Tuesday I was given a quote from Lionel Trilling, “Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming which it takes as a sign of virtue and intellect.”
It comes from an essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here’s a bit of context:
“… He was gifted with the satiric eye; yet we feel that in his morality he was more drawn to celebrate the good than to denounce the bad. We feel of him, as we cannot feel of all moralists, that he did not attach himself to the good because his attachment would sanction his fierceness toward the bad — his first impulse was to love the good, and we know this the more surely because we perceive that he loved the good not only with his mind but also with his quick senses and his youthful pride and desire.
He really had but little impulse to blame, which is the more remarkable because our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect. “Forbearance, good word,” is one of the jottings in his notebook. When it came to blame, he preferred, it seems, to blame himself. He even did not much want to blame the world. Fitzgerald knew where “the world” was at fault. He knew that it was the condition, the field, of tragedy.” (Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination, pages 271-272 (1950)
I am writing this Wednesday morning. I plan to post it before tonight’s debates. I expect the Denver exchange — and especially each side’s after action — will include a plethora of bipartisan blaming. Do we still take this as a sign of virtue and intellect?
Who is to blame for the death of Ambassador Stevens and three others? Who failed to connect the dots and send in the Marines? We have even revived the debate over who’s to blame (and why) for the slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Who is to blame for a drone’s “collateral damage”? Is there blame to dispense when a drone is used to kill a US citizen abroad?
Who is to blame for rise of Salafists in Mali and Northern Nigeria? Who is to blame for inter-religious violence and vandalism in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, Oak Creek, Wall Street, and Murfreesboro?
Who is to blame for budget deficits, fiscal cliffs, and political gridlock? Who is to blame for the persistence of threats and vulnerabilities more than a decade after 9/11? Who can I blame for billions obviously misspent?
Whoever it is: Get them, kill or capture them, stop them from defiling the peace and prosperity I deserve.
Blame: c.1200, from O.Fr. blasmer (12c., Mod.Fr. blâmer) “to rebuke, reprimand, condemn, criticize,” from L.L. blasphemare “revile, reproach” (see blaspheme). Replaced O.E. witan with long “i.” The noun is from O.Fr. blasme, a back formation from blasmer.
Unlike Fitzgerald — at least Trilling’s idea of Fitzgerald — we are not likely to blame ourselves. We do not love the good that much and the American sense of tragedy can often be a bit anemic, even adolescent.
From another Trilling essay on the relationship between history and literature (and more on blame):
We have come to believe that some ideas can betray us, others save us. The educated classes are learning to blame ideas for our troubles, rather than blaming what is a very different thing — our own bad thinking. This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking, and nowadays the errors of academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way in to the world and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds its fulfillment in policy and action.
In time of war, when two different cultures, or two extreme modifications of the same culture confront each other with force, this belief in the autonomy of ideas becomes especially strong and therefore especially clear. In any modern war there is likely to be involved a conflict of ideas which is in part factitious but which is largely genuine. But this conflict of ideas, genuine as it may be, suggestions to both sides the necessity of believing in the fixed, immutable nature of the ideas to which each side owes allegiance. What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us. (Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination, page 218 (1950)
Over the next month and more two extreme modifications of the same culture will confront each other. This will happen in many places across the planet, including in American voting booths. From the confrontation in the voting booths our idea of homeland security may be amended. More radical change is possible depending on confrontations elsewhere.
Ideas emerge from thinking. Ideas are valuable as repositories of prior observation and experimentation. Ideas challenge and validate. Ideas should inform — and can inspire — our thinking.
Several have said this election presents a clear choice between two very different ideas of America.
Thinking is, however, more than choosing between ideas. Thinking engages the present moment with self-critical attention and purposeful creativity. Thinking produces new ideas and displaces old gods.