One of the most awesome phrases in today’s news is Chris Brown’s invocation of “nonstop negativity” as the reason for his recent collapse at work. For minutes I was literally thunderstruck by the audacity of it and felt not a little envy. Maybe one reason why so many lie trapped in the shallows of life is the lack the guts to be utterly shameless. Imagine what would be possible to the completely mendacious and craven. Think of how unfettered one could be if only one could lie brazenly and grovel and crawl when it suited. Imagine how convenient it could be if when all goes stunningly wrong to blame everyone else with a straight face.
Some may imagine they are above such things, but maybe that is mere rationalization; perhaps we simply lack the courage to ditch the last of our scruples.
Recently Nick Bryant of the BBC wrote an article on “Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and the death of shame”. Shame is dead. There appears there is no benefit to even pretending to be decent any more. “Sex scandals used to doom a politician. Now, they refuse to back down from evidence of dirty deeds. Have we reached a new age of American politics?”
But neither Weiner nor Spitzer vaulted to the top of the ladder unassisted. They climbed on the backs of pioneers like Bill Clinton and numerous others. Bryant writes:
Certainly, Americans are more forgiving than they used to be when it comes to sex scandals.
Here, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, following his affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky, was a turning point. Despite Republican attempts to force him from office, he ended his scandal-punctuated presidency with the highest end-of-term approval rating on record. By then, Clinton had already dubbed himself the Comeback Kid after being runner-up in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary election, weeks after revelations of extra-marital affairs which many believed would finish his presidential ambitions.
Americans also know that some of their most beloved presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F Kennedy, were sinners rather than saints.
But as one person who stared over my shoulder while reading the BBC article noted: “who are the BBC to judge? Isn’t the media the one who keeps saying it’s all passe to have moral standards?” Justice Scalia, in his dissenting opinion in Lawrence v Texas, came to the same conclusion about the death of shame long before Bryant. He noted that in striking down any state interest in what used to be called morality the court had essentially exited the business of rights and wrongs.
The Texas statute undeniably seeks to further the belief of its citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are “immoral and unacceptable,” Bowers, supra, at 196–the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity. Bowers held that this was a legitimate state interest. The Court today reaches the opposite conclusion. The Texas statute, it says, “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual,” ante, at 18 (emphasis addded). The Court embraces instead Justice Stevens’ declaration in his Bowers dissent, that “the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice,” ante, at 17. This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws can survive rational-basis review.
Yet paradoxically, the clamor for “justice” in contemporary society has never been greater than it is today. Tens of thousands of litigants are demanding justice in courts throughout the country. They want justice for Trayvon, a just minimum wage, justice for Snowden, justice for this for that. One of President Obama’s favorite quotes from Martin Luther King is an insistence on justice. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
But how are we then to have justice without judgment? That is the problem we face in our anything goes world. And it’s not easily solved.
One solution to this dilemma is to argue that “justice” is anything you can get away with. To concede there is one law: the law of the jungle.
To examine this proposition let us note first of all that Bryant was wrong to say that Bill Clinton began the modern trend toward shamelessness. A better candidate for that dubious honor is Leopold II of Belgium. Forget Bull Conner. Forget Selma, Alabama. Leopold was responsible for the enslavement, mutilation and murder of perhaps tens of millions of people in equatorial Africa toward the end of the 19th century. And he did it in the name of justice. He lied, and he lied shamelessly.
Leopold organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Society, or the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo. In 1878, under the auspices of the holding company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Stanley to explore and establish a colony in the Congo region. Much diplomatic maneuvering resulted in the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 regarding African affairs, at which representatives of fourteen European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area to which he and Stanley had laid claim. On 5 February 1885, the Congo Free State was established under Leopold II’s personal rule, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which Leopold was free to control through his private army, the Force Publique.
The whole thing was a lie, a pretext. The Berlin Conference was the precursor of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine so much in vogue today, and it gave Leopold authority to act in the Congo to protect the lesser breeds. Leopold was authorized to put an end to the depredations of cannibalism and Arab slavery in the region. And he used this alibi to enslave and rob millions.
The best and most vivid account of Leopold’s misdeeds is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo. It makes for unbelievable reading. You wonder why Al Sharpton doesn’t quote it more. It’s all there. The seizure of millions of square miles. The impressment of whole districts. The hunting of elephants for their ivory. The stationing of cannibals in villages as agents of the Belgian monarch. The forced gathering of rubber. The murder of interloping traders. And most vividly, The Hands. Leopold’s agents would gather bushels of hands as proof that they were exercising their authority forcefully in their vast domain.
Today, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is read as a masterpiece of psychological introspection. But it was in the first instance a literal account of Leopold’s Congo. It is a roman a clef; it is thinly disguised history. Conrad’s depictions of Leopold’s agents, their cannibal bodyguards, the rows of polished skulls surrounding the great, philanthropic Kurtz’s hut are but a mere fragment of the vaster reality.
It is a reality we don’t talk about much, because suing the Belgians for reparations is less financially attractive than sticking it to the Man. Yes the Arabs did enslave. Yes, some tribes did eat other people. And yes the Belgian King committed atrocities almost as great, if not absolutely greater than those of Adolf Hitler. But who are we to judge? Or more to the point: who has the money?
There is one incident in Leopold’s career that gave me personal pause. Before the Belgian monarch went for the Congo, he tried to get the Philippines.
Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness, and he worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. Leopold eventually began trying to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture.
In 1866, Leopold instructed the Belgian ambassador in Madrid to speak to Queen Isabella II of Spain about ceding the Philippines to Belgium. However, knowing the situation fully, the ambassador did nothing. Leopold quickly replaced the ambassador with a more sympathetic individual to carry out his plan.
In 1868, when Isabella II was deposed as Queen of Spain, Leopold attempted to take advantage of his original plan to acquire the Philippines. But without funds, he was unsuccessful. Leopold then devised another unsuccessful plan to establish the Philippines as an independent state, which could then be ruled by a Belgian. Because both of these plans had failed, Leopold shifted his aspirations of colonization to Africa.
That island paradise missed out on a bit of luck. Instead of being gobbled up by unspeakable America, it could have early on been governed from enlightened Brussels.
And perhaps that’s the way it goes. Justice is who wins and who lucks out. Since we cannot judge according to the laws of shame or morality, we must necessarily accept the judgment of force, the law of the survival of the fittest. And when you lose, what can you say? Nonstop negativity.
Francis Ford Coppola remade the Heart of Darkness as a movie set in Vietnam, but shot in the Philippines. The movie was a prisoner of its time. It made no mention of Belgium, nor anything older than 1960. And Coppola inverted the story of the Hands, turning it instead into the story of the Arms, attributing the collection to the Viet Cong and not to Kurtz. But he caught something of the modern dilemma, our inability to judge.
I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
Because it’s judgment that defeats us. Or is it the lack of judgment? History reminds us that the Narrative is recursive. Ultimately the circuit closes in reality, and once the contact is completed, it calls back all the way up the chain. Justice must stand on judgment, even if millions of Turtles down.
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