Some way 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.
Such tenderness as we can spare from these closest relationships is scattered unevenly, and not always aimed at individual human beings. Any healthy person nurses some patriotic feeling: the desire to see his nation do well, indignation when she is insulted or harmed. Below that are lower tribal affiliations: church, school, baseball team, ethny or race. There are one-on-one personal affections here too, though not necessarily to living human beings. A favorite animal or even a beloved object might be down here in the underbrush of our sympathies, or a preferred celebrity, or some long-dead historical figure.
By this point, though, a normal person's emotions have been reduced to a feeble trickle. The saintly ideal of love for all human beings, let alone the compassion for all sentient creatures that the Dalai Lama urges upon us, is a hopelessly unrealizable ideal for most of us, 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, for example, loved humanity in general. Actual particular human beings did not fare so well in his presence, still less so — much less so — under the rule of his followers.
Perhaps the strongest expression of universal benevolence in modern Western culture, most particularly American culture, has been the missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether missionaries accomplished much good has been considerably disputed. They did not get a good press from worldly observers. 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.
Story-tellers, notably Somerset Maugham, turned the superhuman pretensions of missionaries into commonplace human weakness. More casual passers-by 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, in my opinion, to be a key tenet of our national political life to keep the teetotal cock-virgins as far away as possible from the levers of power. The harm they may 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. The sad, failed, extravagant presidency of George W. Bush is testimony to this truth.