On moral ambivalence and heroism…

Kurt Vonnegut – the writer of Slaughterhouse 5, my favourite book of all time – finally joins my rogues gallery of personal heroes. I’m not sure it’s an honour that he’d aspire to, or even accept – particularly given the company he’s going to be keeping – but he doesn’t get a choice in the matter. It’s my list. If he doesn’t like it, he can write his own damn list…

He joins a motley group consisting of Steve Jobs, Grant Morrison and Sigmund Freud – all of whom I think are aware of the sheer complexity of life and living, the difficulty of operating morally within the world, and who strive nevertheless towards some kind of positive constructive change, significant or profound insights or the building of elegant and beautiful things. These are probably the only ethics that I understand. These are probably the only beliefs that I can stand behind.

To my knowledge, none of my heroes are women and none of them are gay. This could be a failing of the world, a failing of myself or a failing of women and gay people.

Of the four, Kurt Vonnegut is clearly the most overtly politically motivated – but he stands for a form of humanism rather than for sectarian or party politics. This doesn’t mean he’s not prepared to lay into our leaders and representatives in government or big business. Quite the opposite. Here’s an extended quotation from a recent interview with him:

I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d?etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka ‘Christians,’ and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or ‘PPs.’

To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete?s foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.

What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can?t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody?s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

The most important part of this quotation for me is the part marked with italics. As I look around me at the very vocal parties trying to make the complex moral issues surrounding an attack on Iraq seem simple and obvious, I feel repelled. There are people on every side using cheap argument and charged sloganeering to steer public opinion. There are people on “both” (as if there were only two possible approaches to any problem) sides appealling to patriotism, or to deep-seated prejudice of every kind, or appeal to people’s self-interest or on their nervousness and sense of vulnerability.

Which brings us back to heroes. We choose figureheads to represent our interests or our beliefs. We choose to give respect to people whose arguments convince us, or who have knowledge and experience that we think is important or relevant. Each of us makes miniature heroes out of our politicians when we support them, or the experts that we quote when we’re defending a position.

If I have any advice for anyone who’s reading this and still doesn’t know where to place their support in this and any other political situation – how to choose your heroes as it were – I would say this and nothing more. The people who present conflicts like this, decisions of this scale, as either / or situations entered into because there are no other options (be this in defence of war or against war – or any other debate) – these are the people who we should be suspicious of. Because they’re the ones for whom all debate has been shut down, they’re the ones who couldn’t be persuaded that their position is wrong if you had all the evidence in the world. They’re the ones who have positions that are fait accompli, that they’ll defend and fortify – bringing arguments and figures to bear individually as if they were tanks or planes, selecting whatever information suits their position at any time.

Living isn’t about anything, but much of the process of wandering through life requires us to make difficult decisions – to try and work out what the best thing to do is in difficult circumstances where there are a variety of perspectives, where no side is completely free of stigma or shame, where pragmatism tells you a different thing from your beliefs. People who would hide these decisions from you, take these decisions from you, who would treat you as children – they don’t deserve your respect, let alone your adulation. These people are not to be trusted. Do not allow yourself to be spoken to as if you were a child or an idiot by the people you chose to govern you unless you’re prepared to have them make terrible decisions in your name. Because however many heroes you might have, you don’t have to wake up and face them in the mirror in the morning.