Sometimes I wonder: why do I despise public pieties so much?
It is not that I seek to tear down every nice thing, every decency, every earnest expression of attachment to The Good, The True, and The Beautiful. But it is hard not to notice a pattern: I find most expressions of popular moralizing to be foolish at best, downright stupid and repellent as often as not.
Perhaps it is the willingness of the earnest rah-rah boys for Uplift to disparage freedom that bothers me. I do have a strong commitment to freedom. I don’t like it when it is denigrated or in any way maligned.
A friend shares some of my commitments, so he shared, with me, a Huffington Post column by one Rabbi Michael Lerner, entitled, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy.” My friend called my attention to a key passage:
[I]ndividaul [sic] human liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and see them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred. Individual liberty is a strategy to promote this highest value, but when that liberty gets abused (as for example in demeaning women, African Americans, gays in public discourse) we often insist that the articulators of racism, sexism and homophobia be publicly humiliated (not shut down, but using our free speech to vigorously challenge theirs).
This is all in aid of a discussion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The good rabbi does not like all those nasty things that the French satirical magazine artists wrote and depicted. More to my taste, he makes some excellent points about Western hypocrisy when it comes to upholding rights.
But the good rabbi — all rabbis are “good” until proven otherwise, just as conservatives are presumed to be “staunch” and liberals “caring” — is not really very reliable when it comes to freedom. He obviously has “other values” that he is promoting.
Why do I say such a thing? Well, take his contention that liberty is “a strategy to promote” the summum bonum as he sees it, namely the treatment of “human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect” while seeing “them as embodiments of the holy,” etc. etc. Though I will say nothing against generosity and kindness and respect, I neither advocate individual liberty to promote love nor do I think that the best way to increase the sweep of freedom in society is to tout love and high-mindedness, etc. As near as I can make out, we who love liberty love it for its own sake, as well as fix on it for social reasons, as a convenient middle ground to avoid the greatest crimes and allow for the most beneficial co-operation.
Face it: co-operation doesn’t depend on love and its inculcation. It does depend on some strategic forbearance, some basic respect. But we shouldn’t make too much of its high-mindedness. The reason liberty should be valued so highly is, as Bernard Gert said of the moral rules, because it is the best way to avoid disaster.
More cloying is the religiosity throughout Lerner’s essay. So earnest. So “well meaning,” one expects a road to hell to emerge at any moment, “good intentions” having been laid on so thick.
And, oddly, he seems never to confront the violent nature of that most problematic of religions, Islam. He seems to bend over backward to assert that it is because of Western callousness to the Muslim world that Muslims become violent towards us. And that is it.
I am not saying there is nothing to this. I have argued that American brutality and imperialism helped give birth to much of the terrorism now arrayed against the West. But it is also and quite plainly the case that Islam has been a religion of violence since its first years upon the blistering sands of Arabia. And further, and more relevant, France’s latest batch of terroristic killers — of vigilante enforcers of a touchy, dangerous religion — gave almost no reason for us to blame America for this one. No hair shirts this time. The terrorists directed their rage directly at the satirists of a magazine. To go on talking of our dehumanization of them seems a tad off-point.
It seems almost witless.
At the conclusion of his excursion Lerner plays what he seems to regard as his trump card, where he tries to explain why he can mourn the dead without celebrating the victims’ work.
He doesn’t say it is because Charlie Hebdo made fun of rabbis and such as well as imams and terrorists. And politicians. And fanatics of all stripes.
No, Rabbi Lerner is worried about the dignity of human beings, and thinks ridicule decreases that dignity. “So lets call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is — an assault on the dignity of human beings.”
But those ridiculed by Charlie Hebdo weren’t being subject to comic focus for no reason. Lerner may be right, “the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone.” But, as I understand it, the satirists did not generalize their corrosive contempt and ridicule. Their satire was based on standards. The humor wouldn’t have worked had they chosen random targets.
The victims of Charlie Hebdo‘s satire? They were ridiculed because their dignity was brummagem. The scammers, tyrants, poseurs, and terrorists may have pretended to dignity, but their own vices and crimes undermined any such pretense. Hence the ridicule.
And hence the mission of satire.
It is a high calling.
Even higher, perhaps, than that of platitudinizing rabbis such as Lerner.