Innocence and Morality

August 2003

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Thoughts on the nature of morality and innocence in the modern world.

It is a peculiarly human trait to reduce things to a level of simplicity that borders on the absurd -- in line, no doubt with our limited intelligence. We love two dimensions: up/down, left/right, black/white, empty/full, safe/dangerous, right/wrong, good/evil. Despite every bit of empirical evidence to the contrary, we insist on thinking of the multi-dimensional, complicated world as something assailable with binary (yes/no) logic.

In most cases of normal human behavior, we have done no different than a flower that grows up toward the light and opens facing the sunrise. We can try to decide just how the flower could do such a thing, but we have to conclude that the reason why it did was because it was made that way. We're made that way, too. We all strive to reach the good. Trouble is that we're bad at recognizing goodness. Good can be a hug, a new car, winning a race, killing an enemy, righting a wrong, or just our latest escape from the inevitable. This is further complicated by the fact that people are so easy to manipulate. It's kind of nice that we're built with the capacity of comprehending common good, but too bad that we're so good at lying to ourselves about it.

Case in point: we've brought up a couple of generations of people who have been very artfully and meticulously educated into a blind faith in the holy grail of profit. Truth, honor, duty, allegiance, compassion, and remorse are just pretty words that are used in defense of the indefensible. These people are building upon the proud heritage of butchery and plunder of ages past and transforming it into a culture of indifference. There are evil, murderous thugs in every stage of human history, but we recognize that something especially horrible was practiced in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. They took the crimes of the past and advanced them to the next level. In the same way, the modern hydra of multinational capitalism is transforming the world rapidly into the first level of hell. Not for us, maybe, but for many people on the planet. The victory of globalism has been swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee an end to it while the world lasts.

It is an interesting paradox that those people who act mostly in the defense of the brotherhood of man are people who think the best of people, while those who shout the loudest about God, Glory and Profit, always seem to think the worst of people. People who don't have much don't seem to mind sharing a bit of it with people who have less. People who have too much find it hard to endure parting with any of it to help those who have nothing. I wonder if there was ever a time when people were truly innocent. If so, then were there also men and women who were moral?

Many harms have been done to the world by the misapplication of morality, but I begin to wonder whether its absence isn't worse. We really need morals. They may be a poor substitute for enlightened self-reflection and genuine consideration of other people, but they beat having nothing save a reverence for Mammon. Those who are innocent don't prostitute themselves to others in order to get things, nor do they understand why anyone else would.

I used to wonder why Phil Ochs killed himself. He was so full of compassion for the common condition of humankind. He was smart and talented and had so much to offer. Perhaps he saw too keenly the way in which the world was heading and couldn't go along for the ride. What do you call someone who jumps from an impending train wreck and dies? Hard to think of him as a hero. That's alright; he wouldn't have wanted to be anyone's hero anyway.

Most of the people I know and like realize that we're going to hell in a handcart, "but what are you going to do?" What is there to do? Nobody's listening, and even if they are listening, they don't care. Defeatism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the end, it doesn't matter whether it makes "a difference" outside of your own heart. What matters is having principles and showing them by what you do, every day, one act after the next. I'd rather be a marshwiggle with a burned foot any day, than a comfortable sleepwalker marching to the drummer chosen for me.

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