Sunday, March 04, 2012

Public Vice and Private Virtue

In the wake of Andrew Breitbart's recent and surprising death, there has been much discussion both of how we should speak of the dead and to what degree we should judge another—if at all—based on his public versus his private persona.

I have little to say on the first issue. Though, given Breitbart's (and Hitchens' before him) attitudes to the dead—one need only read his comparisons of the then-recently-deceased Edward Kennedy to human excrement—he surely cannot have expected to be eulogized in death by his opponents. And, personally, I cannot see why we should praise in death those whom we would gladly damn in life; here we would have been in agreement.

As to the second issue, there is of course the question whether we should judge one another at all. But, surely Breitbart had no problem with judging others. I believe he was wrong to do so on partial and heavily edited evidence, but there is no doubt that human interaction and moral maturity require that we judge one another both positively and negatively. So, I've no problem with informed judgment, only the prejudicial sort pushed by the pundit and polemical class, of which Breitbart was himself an exemplar. 

But, then, how should we judge a figure like Breitbart? Many, especially those who had private interactions with him, have claimed that he was a good husband, a good father, a good friend. This may all be true. But, they have made a further claim, that for all these reasons we should see him as a good man. The argument here seems to be that one's private character is the center of one's being, the real core, the real identity, and the only correct basis for judgment. One's public actions, it seems, even when those actions involve the destruction of another person's lives in order to further one's own agenda—with the justification that the agenda will ultimately be better for everyone—or the manufacturing of evidence or the unwillingness to admit obvious errors or self-aggrandizement or eternal bloviating, are not as important as one's private homelife. 

That this account is wrong-headed seems so clear to me as to need almost no explanation, but I must be nearly alone in this. So, a few words on this seem in order. My standard response to this line of thought in a student is to point out that by most reports Hitler was kind to animals and could not stand to see or hear of animal cruelty, but surely this one private virtue does nothing to ameliorate his public vice. Similarly, as Lifton makes clear in The Nazi Doctors, physicians who worked in the concentration camps often continued to be good fathers and husbands and, shockingly, were often quite nice to the children in the camps—Mengele was beloved of the children in the Gypsy camp and regularly brought them gifts—right up to the moment they would have them liquidated. Similarly, by his daughter's reports, Stalin never used his vast power for self-enrichment, showing some modicum of private virtue in this one area. 

Now, of course, these are extreme examples and it is suspect to put too much weight on extreme examples. But, my very small point is that public vice and private virtue can well live in the same being. This very fact does not justify disregarding one's public persona and vices in an evaluation of the person. 

So, I would argue that, in a case where someone has regularly dishonestly attacked others, leading in some instances to the loss of their livelihood and reputation, and been quite willing to use other human beings as means to an end, one has demonstrated vice, public vice. And, inasmuch as our actions both flow from and form our characters, there is no question that shows a bad character. In such cases, the claim that this person was—in his private life—virtuous, can be discarded as of little to no importance in an evaluation of the person as a human being. 

I say this first, because he has nonetheless demonstrated vice; second, because this very bifurcation shows a failing as a human being to approach anything like integration; and, third, because the combination of public vice and private virtue shows a lack of shame not shown in the opposite combination of public virtue and private vice and a capacity for shame is itself integral to the formation of virtue. 

I make no claim to virtue, but for those who make some claims for themselves or others, it had better extend beyond the private sphere.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Nietzsche, Jay-Z and the Humanities

Once in a while I hear or read a complaint from a student about the amount of time we spend talking about historical figures in class—the classic Dead White Males—with the implied contrast being a class in which we only talked about contemporary issues with, I suppose, no reference to the past or—though I doubt anyone would be interested in this either—lots of reading of today's thinkers. I have to admit that I don't always know what to do with this sort of worry, except to worry about it in an entirely different way. 

The students are bored or can't figure out how anyone who lived in an era before computers or cellphones (like me in my youth!) could possibly have anything of interest to say to people today; that's their worry. But mine is what it means to live a life in which everything is now. 

Of course, the world in which the figures of the past lived is a different one to the one we live in now; so is the world in which I grew up, to a lesser degree. But the inability to see ourselves in conversation with those figures surely makes human life and our experience of it a more shallow and colorless one. I don't have much truck with nostalgia or attempting to recreate some golden age, nor do I believe in a golden age, but I hope that we can still learn from the past as I hope that the future can learn from us. If not, I really can't see much point in the humanities or the humanist tradition I think of myself as part of. And, when my students can't see the difference between mere history and a conversation with the past, I get a little sad.

But, then something amazing happens. A few weeks ago, I was talking about Nietzsche's analysis of good and evil in a night-time ethics class at a community college and a student piped in to tell me that when she had read the assigned selection(!), it made her think of a line from a song of Jay-Z. And, I thought, there it is, she gets what we're trying to do. And, the sadness went away for a bit.