There's No Such Thing as Clean Hands, and It's a Good Thing, Too

I’m not sure why I’m so slow to leave things, and further I’m not at all convinced that the tendency derives from any particular moral strength.  I am convinced that such a tendency is an odd one for someone in twenty-first-century America.  After all, there is a certain aesthetic appeal to the grand protest, the person who finally says that there’s not enough “here” worth redeeming, that any future worth calling a future means striking out and leaving “the past” behind.  We’re Americans, after all, and an enormous hunk of our national consciousness, from the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence and from Huck Finn to Star Trek, has movement-away as its central character.  Yet my own tendency is to wonder, at every turn, whether anybody who has left the “old” is really heading towards anything that is good or even “new.”  I just don’t seem to have that good old centrifugal impulse.

As it turns out, I’m not especially moral.  I’m not even sure that’s a real possibility, for me at least.  I’m just suspicious.

Yes, I do get suspicious when people link Enlightenment-era riffs like reproductive-organ-systems and biological racism to texts much too old to be products of those riffs.  I get suspicious when folks talk about a singular “medieval mind” as if Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus agreed on all the important questions.  Heck, I even get suspicious when folks write and speak of “the Enlightenment” and imply (at the least) that James Madison and Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant would basically agree on the big questions of the day.  I’m suspicious of all sorts of bad history.

But I’m even more suspicious of people who talk about how “those” fundamentalists and “those” liberals and “those” pretty much anybody are to blame for the world’s problems.  Such declarations are especially common as election years roll along, of course, but I’d contend that they’re also more common among those who claim to have “left” said groups.  Those who used to be Marxists are the most aggressive when it comes to advocating Capitalism, and former fundamentalists are the quickest to distance themselves from anything that smacks of “religion.”  And what’s worse, the working assumption (it’s seldom argued) that propels such strident voices of advocacy is that those who have not yet “left” this or that intellectual tradition must be doing so for dishonest reasons, that only those who have some sort of scam going on could possibly remain part of this or that institution.

I don’t deny that such things are predictable human reactions; I’ll just say that I’m suspicious of them.

I’m So Out of Here

Perhaps I’m just the latest fox to call “sour grapes,” but I also wonder whether the easy self-congratulation of the person who doesn’t associate with “them,” who doesn’t acquire consumer goods where “they” do or eat the same kind of food that “they” eat, isn’t asserting social distinction and fear of contamination rather than a principled moral stand.  After all, there’s social capital to be cashed in for those who hold their finger to the wind, find out which groups are “out” among the desirable social circles, and fashion themselves as “former” this or thats who have, through their own efforts or through some grander providential agent, have become “enlightened” while their former compatriots remain in ignorant darkness.  There’s little room for nuance or mere difference in these stories; after all, one wouldn’t want to retain on one’s hands the stains that signal that one’s time with “them” hasn’t forever shaped one’s identity.  Instead, the former identity becomes a Richard-Weaver-style devil term, and anything that smacks of the former things becomes at the least permanently tainted and more often than that the root of all sorts of evil.  Thus every four years, false binaries are not faulty critical thinking but responsible citizenship, and what someone like me regards as a simple consumer option becomes the single defining moral decision that a person could make, while those things that for generations of the human race have been central moral questions become consumer choices.

(I also wonder whether big demonstrations that purport to oppose “boycotts” aren’t more like parades of pride than they are political statements.  After all, neither a pride parade nor a national day of chicken-eating asserts anything definite, politically speaking, nor does either do anything concrete for the less-fortunate economically speaking, but both of them are great fun for giving the finger to the grand moralizers of the world.)

Ultimately I’m suspicious of consumerism, and I think that many such “changes” of identity are consumeristic at their hearts.  Preferring Aristotle’s conception of excellence/virtue to theories of “complicity,” I tend to think that just behind conspicuous consumption (or refusal to consume) is a kind of condemnation of difference, a refusal to be associated with “them”: if you don’t use this product, or if you use that product, or if you tend away from another product entirely, there must be something morally deficient to you.  There’s no room for alterity here: anyone who stays away from beer must be judgmental, just as anyone who eats the wrong sort of sandwich must be a bigot, just as anyone who refuses the right sort of sandwich must hate conservatives, just as anyone who drinks beer must be reprobate. Further, those of us who are attempting to teach some degree of intellectual complexity, but who remain part of “them,” must somehow harbor, secretly, the worst things that “they” support, or else we’re hypocrites who remain simply because we like the social benefits.  Once again, where I would hope to see room for the time-shaped course of human existence, from innocence to experience and from simple zeal to the complex wisdom of years, the hand-washers of the world assume that anything that complicates the division between the good people and “them” must be duplicitous.

Moralistic consumerism has no room for adiaphora or for the suspicious folks like myself; the world breaks down nicely into the righteous, who eat the right sorts of things, and the wicked, who eat the wrong sorts of things.  And more fundamentally, moralistic consumerism allows that division between “us” and “them” to remain obvious and simple, leaving the complex moral questions inherent in each human story at the door, preferring instead to split the world where there’s open air, the street that one won’t cross because it leads to “their” neighborhood, the gathering of “those people” on a particular morning of the week or even the population-density of “those people” in certain, recognizable geographical regions.  I don’t think this is nearly as simple as David Brooks’s Red-States-and-Blue-States, but nonetheless it’s hard to deny that, for those who never get outside the “loop” in a college town, there are degrees of spite and fear of “them,” those who live twenty minutes in any cardinal direction, just as the folks who pay the most attention to the football played in the same town are often suspicious of the alien consumer-behavior of “they” who live in town.  Lost in all this is the possibility that the real enemies might be pervasive powers (I’ve got in mind Ephesians here) that afflict the “righteous” as much as the “wicked” but who prove more dangerous to the former because they think that all the evil is among “them.”

Now don’t get me wrong: certainly I’m aware at every turn that I also distinguish between “us” and “them” in terms of intellectual activity and of consumption.  I take some pride in the fact that I use a mobile phone from seven years ago, a model that nobody would call “smart.”  I wear my Plato-teaching and my Christian humanism (which gets misunderstood by all sorts of people) on my sleeve.  I’ll tell anyone who wants to know (and usually I’m not even that picky) that in my vocabulary, “text” is a noun and sometimes an adjective but never a verb.  And at the height of the latest silly boycott (and I consider most boycotts silly), I made very public that I was eating the wrong sort of chicken sammich, daring the moralizers to turn their ire on me.  I’m a traditionalist, most vocally when people want me to be simply liberal or right-wing.  I take pride in being neither Mac nor PC (though I do own electronic devices that run on Apple and Microsoft operating systems) but a Linux dude.  I’m not immune to any of this.  But I am aware that I don’t have clean hands, and I remain suspicious of anyone who claims differently.

Difference is fine to acknowledge; I know full well that I’m neither a liberal nor a fundamentalist.  It’s when the “other” becomes “unclean” that I start to have problems.  (In other words, to modify the well-worn riff, I have good friends who are liberals and good friends who are fundamentalists.)  Noting that I make intentional choices in the everyday patterns of my life is fine; insisting that other people’s consumption automatically and without exception make them stupid, immoral, hateful, snobbish, or otherwise “unclean” rubs me the wrong way.

You’re Not One of Us

The fact of the matter is that nobody escapes some kind of tribalism: every act of rhetoric, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, is a tribal utterance, separating “us” from “them” and asserting or subverting relationships of superiority and inferiority in some way.  While we live in a fallen world, our impulse as human beings is always going to be to distinguish Jew from Gentile, liberal from conservative, old from young, Black from Caucasian, and so on.  There’s even some truth to modern claims that Christianity separates the world into the “faithful” and the “infidel,” though I would still argue that “whosoever would believe” is one of the more hospitable options available in human history.  There’s no point to being suspicious of social division per se; to expand one’s wariness that broadly would be a generalized paranoia, not the more specialized social vice to which I’m prone.  But even vices, I would contend, allow some room for better and worse iterations.

And so, granting that I as well operate in a network of provisional social divisions, I maintain my suspicion of those with “clean hands.”  It’s not a matter of denying difference but seeing one’s self as “different” as well.  Have you departed those gatherings of people whose bigotries you can’t stomach?  Fine.  Just be sure that you’ve not replaced bigotry alpha with bigotry bravo, or at least have the honesty to acknowledge that you have.  Do you refuse to have commercial intercourse with any but those with the most commendable public records?  Fine.  Just be ready to acknowledge that the social and economic capital that you expend doing so isn’t available to everyone.  Have you washed your hands of the sins of one political faction?  Fine.  Just be honest when you inspect the hands of the political faction to which you’ve moved your loyalties.

Beyond that, acknowledge that factions have histories.  Since I’ve already “come out” as a traditionalist (I was fairly blatant even before I started calling myself that), I’ll go ahead and say that folks ignore the roots of their ideas at their own peril.  To treat the origins of our ideas as unimportant is to pretend that we’re immune to the near-sightedness of the short-lived mortal, and that’s no good on any front.  The same Enlightenment that gave us modern religious toleration gave us biological racism.  The same medieval scholasticism that ossified into overworked dogma gave us the categories of inquiry that became post-Hegelian deconstruction and historicism.  The same Christian tradition that suppressed women’s voices at so many moments also opened up room for women in the West to become more articulated public, political agents.  And the same Imperialism that put populations underfoot also brought the possibility of women as political agents into historical contexts where that wasn’t even on the horizon.  (Could some other tradition have done so?  Perhaps.  But history is the study of real documented movement, not what might have been.)

For me, I’m more inclined to stick where I am, to try to see the goodness at the core of the institutions and traditions where life has placed me, and to work to get the church and the academic guild and the town and all of the human structures that form me to take the small steps towards something better, something inherent already but unrealized.  Sure, I could leave and try to start something entirely new, but that would just leave to the next guy the job of cleaning up my mess.  I’m more inclined to clean one mess and leave another all at once, to acknowledge in the ordering of my life that we all have eternity in our hearts but don’t have the chops to grab it.  Some folks no doubt will call me a sell-out for that, say that I’m either too afraid to move ahead or too opportunistic to give the finger to those communities where my meager efforts have earned some modicum of existential and professional trust.  Let ’em do so, let ’em show me their clean hands, but don’t blame me for being suspicious that they’re just the new bosses and that they might just be the same as the old boss.

I think James Madison was right in Federalist 10: factions are simply part of human existence in the world where we mortals live.  We can (and should) say that the logically-prior nature of humanity is harmony rather than discord, and we should hope for the consummation of the Reign of God, in which harmony returns.  But in the meantime, we mortals do well to remember well that our reasoning is always the reasoning of fallible creatures, that when we think we’re fighting monsters, we’re also becoming monsters.  Fight the good fight–you should assume that I will do the same–but have the humility to confess the sins that our enemies attribute to us.  Lend a hand when you can–you should assume that I will strive for the same–but remember that one act of kindness doesn’t negate the sins into which we were born.  (Does that make me a Calvinist or a Marxist?  Yes, please.)  And remember that nobody has clean hands in this present darkness.  We all pray (or theorize, but I sometimes think that Theory is prayer for those who have “washed their hands” of praying) for a world in which we all live together, but we should always start that prayer not with “Thank you, LORD, that I’m not like that jerk” but with “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”


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