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Random thoughts on virtue and vice

I’ve been thinking about the characteristics that lead an individual (and by extension, a culture or a nation) toward freedom: sound judgment, an understanding of economics, a live-and-let-live attitude, skepticism toward Authoritah, determination, a hunger for independence, honor (especially in the sense of being a person of one’s word) — there are so many.

A disinclination to indulge in witch-hunts, however insistant the cultural drumbeat, could be helpful. So could the ability to recognize one’s own shortcomings. Or having the skill to apply deeply held abstract principles smoothly to reality’s messy vicissitudes. So many.

So complex, too. For instance, good judgment is in part learned by making bad judgments. And even somebody with a firm understanding of the laws of economics can still succumb to the lure of “free stuff” and too-good-to-be-true propositions. In fact, freedomistas are more likely than average to fall for bogus get-rich-quick schemes (at least so it seems judging by the number of MLM and “prosperity” pitches I’ve had to push away during my years in freedomland).

What’s an asset in one situation can be a drawback in another. One person’s “determination” can be another’s self-defeating stubbornness.

Our virtues can be our vices if they hinder us from living both free and satisfactorily. Our vices can occasionally be our virtues. For a project Kit Perez and I are working on, we differed, for instance, on whether having a strong moral character was a power for freedom. I objected that sometimes (for instance in war, or when undermining a tyrant), being a sneaky liar could be quite an advantage. Kit won the debate by pointing out (IIRC) by saying that being a sneaky liar could be a useful skill for a specific purpose, but for life among free people, moral character was the greater virtue.

—–

I remember a story Corrie Ten Boom told in her first amazing WWII memoir. Her family was hiding Jews in their house. Other family members were worried about one woman; I don’t recall whether it was a Ten Boom sister, an aunt, or a cousin, but the woman had the problem of being too honest. She absolutely could not lie. This was going to be a huge problem if the Gestapo barged in and demanded, “Where are you hiding them?”

Sure enough, they were raided, the demand was demanded, and the terrifyingly honest relative, scared speechless, pointed under the kitchen table where she was seated. This infuriated the squad leader, who believed she was making fun of them by pretending the family could be hiding multiple fugitives under the table. While the Germans raged, they never looked under there.

If they had, they’d have found the trap door under which a number of terrified innocents were hiding.

There are many traits, skills, and habits that work best for freedom under normal circumstances. But you never know when some double-died bastard will do the noble deed that ultimately topples a tyrant or some too-good-for-her-own-good woman will tell a lifesaving “lie.”

—–

I’ve been thinking a lot about the characteristics of free people and free cultures vs perpetually oppressed ones. Partly because it’s just one of those things I think about, partly because of that project with Kit, but partly because what’s going on in the political world is so perplexing, but so common.

The entire Democratic party seems to have devolved into 1) grievance and 2) free stuff. Candidates race to see who can appeal the most to grudge-holders and offer the most goodies.

Well, free stuff is very tempting and if being perpetually aggrieved is going to earn you status points in the world, then millions are going to want to be oppressed. That part’s understandable.

What’s less understandable is millions of people supporting these views without understanding their own motives and the potential consequences. They cannot see that the politics that enable every tiny group to become its own oppressed minority ends up in nothing but faction fighting and increasingly nasty power plays. Worse, it appears supporters of endless free stuff don’t even have the basic understanding to know that you can’t just wave a wand — or a piece of legislation — and decree an end to the fundamentals of economics.

Understanding potential consequences doesn’t even require any advanced training in economics, political science (weird term, when you think about it), or history. It largely requires a combination of common sense about the real world and self-knowledge to recognize your own prejudices, whiny tendencies, and greed.

But that appears to be an uncommonly rare gift.

—–

I have a friend — someone I’ve always considered highly sensible — who, in my far from humble-on-this-subject opinion, is allowing one of her virtues to become a vice.

A man she hasn’t known very long has charmed his way deeper and deeper into her life.

Sensible, my friend is, but she’s also very giving. All her friends and neighbors have benefited from her kindness. But kind people make easy targets for takers.

This man is taker. He’s as immature as a teenager, as self-centered as a top, and constantly sets up situations where she has to bail him out of his own bad judgment or otherwise agree to do him enormous favors. He’s charming and intelligent of course, as such types are. She enjoys his company. She’s aware of the red flags and goes along with his manipulations, anyhow. Many people close to her are concerned and have told her so; but hey, she’s an adult and her eyes are wide open. I wish her well.

Still, I keep hearing in my mind the song about the tender-hearted woman who takes in a half-frozen snake. She cares for him and cherishes him — then feels betrayed when he bites. But after inflicting a fatal wound to her breast, the snake sneeringly reminds her, “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

(Yes, it’s Aesop with a different cast of characters. Human nature doesn’t change.)

How many times have we all been bitten by some snake whose scaly, slithering nature we had plenty of reason to observe?

—–

Maybe we know our friends and family are wrong when they tell us we “think too much” (as a number of us here have reported being told since childhood). Maybe we believe the problem is that too many others think too little. Still, those friends may be right in one way.

It would be so nice simply to believe in slogans. And I don’t mean merely to believe in slogans, but to Believe. In slogans. How lovely to think about the big issues of the world solely in terms of good and evil, black and white, us and them. How lovely to “know” everything in short stirring words. How lovely not to “think too much.”

And for a writer, writing about complexities and on-the-other-hands and places where one thing works and another doesn’t is just not the way to the top of the Google rankings. How much better to be a slogan-generating, meme-manufacturing twitterer, so sure of yourself and your Truth at all times.

Or how much easier just to believe whatever some online “influencer” proclaims (even if said influencer proclaims something 180 degrees off that view tomorrow).

Some things are black & white (e.g. tyranny vs individual rights, murder vs saving lives). But even then, nothing is simple. And learning the truth (as opposed to merely memorizing the loud, easy capital-T Truths handed down to us from church, state, and parental authority) is unavoidably painful.

4 Comments

  1. free.and.true
    free.and.true August 3, 2019 11:15 am

    “You think too much”… “You read too much into things”… “You make things more complicated than they need to be”…

    Yup. Been there, heard that, world without end, amen.

    But then, the people saying those things are the ones who dig on “cookbook” horoscope predictions and multiple-choice quizzes about which TV-show character would be your perfect mate.

    Oy.

  2. Comrade X
    Comrade X August 3, 2019 12:24 pm

    Over thinking can be good or bad, kindness the same, I was told once by a person who IMHO was always looking for an angle that kindness was weakness, the key I believe like with that snake, you could help it but letting it get close enough to bite you is where the deadly decision was made; now with overthinking, I have found that in life seeking perfection is much easier than finding it so I’m a close enough type of person where missing the mark a little high is better than missing it low and if I hit a bullseye well it was mainly luck anyway and thus I’m counting my blessings.

    Virtue, right & wrong, good and evil, there’s a saying I’m fond of and find to be true;

    “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart.”
    Alexander Solzhenitsyn

    I know I have both in me and it takes effort and thought to make sure you are not on the wrong side of that equation and experience has surely taught me that.

    Understanding that about others helps make me understand others better.

  3. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge August 5, 2019 9:48 am

    Great stuff Claire! Thanks for the reminder that ONE of the many prices of freedom is to THINK.

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