Why Goodness Restrained is No Match For Badness Unrestrained
Last night before I went to bed, I watched a video of a man who was snatched by two “plain clothes immigration officers” — big men who wouldn’t identify themselves, or even present a warrant, but just simply hurled his wife against an elevator, and manhandled him away. This morning when I woke up, I read about the first child to die in the “detainment centers.”
America. The word itself is something like a grim joke now. The land of the free and the home of the brave? More like the land of…what, precisely? The inconvenient truth is this. A society doesn’t reach this point unless people are either complicit or cowardly, or perhaps both. No, I don’t mean that in resentful condemnation — but in the spirit of gentle understanding. Yes, there are many good Americans. So what? Goodness restrained has never been a match for badness unrestrained.
There were many good Germans, good Soviets, good Chinese, good Italians. So the question is not really whether there are good people. It is if the restraint of goodness — does goodness restrained really even exist, like the tree in the forest falling, which no one hears — is precisely what gives collapse its savage, implosive power.
The restraint of goodness. We often think that “complicity” means something like “unleashing your inner badness” — monsters carefully hidden away suddenly coming out, snarling. But complicity is more the restraint of goodness than it is the unrestraint of badness. Goodness restrained is passive. Like passive things, it is docile and timid, quiescent and yielding. It is meek and polite. It speaks in a small voice, if it speaks at all. It says help me. It waits and hopes for a knight in shining armour. It is a pretty damsel in a fairy tale. Goodness unrestrained is active, alive, flowing like a mighty river, defiant, truth in action, the wanderer in the desert who became a prophet. But I’ll come to all that.
What are your responsibilities, now, at this precise moment, as a citizen, of a country that once called itself brave and free? Do you have any? Or should you just get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, and go back to sleep — telling yourself, through it all, that you are a good person, and that is quite enough? Goodness, restrained.
I’ll put that more prosaically. Americans are out of their depth. They aren’t familiar with what it means to live through social collapse — and so mostly, they’re in a kind of traumatic shock. I say that with empathy, not with judgment. They’re used to lives of ease and comfort, quiet violence and soft bigotry. But this? This visible, obvious, loud violence, which flaunts itself like a peacock, preens like an earthquake, done by men that look and act just like, and maybe even grew up with, the good people? How is one to respond to that?
Social collapse demands one primary responsibility from us — that we are not complicit. But “complicity” doesn’t just mean “not taking part in bad things.” More subtly, more crucially, much more powerfully, it mean, not restraining our goodness. If your primary responsibility is not just to believe you are a “good person”, because that can mean as much or as little as you want it to mean, but to take the restraints off your goodness, and prove it, then I think four kinds of complicity are necessary for you to escape.
The first kind is intellectual complicity. There is a kind of basic conceptual vocabulary of political order that everyone must know — or quickly acquaint themselves with, in a collapsing society. Is this really fascism? Have you asked yourself that question seriously? Or are you still in the mode of confirming your biases? “It can’t be!” “It always has been!” Neither of these is adequate. You must think for yourself now — not just take the words of wise men, who are also failing the very same test.
Demonization, scapegoating, demagogue, camps, purity, strong men — is this fascism? Has the test been passed? I am not trying to lead you to an answer. I am only showing you how to think. Is this authoritarianism? Kleptocracy? Is that tyranny? Is this abuse? Has the rule of law come undone? What do those ideas really mean? Do you see what I mean? Intellectual complicity is subtler than you think. It isn’t being brainwashed into doing bad things. It’s the failure to think deep, long, and hard, on the crucial questions of whether the collapse of a society sounds alarms about the degeneracy of a socio-political order — and in that way, learn to hear the alarms history is sounding, instead of relaxing on the sofa while the house burns down. That way, we restrain the goodness our minds are capable of in the first place.
Hearing the alarm. Raising the alarm. My second kind of complicity is social. If you hear these alarms yourself, should you broadcast them? How are you to do that? Take all your colleagues by the arm, and lecture them? Perhaps there’s another way — which is more effective, precisely because it is what “goodness unrestrained”, that key phrase, really means. “Hey, Gomez! Worried about the ICE agents?!”, someone at the office guffaws. “Hey, Gupta! I hope you don’t get banned on the way back from that business trip!”, that office blowhard laughs.
Only maybe now you don’t take these little violations sitting down, going along and laughing politely. Because you have begun to see them for what they really are. The house burning down right in front of you, which is ringing the alarm you are hearing. Social collapse is made of little violences, which, legitimized, tolerated, acquiesced to, become bigger and bigger ones. Not being socially complicit isn’t just shouting at Ted Cruz on Twitter. Do you think he gives a damn? It’s staring down the smiling, shining, perfectly acceptable face of fascism, supremacy, bigotry, and dominance, precisely when it appears before you most intimately, and seems the least threatening. If enough of us had done it then — would we be here now? We’ve restrained the goodness of our social relations, haven’t we?
Would we be here now? My third kind of complicity is political. I read Chris Hayes this morning, who bellowed, about child traumatized on his return from the camps, “it should give us all a rage stroke!!” LOL. No. Now, Americans get very shaky when you question their authority figures — so rest assured, while I’m going to use Chris as an example, I have no need to score points. What good would it do to collapse in rage? Isn’t that exactly what the bad guys want? To reduce us to a quivering mess of fright? That’s impotence, isn’t it?
The mistake Chris makes, and I see him make it every day, is that he seems to be stunningly ignorant of basic concepts of modern politics (or too afraid to use them). The correct response a thinking person should have to that kid’s plight isn’t a “rage stroke” — it’s employing the concept of a “crime against humanity”. Of torture. Of human rights abuse. What else were these concepts created for? Don’t we shortchange history, then, when we don’t use them? Only when we do are we using the conceptual vocabulary with the most power. To correctly reference a crime against humanity contains great historical, moral, social, political, existential power, precisely because it brings to mind all the great sins of history, and in that way, offers justice to the living, and honour to the dead both. To have a rage stroke — LOL. Who cares?
Yet do you know the precise definitions of those concepts — crimes against humanity, torture, genocide, and so on? Chris doesn’t. He doesn’t really seem interested. Are you? That indifference leaves him bewildered. e ends up like the damsel in the fairy tale, waiting for the knight in shining armour. Ah, isn’t that a kind of little complicity, too — removing your own power? So just as you must familiarize and test yourself intellectually— is this fascism? Really? Authoritarianism? — so to you must test yourself again, politically: is this torture? A crime against humanity? Hey — how come I don’t know what these things mean? Is my own ignorance part of the problem? Does it license the very things which I decry, by taking away my power to fight them? When the answer to that question is yes, then you are politically complicit — because you have, like Chris, restrained your own goodness. And goodness restrained is as useless in this world as a love letter to the dead.
A love letter to the dead. It’s true — it often benefits us to write such things, doesn’t it? But social collapse isn’t like that. It isn’t about you, really, at all. And that brings me to my fourth kind of complicity, moral complicity. Our moral horizons, narrowed by capitalism, deadened by self-preservation, eclipsed by individualism, have left us mostly only caring about ourselves.
Mostly, we’ve bought into the Great American Myths of a) everyone should be self reliant b) no one should be a burden c) everyone must take responsibility only for themselves — but no one else. Ah, do you see how easy these myths make it for a society to collapse? Why should you care about that dead kid, if you believe in self-reliance, that no one should be a burden, and that everyone is only their own responsibility? Hey! It’s not your problem — it’s his. Why should you care who gets dragged away by the strong men? It’s their fault, their problem, their responsibility.
Is it? Is life really that simple? Is this difficult, strange, and noble project called coexistence, called civilization really as simple as those three myths? Or in telling and retelling those three myths, did Americans somehow avoid asking the hard questions, about what responsibilities people must take for another, if they are to stay sane, humane, decent, courageous, noble, true, whole — civilized?
So not being morally complicit is the truest struggle of all. It presents Americans with a great challenge. Not to be complicit in collapse means they must challenge all their most foundational myths, because if those kids, those camps, that hate, this poison sweeping the land, is precisely no one’s responsibility, but those who are harmed by it, then everything is just fine. But nothing is fine at all, is it? So the American way cannot be true. Maybe it never was. Tough questions, then. Yet being morally complicit is something like refusing to ask these great and now grave moral questions, because they are too hard — yet they are also the most necessary ones of all. Were we wrong to think that everyone must only be self-reliant? Responsible only for themselves? A little insatiable ball of greed, and nothing more? If we all believe that, who stands up for those kids in the camps? What else, then, should we believe we owe each other?
What we owe each other. This question is the essence of it all, you know. Civilization. Life. Love. Truth. Passion. Grace. Defiance. Americans have too long thought that they owe one another nothing. And so now they have a society empty of all those things. But the truth is very different.
I owe you many things. I owe you, I think, at a minimum, respect, equality, dignity, freedom, honesty, and courage. But only if you, too, owe me these things. There is the paradox, and the problem, and the solution, too. Then we are mutually bound, in a compact that feels something like liberation.
Now we are not prisoner’s of one another’s appetites, furies, inner monsters, worst selves, anymore. We are freer, each of us, to be our best. We have unrestrained our goodness. But the strange thing, the funny thing, the beautiful thing, at least to me, is this — we could only have done it together. Not just “for” or even “with” each other. But through each other. Our goodness has been unrestrained, paradoxically, by the debt that we owe to each other. How can that be? Isn’t all bondage unjust? Because the debt we owe one another is precisely the same, its balance is zero. So there are no chains of powerlessness binding anyone to this compact — instead, there are hands linked in grace. This compact of owing one another goodness unrestrained. It’s all that’s ever liberated human beings, precisely because it breaks all our chains at once. But has America learned this great lesson yet?
Goodness restrained is no match — no match at all — for badness unrestrained. It never has been. Not once. Not in Soviet Russia, not in Nazi Germany, and not in late-capitalist-collapsing-into-fascist America. No, you don’t have to agree with me about that last sentence. What you should, and what you must, do, is investigate it for yourself. Explore it. Consider it. Reflect upon it. And in that way, you will answer the question for yourself. You will have the power then, to unrestrain your goodness. Without that power, a society which is complicit never supposes even for a moment that it is — it’s too busy restraining its own goodness, precisely by crying — “but we are good people!” What difference has that ever made?
History tells us, laughing: a society does not get here unless its goodness is not being expressed, enacted, active like a river, not passive like a mountain. But a society is also just people. Like you. Who haven’t yet figured out that it is only when we have the wisdom, defiance, courage, and integrity to struggle, to kneel, and say we owe one another our better selves, that we deny, instead of demand, the jagged teeth and claws of our worst ones. That is how liberation overcomes complicity — with surrender, not with conquest.