A cri­tique of the rich, flawed by in­con­sis­ten­cies of logic

Wal­lace Shawn’s long es­say ges­tures to­ward uni­ver­sal­ism but is too of­ten lack­ing in de­tail Night Thoughts

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Charles Shafaieh

By Wal­lace Shawn Hay­mar­ket Books, $14.95

Many peo­ple who watch plays and read books that en­gage with con­tem­po­rary moral and po­lit­i­cal is­sues, like those by Wal­lace Shawn, of­ten feel good – even proud – for hav­ing con­sumed them. They cre­ate an echo cham­ber of self-con­grat­u­la­tion as they tell their peers how con­cerned they are about var­i­ous in­jus­tices and are grat­i­fied when friends re­spond in kind.

Shawn, the son of a sto­ried ed­i­tor- in- chief of the New Yorker mag­a­zine, fre­quently ad­mits he has never known any­thing but a priv­i­leged life and might be mis­taken for one of this set, but he has never been pop­u­lar among them. A self- de­scribed so­cial­ist, his ca­reer as a writer is de­fined by not pan­der­ing to this crowd and in­stead point­ing out to them, in provoca­tive plays such as The Fever and nu­mer­ous es­says, that truly deal­ing with these con­cerns be­gins by ad­mit­ting that they are part of the prob­lem.

In his new book- length, rov­ing es­say Night Thoughts, which moves as­so­cia­tively be­tween di­verse top­ics such as Beethoven, ter­ror­ism and ed­u­ca­tion, Shawn again ad­dresses the sins of the well- to- do. Though he is no less con­cerned about the hor­rors of cap­i­tal­ism and state vi­o­lence than dur­ing the George W Bush years, his first Trump-era pub­li­ca­tion marks a slight shift in tone. This mo­ment, he im­plies through­out, calls for more than tren­chant crit­i­cism: it re­quires a plea to the very au­di­ence that of­ten re­fuses to lis­ten to him.

Con­sid­er­ing how in­flu­en­tial a well-com­posed jeremiad about our ap­proach­ing apoca­lypse then could be, Shawn de­serves re­proach for suc­cumb­ing to hypocrisy and shal­low think­ing him­self.

Clever rhetoric

Writ­ten in un­adorned, al­most fa­ble- like prose, this slim vol­ume ges­tures to­ward uni­ver­sal­ism through its fre­quent omis­sion of de­tail and in­vo­ca­tion of the col­lec­tive. “If we sim­ply keep go­ing the way we’re go­ing now,” he writes, “a hor­ri­ble death, for the rich as well as for the poor, surely can’t be es­caped.” These are clever rhetor­i­cal tricks, at times en­tranc­ing and lack­ing bom­bast or vit­riol for his op­po­nents to re­act to, but too of­ten fail­ing when used to ad­dress cer­tain com­plex is­sues.

For ex­am­ple, Shawn im­plores that those born into for­tu­nate con­di­tions must be­gin ques­tion­ing their iden­tity and po­si­tion in so­ci­ety, which he hopes will have them con­sid­er­ing oth­ers with greater em­pa­thy. His own con­tin­ual strug­gle to rec­on­cile his en­joy­ment of bour­geois plea­sures with his con­cern for the marginalised and dis­pos­sessed leads him to see the world and its dis­con­tents through a sim­plis­tic “lucky”/“un­lucky” prism. (He gives chance sole credit for his good for­tune, as­sert­ing “I don’t re­ally be­lieve I have a right to what I have.”)

Although the bi­nary pro­duces some be­guil­ing pas­sages that sound like they come from a Lau­rie An­der­son al­bum (“The lucky peo­ple ei­ther have more – or they have much more – or they have much, much more – be­cause a per­son can be l ucky, or very l ucky, or very, very

Wal­lace Shawn: ‘I don’t re­ally be­lieve I have a right to what I have.’

lucky . . . Lucky peo­ple give or­ders. Un­lucky peo­ple obey or­ders”), its re­duc­tive­ness is glar­ing.

While “the lucky” should not be limited to “the 1 per cent”, Shawn’s ex­panded def­i­ni­tion – which lumps to­gether any­one who en­joys “two or three fairly healthy meals a day,” who lives in a place that “has not been bombed” and who has “loved ones [ who] have not been raped, tor­tured, or killed” – ig­nores di­ver­sity of ex­pe­ri­ence within even small com­mu­ni­ties. As ra­pa­cious as the US is with its for­eign pol­icy, its vi­o­lence i s not l i mited to out­side i ts bor­ders; many black, Mus­lim, and Na­tive Amer­i­cans would dis­agree that every­one in the coun­try should con­sider them­selves on the bet­ter side of chance.

Even less ra­tio­nal or ex­cus­able is the the­ory of jus­tice in­spired by this be­lief in luck. Ad­her­ing to a rather rad­i­cal de­ter­min­ist view of hu­man be­hav­iour, which taken to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion means we have no free will, Shawn ar­gues we should not “con­demn, re­vile, pun­ish or kill the lucky, priv­i­leged or the greedy” for their ac­tions. How he equates con­dem­na­tion and killing re­mains un­clear.

He goes on to ask, about Bernie Mad­off and Radovan Karadzic, “If I’d been in their cir­cum­stances, would I have done the things they did?” – and, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, an­swers yes about lead­ing a Ponzi scheme and com­mit­ting geno­cide, re­spec­tively. While this logic is less abra­sive, even con­vinc­ing, re­gard­ing mo­ments of cri­sis ( claim­ing we would act eth­i­cally un­der pres­sure “is sim­ply fool­ish”, he as­serts), here it ho­mogenises rep­re­hen­si­ble be­hav­iour and im­me­di­ately for­gives it with an ex­treme ap­pli­ca­tion of let­ting whomever is with­out sin cast the first stone.

But cal­cu­lated and pre­med­i­tated heinous acts must not be equated so un­crit­i­cally with, say, cer­tain types of com­plic­ity – such as pay­ing taxes to a gov­ern­ment that buys bombs that it drops on other na­tions out of greed or big­otry – re­gard­less of how damnable they are. No one may be in­trin­si­cally “bad” and the true mo­ti­va­tions for our ac­tions may be hid­den from us, as Shawn be­lieves, but vile­ness has a spec­trum. Not ad­dress­ing it out of a vague sense that we are all ca­pa­ble of com­mit­ting vi­o­lence does lit­tle to ad­vance a pro­gres­sive ethics.

This re­luc­tance to judge, how­ever, yields more pro­duc­tive re­sults when con­sid­er­ing vi­o­lence com­mit­ted by the op­pressed, par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims. Though Shawn has pre­vi­ously ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for ex­treme paci­fism, he does not sim­ply dis­miss as mad­ness the im­pas­sioned re­ac­tions, in­clud­ing vi­o­lence, that many Mus­lims have to­ward the pro­lif­er­a­tion of spitef ul car­toons and other acts l i ke Ko­ran- burn­ing that den­i­grate Is­lam. “For peo­ple . . . for whom the Ko­ran is the foun­tain that pro­vides the world’s only good­ness,” he writes, “an in­sult to the book can feel more painful than blows that are in­flicted on their own bod­ies.”

As sen­si­tive as this par­tic­u­lar ob­ser­va­tion and few oth­ers in the book may be, they do not re­solve the fun­da­men­tal in­con­sis­tency of Shawn’s ar­gu­ment. He asks that in the still­ness of the mid­night hours we “con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that we can start again” as a species rather than con­tinue act­ing like “some hor­ri­bly dis­turbed de­mented chil­dren” as we de­stroy the planet, con­stantly seek power, and com­mit vi­o­lence to sus­tain the cur­rent world or­der. But if cir­cum­stance alone con­trols our lives, plead­ing for change is fu­tile.

This mo­ment, he im­plies through­out, calls for more than tren­chant crit­i­cism: it re­quires a plea to the very au­di­ence that of­ten re­fuses to lis­ten to him


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