Firebugs

     The Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote a play called “Firebugs” in which a man, who knows there are arsonists loose in the city, invites two men into his home.
     The men proceed to trundle in barrels of gasoline, piles of sawdust and rags, and store it all in the attic.
     The kindly host, Gottlieb, (God-love) helps them measure out and cut a fuse and build a detonator. He lends them a match.
     And then – guess what? – they burn down his house.
     How was he to know?, God-love asks his wife. Real arsonists, after all, would have their own matches.
     There, in 99 words, is the story of our country’s latest mass murder, in Tucson.
     The murder of a 9-year-old girl.
     The murder of a federal judge.
     The murders of three old people, and a young man.
     And the attempted murder of a congresswoman, a Democrat, a “liberal,” as so many Republican officeholders and spokeshumans told so many newspapers, while clucking their tongues and saying of course they condemn such violence.
     Even though she was a liberal.
     There is nothing to be gained by reading, or listening to, or viewing the political pundits on this. I quote one, the powerful Rush Limbaugh: “What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country.”
     “Mr. Loughner,” of course, is the man who killed all those people, and wounded the congresswoman and 13 other people.
     So Mr. Limbaugh is saying that Democrats approve of killing little girls, and old people, and shooting members of Congress.
     President Obama, on the other hand, said, “What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. … We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”
     As usual, the president makes more sense here than the oh-so moral people who so habitually whine about him. But I think it’s smarter to seek counsel from people who are removed from our nation’s poisonous ambience. Wise people, dead people, such as William Hazlitt.
     In “Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays,” Hazlitt explained why he thought Shakespeare, a moral man, was a better man than a moralist. “… for morality, commonly so called, is made up of antipathies; and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature, in all its shapes, degrees, depressions, and elevations. The object of the moralist is to find the bad in everything …”
     We certainly hear a lot of bad stuff today, don’t we? From moralists – who, as Hazlitt tells us, are not to be confused with moral people.
     The Shakespeare scholar Alfred Harbage described Shakespeare’s audience – and that includes the world today – as “aspiring and susceptible.”
     Certainly politicians, and breast-beating publicity seekers, try to appeal to people’s aspirations, as they claim that if only we do thus and so, perhaps we can reach what we aspire to.
     But people are also susceptible, as Harbage said – susceptible to all sort of things.
     In the past week, far too many politicians, and breast-beating publicity seekers, washed their hands far too quickly, and far too publicly, after the Tucson shootings.
     These people, who scream vile things on the airwaves, and on the floor of Congress, appeal to their followers’ aspirations – then deny that people are susceptible to such appeals.
     I don’t think they can have it both ways.
     Harbage wrote that Shakespeare has always been popular because he constantly appeals to our moral sense. In fact, Harbage wrote, there are no 30 consecutive lines in Shakespeare that do not appeal to our moral sense. And people respond to this because people – nearly all people – have a moral sense.
     We don’t need experts to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. We know it. The average man or woman knows it.
     We constantly apply our moral sense to life. We are drawn to people, or characters, or repelled by them, according to how they stimulate our moral sense.
     Much has been written this week about the responsibility, or irresponsibility, of the hate-mongers who dominate our airwaves today. I’m not going to make any judgments. This is an opinion column, not a court of law. But if you have the stomach for it, read the quotes that have issued this week from the mouths of our Republican politicians and right-wing pundits. How do they strike your moral sense?
     I have stopped reading their comments.
     The only appropriate response to the perversion and venom that twist around our country like a snake every day now is not to fight back in kind, but to rise above it. We should remember what President Obama said in Tucson on Wednesday: “We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. … We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.”

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