The many uses of kind­ness

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - PHILIP MARTIN Read more at pmartin@arkansason­line.com www.blood­dirtan­gels.com

In his more au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal than it might first ap­pear novel Slaugh­ter house-Kurt Von­negut writes: “I went to the Univer­sity of Chicago for awhile af­ter the Sec­ond World War. I was a stu­dent in the De­part­ment of An­thro­pol­ogy. At that time they were teach­ing that there was ab­so­lutely no dif­fer­ence be­tween any­body. They may be teach­ing that still.

“An­other thing they taught was that no one was ridicu­lous or bad or dis­gust­ing. Shortly be­fore my fa­ther died, he said to me, ‘You know—you never wrote a story with a vil­lain in it.’ I told him that was one of the things I learned in col­lege af­ter the war.”

A lot of us think sto­ries with vil­lains in them are vul­gar and crude be­cause they tend to let read­ers off the hook. Be­cause no one is in their own heart a vil­lain. Ev­ery­one has mo­tives and can jus­tify their ac­tions. Peo­ple are pro­foundly in­flu­enced by the cir­cum­stances they grow up in, by their par­ents, care­tak­ers and friends, and by the ways early req­ui­sites are frus­trated or met. Brain chem­istry plays a role. We are all in­di­vid­u­als with unique per­son­al­i­ties, each of us in­vested with cer­tain po­ten­tial­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions.

But none of us are born bad; I don’t be­lieve a God would seed any soul with evil.

Though we might re­sist them in our fic­tion, we un­der­stand that in real life vil­lains abound. Or at least they seem to un­til you al­low your­self to rec­og­nize the wounded child within the fury and the heed­less blus­ter, the need­i­ness that com­pels ac­qui­si­tion and os­ten­ta­tious­ness. A mon­ster is only a mon­ster un­til you dis­cover the source of its sorrow. Then it be­comes an ex­pli­ca­ble hu­man be­ing, wor­thy of pity if not for­give­ness.

So I wish that Hitler might have passed his au­di­tion for the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, or that his se­vere ar­chi­tec­tural wa­ter­col­ors had found fa­vor be­yond the Jewish deal­ers who cham­pi­oned his work—Josef Neu­mann, Jakob Al­tenberg and Sa­muel Mor­gen­stern. Things would surely have been dif­fer­ent for the world had his in­ter­est in hu­man be­ings matched his tech­ni­cal prow­ess.

Had Ti­mothy McVeigh found a good girl­friend he might not have felt the need to bomb Amer­ica; had Charles Foster Kane not been ripped from his child­hood he might have had a chance at hap­pi­ness. Had Richard Nixon re­ceived a hug at the right time, who knows how much his­tory might have been ame­lio­rated by kind­ness?

But these days we don’t talk much of kind­ness—for some of us it presents as weak­ness. At best, it’s seen as sort of a com­pen­satory virtue. (If you can’t be the big­gest, the best, the most im­pres­sive, maybe you can at least be kind.) It has lit­tle cur­rency in our present mo­ment when our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives stand ready to do real dam­age to real peo­ple, es­pe­cially the most vul­ner­a­ble and marginal­ized among us.

Yet I want to un­der­stand these peo­ple who beg us for our dol­lars and votes, who yearn for high of­fice and hon­orifics. Most of them prob­a­bly started out with ideals, with at least the no­tion that they might help make the world a bet­ter place. Of course they were cor­rupted by the easy money that was of­fered them. Most of us would be too. Most of us would take the checks then re­verse-en­gi­neer a the­ory to sell our con­stituents, the lit­tle peo­ple too dense to un­der­stand the pres­i­dent’s tax re­turns, who need a state-spon­sored mon­u­ment to the Ten Com­mand­ments to ex­pand their moral ed­u­ca­tion. But then most of us don’t hold our­selves out as would-be lead­ers will­ing to sac­ri­fice our pri­vate am­bi­tions for the pub­lic good.

How does one rec­on­cile one’s con­science to the things one must do to stay in of­fice—to avoid the wrath of the cor­po­rate play­ers who, far more than the Amer­i­can peo­ple, are the ones who call the shots in the mar­bled halls of this coun­try’s leg­is­la­tures? How does one in­ure one­self to the heart­break and suf­fer­ing of peo­ple to the point that one makes com­mon cause with big­ots, misog­y­nists, and sex­ual preda­tors?

It used to be that Amer­i­cans in­sisted on a base line of pub­lic deco­rum— that to achieve any­thing of sub­stance in life one had to at least pre­tend to be a de­cent per­son.

It’s not that bad peo­ple didn’t suc­ceed, or that ruth­less­ness was re­warded, only that a cer­tain level of hypocrisy was gen­er­ally main­tained. In gen­eral, peo­ple who be­haved badly sought to deny their bad be­hav­ior, and if that wasn’t pos­si­ble, to ex­plain how it wasn’t so bad as it ap­peared. Bad peo­ple who de­pended on the sup­port of the pub­lic were es­pe­cially con­cerned with mak­ing it pos­si­ble for those in­clined to de­fend them to be able to cred­i­bly do so.

Now some peo­ple can grab other peo­ple by their body parts. Or shoot peo­ple in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue.

That’s prob­a­bly al­ways been the case, so maybe our new age is more hon­est. It’s cer­tainly more raw—more peo­ple have screamed at me on the phone in the past year than in the rest of my ca­reer com­bined. And I’ve never been more in­clined to scream back. I’ve never felt less amused by the petty dis­sim­u­la­tions and trans­par­ent spin— lies—em­a­nat­ing from our law­givers. I’ve never been closer to adopt­ing the Howard Beale po­si­tion in Net­work (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not go­ing to take this any more!”)

But I’m go­ing to try to be kind. I would urge you to do the same. Ask your ques­tions, for de­spite what they will try to tell you, you have a right to ask ques­tions and they have a duty to an­swer. They are the ones who held them­selves out for this work, they were not drafted or forced, and if they find the heat too much they can find their way out of the kitchen, prob­a­bly into a sinecure pro­vided by their cor­po­rate clients.

If you keep ask­ing, they will have to an­swer. In­sist nicely, but in­sist. For they are not bad peo­ple; maybe they just weren’t raised right.

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