interesting times

The Danger of Knowing You’re on the ‘Right Side of History’

Many Democrats found ways to defend the indefensible because the cause demanded it. Photo: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

I have to say I was deeply moved by the New York Times op-ed yesterday by an evangelical law professor from Alabama. The piece, by the wonderfully named William S. Brewbaker III, moved me because it was the first genuinely Christian thing I’ve heard an evangelical say about the Roy Moore scandal. It did more than renounce the tribalism that has led so many alleged Christians to back Moore; it presented Christianity, properly understood, as the core alternative to tribalism, as one way out of tribalism’s dead end. Brewbaker’s critical and deeply evangelical point:

To begin with, sin is a problem from which no one is exempt. If God’s love required the suffering and death of the Son of God in order to redeem us, we should not underestimate the consequences of sin in our own lives. The world is not divided into “good people” and “bad people”; to quote St. Paul, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Or, as the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

It is thus wrong to attack one’s critics, as Mr. Moore did recently on Twitter, as “the forces of evil” and attribute their questions about serious allegations to “a spiritual battle.”

This is not just an evangelical truth. It is deeply embedded in all of Christianity. No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.” These compromises can start as minor and forgivable trade-offs; but they compound over time. In the Catholic church, the conviction that the institution could do no wrong, that its reputation must endure because it represented the right side in the struggle against evil … led to the mass rape of children and teens.

The religious right’s embrace of Trump is of a similar trope. It is not some kind of aberration in the transformation of a faith into a worldly and political cause, it is its logical consequence. The Christian right’s support for a sociopathic, cruel, and vulgar pagan was inevitable, in other words, from the moment the Moral Majority was born. If politics is fused with religion, and if your opponents are deemed evil, then almost anything can be justified to defeat them. Sooner or later, you’l find yourself defending the molestation of a minor. Which is why I have long refused to call this political movement Christian, but Christianist. It is not about faith; it is about power.

But evangelical Republicans are not, of course, the only group susceptible to such corruption. Democrats are human as well, as we have so abundantly discovered. Many of them have also made their political struggle into a secular form of religion, and found myriad ways to defend the indefensible because the cause demanded it. I vividly remember Gloria Steinem’s op-ed defending Bill Clinton’s sex abuse at the time (she still refuses to disown it). I remember how many wanted to conflate sexual abuse with private consensual sex. I also recall a bizarre very-Washington lunch in that period when, for some reason, I was seated next to Barbra Streisand (my first and thankfully last encounter with the singer). I mentioned Paula Jones’s lawsuit — which I’d just defended in the pages of The New Republic — just to see what she’d say. Streisand’s lip curled. “Ugh,” she scoffed. “She’s a little kurva.” I later discovered that this means “whore,” “bitch,” or “slut.” And that was by no means an unusual Democratic response of the time.

And so the other op-ed I was impressed by this week was Michelle Goldberg’s beginning of a reckoning with the toxic legacy of the Clintons. In the age of Weinstein and Trump, Spacey and Moore, it has suddenly dawned on many that Bill Clinton’s history is, well, “problematic.” Goldberg is particularly troubled (and rightly so) by the case of Juanita Broaddrick. Broaddrick claims she was callously raped by Bill Clinton many moons ago, and her story was at first repressed by NBC (until after the Senate vote to acquit Clinton) and then dismissed or forgotten by the mainstream media. Eighteen years later, Goldberg now believes Broaddrick’s core story. Here’s the nub of the encounter in a hotel room. First he kisses her and is rebuffed; then:

“[H]e tries to kiss me again. And the second time he tries to kiss me he starts biting my lip … He starts to, um, bite on my top lip and I tried to pull away from him. And then he forces me down on the bed. And I just was very frightened, and I tried to get away from him and I told him ‘No,’ that I didn’t want this to happen but he wouldn’t listen to me. … It was a real panicky, panicky situation. I was even to the point where I was getting very noisy, you know, yelling to ‘Please stop.’ And that’s when he pressed down on my right shoulder and he would bite my lip. … When everything was over with, he got up and straightened himself, and I was crying at the moment and he walks to the door, and calmly puts on his sunglasses. And before he goes out the door he says ‘You better get some ice on that.’ And he turned and went out the door.”

Hard to get that phrase out of your mind once you’ve heard it, isn’t it?

Three weeks later, Broaddrick attended a small fundraiser for the Clintons. She said she was too ashamed to grapple with what happened, and felt guilty for letting Clinton meet her in her hotel room in the first place — classic patterns of a sexual victim. A friend of hers had picked up the Clintons at the airport and Hillary Clinton had asked her friend if Broaddrick would be at the event. Broaddrick recounted that, at the fundraiser, Hillary sought her out, took her hand and said, “I just want you to know how much Bill and I appreciate what you do for him.” When Broaddrick removed her hand, Clinton held on to it, looked her right in the face, and reiterated: “Do you understand? Everything that you do.” Broaddrick had no doubt in her mind what Hillary was conveying to her. She was thanking her for staying silent.

I believe Broaddrick on this part of the story as well. Goldberg, tellingly, doesn’t. As soon as Broaddrick’s story starts to impose on today’s tribal loyalties, and possibly impugn Hillary, it loses credibility. Suddenly, Broaddrick’s account is “wildly unlikely.” Broaddrick was obviously misreading Hillary’s remark, Goldberg speculates. “Most reporting about the Clinton marriage shows Bill going to great lengths to hide his betrayals.” On the question of Bill Clinton’s decades-long history of sexual abuse, Goldberg implies, Hillary Clinton had absolutely no idea what was going on.

And yet this is what Goldberg also believes about Hillary Clinton: that she’s an intelligent, shrewd political operator; a woman who pioneered the notion of a First Lady as co-president; someone intimately involved in every aspect of her husband’s career and campaigns; supremely attuned to what her enemies could use against her; a wife whose televised defense of her husband’s account of his sexual past in the primary season saved his career; a master of detail and strategy; worldly because she had to be. And yet at the same time, Goldberg believes that Hillary knew nothing about her political partner’s history of abusing, harassing, and exploiting women, was for decades a staggering naïf, and not an equal partner, was kept out of the information loop all along, and shocked, shocked, every time one of these bizarre accusations emerged. Well, I guess that’s possible. Just “wildly unlikely.”

There’s another thing we know about Hillary Clinton. She believed her whole life that she was on the side of the good, that her cause was just, that politics had to be dirty at times, but that advancing legislation to support women, and becoming the first woman president would make it all worthwhile. She was always for women, remember, for their dignity and equality. She was a feminist pioneer. She sacrificed so much for women and children, faced down such constant misogyny, and yet persisted through sexist hell. Her devoted followers believe all of that. It was the core message of her campaign last year. But the “line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” Even your idol’s. Perhaps especially your idol’s.

There is a moment here. No party is immune from evil; no tribe has a monopoly of good. If these bipartisan sex-abuse revelations can begin to undermine the tribalism that so poisons our public life, to reveal that beneath the tribes, we are all flawed and human, they may not only be a long-overdue turning point for women. They may be a watershed for all of us.

Rethinking Civilization

I’ve been reading one of those rare books that really changes your worldview — or somehow crystallizes where your mind has been trending. It’s called Against the Grain, an account of the emergence of the earliest states in human civilization, around 6,000 years ago. James C. Scott, of Yale, summarizes and synthesizes much of what we have discovered in the past 20 years about this period, as humans slowly transitioned from our hunter-gatherer tribes into the earliest agricultural settlements.

The usual narrative is that this was progress, the use of intelligence to finally better our lot, leading to writing and culture and politics and what we call civilization. But that drastically misreads much of the evidence. It’s increasingly clear that the shift toward “sedentism,” settling down in one place to grow crops and fence off animals, was a disaster for human beings. Our health declined sharply; our average height diminished; our diet worsened. The immense variety of the meat and berries and vegetation that had long provided us with a healthy diet became suddenly constrained to far fewer wheats and grains. A less diverse source of food made us more vulnerable to famines, when harvests failed; and the first devastating epidemics emerged, caused by the crowding of humans and animals into spaces they had not evolved to live in, and a mixing of populations once kept apart.

And the evidence shows that most humans at the time were understandably unimpressed. The persistence of hunter-gatherer communities throughout the early state era — and their healthier, more leisurely, and just as intelligent lives — made many suspicious of the new way of life. They weren’t starving; their hunting techniques required sophisticated skills, planning, and coordination; they had far more time to goof off than their successors, who found themselves pressed into monotonous drudgery on the same strips of land.

But for a few, the new order gave them extraordinary power. Control the territory and you control a lot. And so civilization begins with exploitation, hierarchy, and control. The relative egalitarianism and intergenerational communities of human society for over 190,000 years slowly attenuated. Slavery soon emerged as a way to maximize labor and power. Walls were built around these settlements not to keep “barbarians” out but to keep the enslaved or controlled inside. The deeper you read into the book, and mull its research, the harder it is to ignore the possibility that modern civilization has, in one respect, been a gigantic, species-level mistake, a bid for power and mastery over nature and other human beings that has led to stunning achievements, but also untold misery and suffering.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, as the final ratchet in this bid for earthly mastery unfolds, we also see how this process has not just ended in collective unhappiness, but is now destroying the very environment which created us. The sixth mass extinction we humans are even now accelerating — along with the brutality with which we treat so many of God’s creatures — surely forces us to reckon with this deep and long view. It resonates with the story of Genesis, of course, the myth by which humans, once blessed by their environment, and engaged in a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship with nature and each other, decided to bite the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, causing the Fall. We have some deep specieswide awareness of something we once lost, an awareness of an ancient Faustian bargain with power that has come back to haunt us, and terrorize most other life-forms on the earth.

This is not reversible. It’s where we are. But its logic of domination, exploitation, and power is still resistible. This, it seems to me, is one way of understanding the shift in human consciousness that Jesus of Nazareth revealed. We may not be able to undo this in reality — for power exists, knowledge is out of the bottle, and, in much more recent time, the vast machine of global capitalism has an unstoppable, destructive momentum of its own. But we can begin to undo this logic of mastery in our minds and souls. We can seek to give up power and wealth if we want; we can temper our intellect’s power with moral humility; we can see through the delusions that the world has created and which have not made us any happier at all.

And we can rejoin nature as equals, not masters. It so happened that this week I also stumbled across this letter by the Trappist monk,Thomas Merton to Rachel Carson, after her seminal environmental tract, Silent Spring, on Maria Popova’s wonderful site, Brain Pickings. Merton saw that our environmental crisis cannot be seen in isolation. It is a symptom of something deeper and more rotten:

[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating of just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization … Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life … It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.

I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness,” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive,” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.

The key is perspective: seeing our lives through our real history, which is at least 200,000 years, not 2,000 or even 6,000. Only then can we see how aberrant and reckless our little slice of human history is. Only then can we see our way to overcoming and surviving it, if that is still possible. Only then can we begin the process of healing our species and world from this self-inflicted wound.

Happy Thanksgiving. See you the Friday after.

The Danger of Knowing You’re on the ‘Right Side of History’