Sam Bacile is very sure of himself (and smart enough to use a pseudonym). He is sure that the Prophet Mohammed was a fraud and worse. Mr. Bacile is sure “Islam is a cancer” that threatens the world. He has made a (bad) film to share his certainties.
Toward the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor. (Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:34)
In recent days the film became available in an Arabic translation. Some who have now seen the film’s trailer — or heard rumors of it — are sure the film reflects official American disdain for Islam. In response they have protested, rioted, and murdered.
When the suffering reached them from Us, why then did they not call Allah in humility? On the contrary, their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their sinful acts seem alluring to them. (Quran, Al-Anaam 6:42-43)
An idiot in Los Angeles shares his idiosyncratic notions. Once only a few neighbors would have been annoyed. Today his ravings or their echoes are heard 7000 miles away. Most appropriately ignore the ignorance. But some other idiots take offence and respond with violence.
On a day dedicated to the memory of murdered innocents, my representatives — the representatives of my nation and my values — are killed. I am offended. I am angry. I hunger for retaliation (literally “return like for like”, especially evil for evil). The President promises, “Make no mistake, justice will be done.”
But with each permutation this idiocy threatens to make idiots — violent idiots — of more and more.
For the ancient Greeks an idiot (idiotes) was — among other things — a man who neglected civic obligations to focus on private affairs. The term could also be applied to those who were patently self-interested in how they engaged civic life.
Aristotle argued, “The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office.” (Politics, Book III, 1275a22) An idiot does not know how to share. An idiot does not know how to ask an authentic question. An idiot does not know how to listen sympathetically to an answer with which s/he disagrees. An idiot does not know how to frame, shape, and make a decision that will be shared by others. The idiot is blinded by and bound to the limits of self.
Idiots are sure of themselves in a way that is possible only for those lost inside themselves.
Timothy McVeigh was an idiot. Anders Breivik is an idiot. Mohamed Atta was an idiot. James Holmes is an idiot. Last night a gang of idiots committed murder in Benghazi. These are each extreme examples of a global epidemic of self-absorbed, self-justifying, self-referential, self-assertive idiocy.
I am not immune. I too can be an idiot. Too often I mistake my own belief as the Truth. I am strongly inclined to assume my personal experience as universal. I conflate and confuse private and public realities. I am unable or unwilling to honestly engage the different reality of another… and for this failure I often blame the other. Regular readers have seen me make all these mistakes. In my obsession with etymology I am probably being an idiot here and now.
There is disagreement on effective therapy. But many agree the typical rhetoric of policymaking, strategizing, and analyzing feeds the disease with self-assertion (and talking points). Especially in matters of life and death a purposeful stepping out of our selves is an essential discipline. Take a walk, get a coffee, bum a smoke, tell a joke…
I read poetry. Reading poetry requires a patience and attention outside-the-self. I am not advocating poetry instead of policy. I’m advocating the poetic as a complement to the political, practical, and policy-oriented thinking that dominates our professional lives. Intentionally step outside the box before you decide.
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.
O Who is trying to shield Whom?
Who left a hairpin in the room?
Who was the distant figure seen
Behaving oddly on the green?
… Delayed in the democracies
By departmental vanities,
The rival sergeants run about
But more to squabble than to find out,
Yet where the Force has been cut down
To one inspector dressed in brown,
He makes the murderer whom he pleases
And all investigation ceases.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere,
And more and more we are aware,
However miserable may be
Our parish of immediacy,
How small it is, how far beyond,
Ubiquitous within the bond,
Of one impoverishing sky,
Vast spiritual disorders lie.
Who thinking of the last ten years,
Does not hear howling in his ears…
There are two atlases: the one
The public space where acts are done,
In theory common to us all,
Where we are needed and feel small,
The agora of work and news
Where each one has the right to choose
His trade, his corner, and his way,
And can, again in theory, say
For whose protection he will pay,
And loyalty is help we give
The place where we prefer to live;
The other is the inner space
Of private ownership, the place
That each of us is forced to own
Like his own life from which it’s grown,
The landscape of his will and need
Where he is sovereign indeed,
The state created by his acts
Where he patrols the forest tracts
Planted in childhood, farms the belt
Of doings memorised and felt,
And even if he find it hell
May neither leave it nor rebel.
Two worlds describing their rewards,
That one in tangents, this in chords;
Each lives in one, all in the other,
Here all are kings, there each a brother…
Our news is seldom good: the heart,
As ZOLA said, must always start
The day by swallowing its toad
Of failure and disgust. Our road
Gets worse and we seem altogether
Lost as our theories, like the weather,
Veer round completely every day,
And all that we can always say
Is: true democracy begins
With free confession of our sins.
Excerpts from New Year Letter (January 1, 1940) by W.H. Auden
Auden dedicated this poem to Elizabeth Mayer. I dedicate these thoughts to two men and a woman who I know did not sleep last night and may not sleep again this night. To you and your colleagues, best wishes dealing with the idiots.