Spiritual-Political Hazards – Part II

4. Manichæism

In Part I the Owl described the perverse devolution of misery into a market good. A corner has been turned. Aggrandizement and titillation (the old fashioned words have no good replacements) act on people like a drug habit; it takes a new evil every  day to keep the party going. Reporters will find it for us. Delight in ourselves comes to include identification with the unhappiness we started out to change. Solidarity, however imaginary, with degraded people becomes more important than ending the degradation.

We are entertained by misery. One need only turn to recent entertainment media (never forget that is what they are): television, movies, social media even chichi advertising. They gain attention by including what we enjoy so much: human oddities, disasters, injustice, and misery.

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The basic phenomenon is not new. It is one of mankind’s recurrent temptations, a recrudescence of Manichæism, in which divine light is supposed to exist in many creatures, but especially in the meanest. Rebecca West, writing of medieval Catharists, describes it thus:

The ancient Manichæan project of searching for particles of light in indecorous places became not only ridiculous but dangerous, as the centuries passed and the ingenious medieval European began to use it to serve that love of the disagreeable which is our most hateful quality. Natural man, uncorrected by education, does not love beauty or pleasure or peace; he does not want to eat and drink and be merry; he is on the whole averse from wine, women, and song. He prefers to fast, to groan in melancholy, and to be sterile. This is easy enough to understand. To feast one must form friendships and spend money, to be merry one must cultivate fortitude and forbearance and wit, to have a wife and children one must assume the heavy obligation of keeping them and the still heavier obligation of loving them. All these are kinds of generosity, and natural man is mean. His meanness seized on the Manichæan routine and exploited it till the whole of an infatuated Europe seemed likely to adopt it, and would doubtless have done so if the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches had not hardened their hearts against it.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Books, 1982; first published 1941) pp. 172 – 73.
5. Conclusion

The people have lost their way. We may have thought our values could not be lost. We should have known better. We were students of history. We might have seen that political combinations are not permanent. From the destruction of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we should have learned that great political combinations can be destroyed—fastest from within.

Now in the United States we hear an odd mixture of triumphal talk and depression. According to the vox populi, our government is in terrible shape, and has failed us economically, even though both crime and unemployment are at historic lows. Ironically, we iconoclasts were the most ardent believers in the triumphal America we professed to despise. Paradoxically, we showed that we believed America enjoyed divine protection, but it is now lost.

We mentioned the anger of marginalized people, and the faux anger of others on their behalf. That is only a fraction of the picture; our national anger affects everyone. It has different faces, according to the different classes from which it springs. The dominant classes have their neuroses as well. If anything their anger may be more dangerous, because they are practiced in disguising it with measured tones, and nourish a more robust sense of their own righteousness to fuel it. The liberal press makes a plausible claim to be the nation’s conscience by virtue of its incessant complaint.

The professional classes use the rest as proxies for their anger. They take the role of advocates as a means to shape and direct lower-end anger into what they consider acceptable political channels, thereby helping themselves to a measure of power while appearing to be unselfish. They own the underclasses, and manipulate them relentlessly as surrogate aggressors. The more we valorize the poor, the more their predictable contempt runs amok, to the satisfaction of the handlers, who get to stand aloof in their dignity.

Of course the underclass has genuine anger of its own too; it need not be urged to take up the cudgels. The perception of others, as the “majority,” or as “privileged,” beyond some pale of my own, makes it easy to justify ripping them: a small strike back, a redress of my grievance against the world. William Faulkner, the quintessential American writer, in Absalom! Absalom! shows how far the love-hate relation with a father (read “patriarchy” in today’s jargon) will go. It is stronger than taboos against incest and fratricide. It will go so far as to threaten death to the same father from which it longs to gain recognition.


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