Month: December 2007

Witches can be right, giants can be good

In my ADD way, I rarely revisit topics once I’ve posted on them—I say what I have to say, and them I’m done. (Of course, some topics always pique my interest, usually for strange reasons: the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline has been silent as of late—hello?) So I wasn’t planning on further deconstruction of the whole Gustavo Dudamel-Hugo Chávez-Venezuela thing, but it’s been flaring up again (Although, as Darcy points out, we’ve probably been focusing on the wrong demagogue).

The opposition to El Sistema is basically this: Chávez is awful, El Sistema has connections with Chávez, therefore it’s tainted, no matter how much good it does. Patrick at The Penitent Wagnerite (linked above) put it this way:

You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It’s just that simple.

Here’s my question (which goes well beyond the ostensible topic at hand): why is this whole evil-tainting-good idea invariably a one-way street? Patrick paints himself into a corner because his definitions of “evil” and “good” are so acid-and-base exclusive. (A professor I know would have diagnosed this as “hardening of the categories.”) But even those of us who take a more pragmatic (or, from a pejorative standpoint, “morally relative”) standpoint still have a tendency to default to the same direction of moral flow. Evil taints good, but good doesn’t, as it were, taint evil.

I wonder how far back in human history that lopsided equation goes. Pandora’s Box, maybe? Adam’s fall? Unusually for this infidel, I thought of a biblical passage, from Mark’s Gospel:

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

My suspicion is that the modern iteration of the unwashable stain is a hangover from the rise of Nazi Germany. Many decent people chose to take a charitable view of Hitler for too long, with disastrous results—as a result, our reflex is to believe the worst of any even mildly evil figure, and morally quarantine ourselves.

But take a look at that passage from Mark again: the point isn’t that evil needs to be violently amputated from our souls, the point is that even flawed souls can, on balance, be saved. The morally maimed can still enter into eternal life. Your hand is evil? Your foot? Your eye? That’s OK—it’s not like you’re all evil.

Jesus, in other words, was optimistic about the human soul. If you’re afraid of being infected by the evil you see in Chávez and his ilk, you’re too late: it’s been there all along. That’s the pessimistic reality of the human condition that we’re all-too-familiar with after the last couple of centuries—the darkness that resides in all of us, periodically, sometimes catastrophically erupting into the world. But we miss the optimism: sure, there’s evil in everyone’s soul, but most of us don’t let it erupt. It manifests itself as petty selfishness or occasional intolerance, but not authoritarian megalomania. We try our best to be good people, and that good taints our evil. Is it enough? Not always—sometimes not even often. So what do we do? We keep trying. It’s foolishly optimistic. And foolishness is the most universal human trait there is.

Chávez, by the way, lost his bid to alter the constitution and make himself permanently re-electable. Did he call in the army? Declare the election invalid? Throw it into the courts? Nope—he sucked it up and gave a concession speech. At least in this instance, he did the right thing. Did some of El Sistema’s good taint his soul? Probably not—but considering the possibility is a nice workout for an intellectual muscle that, it seems, we may have forgotten how to use.