Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

They also serve who take no stand

I'm still batting around the notions of tolerance and taking a moral stand that were introduced in Remains of the Day. I implied yesterday that being tolerant of reactionary Islamic dogma might be the moral equivalent of shaking hands with Hitler -- that at some point, we need to voice our disagreement and take a stand on such things, and not pretend that real differences are not present.

But I also kept coming back to the scene in Remains of the Day when a young gentleman asks the butler Stevens, "But . . . did you agree with [Lord Darlington's] politics [of appeasing Hitler]?" And Stevens replied, "I was his butler. I wasn't there to agree, or disagree, but to serve." Some people take that to be Stevens' damnation: he wouldn't take a stand on important moral matters, but clung to his out-moded notion of ideal service.

But I see something else in that scene. I see the detachment and reserve that is necessary for civil society and the rule of law. A good judge could have said pretty much the same thing: "I'm a judge. I'm not here to agree, or disagree, but to interpret the law." Of course, some people think that judges should express their moral beliefs in their decisions and attempt to shape the world for the better with their judgements. But most, I think, see such judicial activism as out of place in the scheme of things.

The same argument carries over to all hierarchies of duty and order. Police make arrests when laws have been broken . . . regardless of whether they agree with the law. Soldiers follow orders, without concerning themselves with the ultimate consequences. Citizens pay their taxes, even if they vehemently disagree with the way those tax dollars are being spent. We are all, to some degree, deferring moral responsibility to others all the time. And this isn't altogether a bad thing.
The same detachment is what ultimately provides the basis for universal love, and it's manifestions in the larger society. We accord basic human rights to all criminals, regardless of their crimes. We accord everyone certain freedoms, in spite of the wrongheadedness of their beliefs. We do not have to pick a fight with every person (or every country) that disagrees with us. There is, however, a significant difference between agreeing to disagree, and pretending that no disagreement exists.

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