Of Death and Other Demons

Our political moment was summed up concisely 194 years ago by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who described life under Charles II, the corrupt, traitorous king who took bribes from his country’s chief enemy and finally was driven into exile by a Parliament that had had enough.

This is a direct quote from the August 1825 Edinburgh Review. I have swapped only two words: “president” for “King,” and “Russia” for “France.”

“Those days,” Macaulay wrote, are “never to be recalled without a blush, the days of servitude without loyalty and sensuality without love, of dwarfish talents and gigantic vices, the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds, the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave. The president cringed to his rival that he might trample on his people, sank into a viceroy of Russia, and pocketed, with complacent infamy, her degrading insults, and her more degrading gold. The caresses of harlots, and the jests of buffoons, regulated the policy of the state. The government had just ability enough to deceive, and just religion enough to persecute.”

Macaulay summed up today’s White House even more concisely in another essay, when he wrote that its guiding principles were to teach us “to hate our neighbor, and to love our neighbor’s wife.”

But let us not get into religion today, not while Scripture-spouting Christians are the chief promoters of the death penalty, while the God-hating liberals oppose it. I tried to reason this out this week and sprained my neck so badly, twisting it this way and that, that I ended up in traction, telling my beads on one hand while receiving life-saving injections of drugs perfected upon genetically modified rats through a vein on the other one.

Which one saved me?

I report, you decide.

The only argument for the death penalty in which I place the slightest credence came from a Catholic poet, and a hero of mine: Charles Baudelaire. This unhappy fellow, the greatest poet of the 19th century, defended capital punishment on moral grounds. He wrote that if a government could not draw a line somewhere — if it could not say, in effect: Here you do not go — then the government would lose its moral authority.

Well, maybe. It depends on where the government draws the lines, I suppose.

Sodomy between consenting adults? Between man and wife? Between husband and husband, or wife and wife? Could we ask what state interests are involved here?

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of political or religious history knows that through the centuries, loyal subjects and believers could be, and were, executed, not for overt deeds, but for the way prosecutors thought they thought. And that a few years, a few decades, a few centuries later, The Bosses said, “Oops! Sorry! Perhaps you were right. Have a bit of absolution, won’t you? Then totter back to your grave, like a good little heathen … excuse me, I mean rebel, I mean true believer.”

I bring this up not to attack religion, but to attack the way secular — and religious — leaders use religion today to attack decency, to assail honesty, in quest of power.

What’s frightening to me is not death, but the way so many people spend their lives.

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