Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On Absolutism And Nihilism

On Absolutism and Nihilism

There are times when a sane person should take a step back from whatever barricade he or she is manning that particular day and take a jaundiced eye at the infinite cruelty that the world sometimes seems to offer. And start to search for answers.

We are wired to be systems organisms, creatures of habit.  Watch runners in a marathon and see how they keep themselves in rhythm, their strides perfectly matched.  Studies have shown that women in the same office magically, over time, synchronize their monthly periods.  Go to a concert hall and listen to the Bach B Minor Mass, or Beethoven’s Ninth, and hear the blending of instruments and voices surging forward in a complex wall of sound that intertwines a primal beat with a core of supreme organizational genius.

This is who we are; on a subconscious level, we not only link up, but are attuned to those whose behavior is somehow outside that norm; the homeless person moving with an irregular gait, a driver weaving across the road, the odd speech pattern or tone of voice.  Quickly, we analyze the possible threat, contextualize it, and decide whether to take action.

So, too, it is in the way of our public lives.  We have little social courtesies such as holding a door, or giving up your seat, and large ethical systems, like religion.  Our laws and our politics are effectively a series of agreements that we rely on for order; we look to our police and our elected leaders to see to that order.  We gravitate to communities that share our values.  We wrap ourselves in a cocoon of certainty. And we feel safe.

Of course, this is an illusion of security.   There is always evil, sometimes inescapable evil. In our civic lives, we often find that the moment we think we have a social contract or a guiding principle (no matter how long-standing) there is always someone telling us that plain language doesn’t actually mean what it very clearly seems to say.   Whether this is genuine belief or opportunistic sophistry is irrelevant.  Insistence on form obliterates substance, and an attempt to create order instead leaves us unable to adapt and vulnerable to unexpected consequences.

The great “The Bridge On The River Kwai” is a terrific exploration of this.  Captured British soldiers are imprisoned in a POW camp deep in the jungle in Burma and forced to build a rail bridge on the route to Rangoon from Malaysia.  A new battalion of prisoners is marched in, headed by the formidable Colonel Nicholson (Alex Guinness) who immediately faces off with the camp Commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as they vie for control.

This isn’t really a war movie.  What it really is about the conflict between two world-views that are, at bottom, not all that dissimilar--Nicholson and Saito share the expectation of command--and how even strong convictions and good intentions can end in ruin.

Nicholson is a martinet, but he’s not without compassion.  He sees a dispirited and broken group, and genuinely belives that his men will be better off with order, regular work, and discipline.  The bridge gives him the opportunity to create that order.  Perhaps that’s self-indulgent, but it gets results, and troop morale and health improve markedly.

But Nicholson’s core conviction leads him astray.  Saito, in effect, cedes control of the project to him, and Nicholson has his engineers and men construct a far better bridge than the Japanese could have built themselves.   In one of the more bizarre sequences, Nicholson realizes that they are behind the construction schedule.  Needing more men, he recruits patients from the infirmary, reassuring the enraged Major Clipton, the Camp doctor, that a little light work and sunshine might do the lads more good than lolling about in bed.  

Saito is mortified.  He has enough self-awareness to realize that, while he is accomplishing his goal of building the bridge, the achievement is no longer his. He is as much captive as captor. He contemplates his shame and weeps privately.

Nicholson becomes consumed with the task; he sees this a project with an honorable end and as a monument to the perseverance of his men, with no collateral impact.  When Clipton notes that, in doing such a magnificent job, the troops may be aiding the Japanese war effort, Nicholson isn’t angry.  He’s flabbergasted that anyone could possibly think this way.

In watching and reading about the horrible events in Newtown, and in the reactions of people across the country, squaring off over the role of guns in our society, I found myself somehow reminded of Nicholson and Saito and Clipton. 

On December 15, 1791, Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights, and with it the Second Amendment, became law.  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 
Those 27 words must be the most parsed in history. For gun control advocates, they are a rusty antique musket pulled from a cupboard by a patriot wearing a three cornered hat, rushing out to meet the Redcoats.  Since the British Empire is long gone, guns must be cute neutered props that you see at historical reenactments.  To pro-gun groups like the NRA, those words are the holiest of holies, the lynchpin of all other rights, and transcendent.

These two absolute positions are just plain wrong. 

No matter how much some may wish away the presence of every gun, they exist, and the Second Amendment does as well.  It is irrelevant what other countries do.  This is the deal we made 231 years ago, and unless it is otherwise repealed through a Constitutional process, that’s the deal we have to keep.  Law-abiding citizens are entitled to have firearms.  Ignoring the Constitution because we don’t like what it says is a trip down the road to anarchy. 

And to the NRA, and those sincerely committed people who think that the Second Amendment is some sort of uber-right though which every person is called by a higher power to pack heat in every possible location, no, the Second Amendment doesn’t say that either.  Read the Bill of Rights, all of it, and find one that isn’t somehow limited in some way.  Reconcile, if you can, the position of the NRA and many pro-gun legislators who also supported the Patriot Act.  You can't.  When you cherish all rights in the Constitution, then you have the moral authority to complain about the limitations on one right.

If Newtown teaches us anything, it is that crazy murderous people exist in this world and we cannot stop them all from carrying out their lunacy.  The strictest of laws, or the complete absence of them, will mean nothing to them.  Newtown also shows that we need to have a calm discussion about  reasonable regulations,  the necessity for training and licensing both at the user and seller end, as well as limitations on where guns can be taken.  And, finally, as a friend who is an avid hunter and gun owner said to me the day after, we need to have a serious talk about the desensitization to violence in the young that things like third-person shooter games bring.  Start that process, and we can preserve the essence of the promises we make to each other.

There is an awful moment for Nicholson in the final scene when he discovers that the bridge has been sabotaged and he calls in the Japanese to save it.  As people die all around him, he suddenly understands what his single-mindedness has brought, “What have I done?”  Injured himself, he stumbles over to the detonator, and falls on the plunger, destroying the bridge, and the train passing over it.  The path of absolutism leads inevitably to nihilism. 

The final words in the film belong to Major Clipton.  Moving from vantage point to vantage point, he looks down at the death and destruction.  “Madness!...Madness! Madness!”