Worse than the Asiatic Plague

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard has some harsh words for peddlars of gossip that are very apropos for last summer’s News of the World scandal, and the ongoing investigations into media ethics prompted by it.  

 Is indeed any robber, any thief, any assailant, in short, any criminal, as fundamentally depraved as such a person who has made it his task, his contemptible means of livelihood, to proclaim on the greatest possible scale, as loudly as no word of truth is heard, as far-reaching across the entire country as something beneficial seldom reaches, penetrating into every nook where God’s Word hardly penetrates—to proclaim the neighbor’s faults, the neighbor’s weaknesses, the neighbor’s sins, to force upon everyone, even unstable youth, this defiling knowledge—is any criminal as fundamentally depraved as such a person, even if it were the caese that the evil he told was true! 

. . . 

Ah, there are crimes that the world does not call crimes, that it rewards and almost honors—and yet, yet I would rather, God forbid, arrive in eternity with three repented murders on my conscience than as a retired slanderer with this dreadful, incalculable load of crime that had piled up year after year, that may have spread on an almost inconceivable scale, put people into their graves, embittered the most intimate relationships, violated the most innocent sympathizers, defiled the immature, led astray and corrupted both young and old—in short, spread on a scale of which the most vivid imagination cannot form a conception—this dreadful load of crime of which I had never had the time to begin to repent because the time had to be used for new crimes, and because the innumerability of those crimes had secured for me money, influence, almost esteem, and above all a pleasurable life!  In connection with arson, we make a distinction if someone who sets fire to a house knows that it has many occupants or that it is unoccupied; but by means of slander to set fire, as it were, to a whole society—that is not even regarded as a crime!  We quarantine against the plague—but to the plague that is even worse than the Asiatic plague, slander, which corrupts the soul and mind, to that we all open our houses; we pay money to be infected; we greet as a welcome guest the one who brings the infection!

The Politics of Advent

In a recent post, I mused that the chief Christian contribution to a hypocritical and deceitful worldly politics might be the witness of truthfulness and transparency.  In a typically luminous column for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart writes of the political message of Advent, the promise that in the second coming, the transparency which seems to elude all our social and political endeavors now will at last be a reality:

There is a city that fulfills Augustine’s dream of social life, but it’s not an earthly city, not the city of man. In the life to come, everything will become transparent to the Creator, and as a result, opacity will give way to complete transparency: “The thoughts of each of us will then also be manifest to all.” When God removes his veil, we will peer into the souls of others. When we are purged of sin, we will freely share the good within. Only in the city where we see God face-to-face will we have faces to face each other. 

By virtue of Christ’s first advent, though, we have a foretaste of this politics of truth in the Church, a politics that we are called to live out and witness the possibility of, however imperfectly:

Sins are not to be concealed but confessed, and Christians are commanded to meet open confession with open forgiveness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, a light shining out but also a light that, supplied by the oil of the Spirit, illuminates the corners and dark corridors within.  
Within the church are faint glimmers of a society that might meet with Augustine’s approval. Within the church we find the imperfectly realized possibility of a politics of two Advents.

Politics and the Peril of Truth

In chapter 17 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza remarks: “Those who administer a state or hold power inevitably try to lend any wrong they do the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that they acted honourably.” Seemingly trite and obvious perhaps, at first, but on reflection, a shrewd observation about the deep roots of corruption that seem almost inescapable in the business of politics. The perpetual peril of the truth and the seeming inevitability of corruption in politics are the theme (or one of the themes) of the remarkable recent film, The Ides of March (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The uncomfortable insight of this movie is that political corruption does not come about simply because all politicians are self-interested bastards (though they are often that), but is, on the contrary, something into which many find themselves sliding almost by accident, despite the best intentions. The truth, it turns out, is too dangerous a thing for the business of politics, and to succeed, you must learn to hide it. As Spinoza realized, it is fatal for any leader, no matter how good a leader he may otherwise be, no matter how wise his policies, to show signs of moral weakness. Image is everything, and character is essential to image. The masses, and nowadays, the media, are hungrily waiting for any misstep, any chink in the armor of apparent virtue, and they will pounce without mercy. When this happens, penitence is no use, it is too late. The people do not want to see in a leader a man like them, someone with many faults, but sincerely regretful for them–they want to see a pillar of virtue. So the only choice for a politician who wishes to succeed is to conceal any faults, to lend to any wrong the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that he has always acted honourably. This, at any rate, is the common wisdom, and this is the tragic dilemma that The Ides of March explores. Read More