Vicious Virtue

     Virtue can be vicious, said Michel de Montaigne, that most amiable of men.
     In its most ostentatious forms, virtue is so sure of itself it believes that people who make any other claim to virtue are not merely in error, but should be destroyed.
     Montaigne wrote in a time of religious wars, in which unspeakable cruelties were inflicted upon men, women and children not for anything they had done, but for what they were presumed to have thought.
     A time, in other words, like ours.
     We could look at Ukraine. We could look at Nigeria, and at all forms of religious fundamentalism – no matter what the religion. Or we could look at political discourse in the United States.
     Our political language today is more venomous than it has been since the Red Scare of the early 1950s. What’s striking about this is not just how counterproductive it is, and how obnoxious, but that the right-wing rhetoric that soaks our airwaves, like a rancid suet, is thrust out there with such ostentatious claims to virtue.
     Yet a distinguishing mark of today’s rhetoric is its phoniness – its acknowledgment that these vicious things are being said purely for their effect.
     Let’s consider some topics in the news: immigration, Benghazi, taxes and health care.
     Immigration is a subject nearly impossible to talk about in this country. For some reason it touches painful nerves.
     In the Republican Party, to the extent immigration is discussed at all, the “problem” is how to present the party in such a way that the party can get votes from immigrants and their children.
     This is as transparently phony a pose as one could imagine, but I have yet to see one of our major pundits, or a dispassionate news analysis, point out that if national policy is based upon tricky positioning, it hardly can be expected to solve the problem it claims to address. If it is a problem at all.
     Benghazi is the most obviously phony “issue” today. After nine congressional investigations, this latest one is just picking at a bloody scab – it has nothing to do with the good of the nation. It’s a repellent posing over corpses.
     Taxes and the deficit? Does anyone truly believe we can cut taxes and reduce a trillion-dollar budget deficit at once? This is fantasy. It’s an invocation of some sort of mathematical god who never existed, who can turn subtraction into addition: swine into pearls.
     Health care? Does anyone truly believe that a visit to an emergency room to save the life of a baby with pneumonia should cost $20,000? Or that the baby should be turned away to die of a curable disease because her parents have no insurance? This still happens every day somewhere in this favored land, yet we are told that our feeble reach toward universal health care is a form of “death panels.”
     We should be able to discuss our real national problems with reference to facts, but that does not seem to be the case. What we have today is a nationwide resort to poses, to claims to a vicious virtue, a sad, self-destructive and pathetic result of xenophobia, racism and ignorance: strains in the American character that always have existed along with our more noble attributes. But never in my life – not during Watergate, not during Vietnam, not during the Red Scare – have I seen such a phony dodging of issues, such preening of puny breast feathers, based upon nothing but prejudice.
     Four and a half centuries ago Montaigne summed up the state of political discourse in the United States today, by writing of the Caunians, who lived in Rhodes around 300 B.C.: “The Caunians, out of jealousy for the domination of their own gods, take arms on their backs on the day of their devotions, and go running about all the neighborhood, smiting the air in all directions with their swords, thus pursuing to the death and banishing from their territory all foreign gods.”

%d bloggers like this: