Flunking the Test 

The ethics of disgust

A friend says all you need to know about a person's character is whether or not they yell at underlings. He says if you abuse someone whose job requires patience and courtesy in return, you can't excuse yourself by saying you're having a bad day. You've revealed yourself as a disgusting human being. If, on the other hand, you treat the people under you with respect, you're a decent human being.

Splitting humanity into the disgusting and the decent is risky, and it isn't much better than other, more popular distinctions: white and nonwhite, communist and capitalist, civilized and savage, believers and infidels.

Dividing people up this way has caused a lot of misery, but it allows us to see our worst characteristics in our enemies, which is handy, because we can then believe that by destroying or humiliating them, we destroy all that's disgusting about ourselves. It works for a while, and we can usually find new enemies if we run out of old ones. But when any of us takes an honest look inward, the notion of all-good or all-bad falls to pieces. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, "The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

So I believe you can be a decent person who once yelled at underlings. Maybe you've even yelled at your own underlings. You might not have been a decent human being when you were yelling, and apologies were no doubt in order, and you may want to examine your abuse of people who can't fight back. Find that dark little bit of your soul, resolve not to let it run things any more, and basic human decency might still be within your grasp.

I'm not sure if this exception to my friend's underling rule applies to civilizations. Solzhenitsyn, even when he extended his forgiveness to the individual humans who ran the Soviet Gulag, condemned the Soviet system as indecent, inhuman and disgusting. Yet he saw a far worse system in America.

Addressing Harvard University graduates in 1978, Solzhenitsyn described America as a center of soulless materialism, a place where sacrifice and suffering were reserved for the weak and helpless, where moral cowardice was the norm, where self-restraint was unknown and where a legalistic bureaucracy rendered human souls into sludge.

He was most withering when he spoke of Americans' unwitting abuse of their sacred freedoms. Coming from a totalitarian state, he could not comprehend people who chose to use their liberty "for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror."

Of the media, he said, "Fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your reporters are free, but they are imprisoned in the fashion of the day."

Solzhenitsyn went on to say that living under the manipulations, lawlessness and backroom deals of the Soviet Union's criminal one-party state were still better than having a shallow existence defined by corporations and bureaucracies. In the end, he said, America has been "deprived of its most precious possession: spiritual life."

He said our dedication to the pursuit of happiness can only work if people never die. Since we all die, our duty is not to our own happiness, but to "end life as better human beings than when we began it."

Not that I would want to live in Solzhenitsyn's idea of a decent civilization. He believed in entering willingly--even happily--into suffering and sacrifice. He insisted on a deep religious orthodoxy, so much so that he believed a democracy couldn't function unless everyone in it hewed to Christian ethics. That makes me nervous. Whenever I've observed people trying to enforce Christian ethics, their enforcement was neither Christian nor ethical. They also required lots of suffering and sacrifice, usually from the folks being force-fed the ethics.

All the same, neither the Soviet Union nor America fit Solzhenitsyn's standards for decent civilizations. He predicted they would collapse into their rotten cores.

Little has happened since 1978 to convince me that history won't bear him out. The Soviet Union has indeed collapsed. America, assembling the worst bits of both worlds, has become a one-party corporatocracy. It's staved off collapse so far by cooking the books, floating stock and real estate bubbles, and stealing big-time from the future.

If there's a civilizational equivalent to yelling at underlings, it's in our treatment of generations to come. They can't talk back. They have to wait for whatever we dish out. So we're screaming at them.

"HEY, POSTERITY," we're saying, "RESCUE THIS BIG BANK BEFORE I FIRE YOUR ASS." Or, "POSTERITY, PAY FOR THIS OLD AIRCRAFT CARRIER, AND MAKE IT SNAPPY." Or, "YOU'LL VOTE FOR THESE SCLEROTIC POLITICAL PARTIES AND LIKE IT. WHY? BECAUSE I SAID SO." Or, "CLEAN UP THIS NUCLEAR MELTDOWN AT ONCE. THIS PLACE IS A RADIOACTIVE PIGSTY!"

We're yelling really nasty stuff at posterity right now. Our civilizational capacity for decency is tending toward iffy at best.

You might ask, "What has posterity ever done for me?" If so, you better hope posterity doesn't invent a time machine, because if it does, posterity will come back to 2014 from the overheated, overpopulated, overfracked, bankrupt, mutagenic, open-pitted junkyard it calls home. Posterity will gaze at you and wonder what it did to cause you to hate it so much. Then posterity will indeed do something for you. It will willingly--even happily--clean your clock.

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