Iâ€™ve been putting this off because I wanted it to be really good, but itâ€™s only a blog, for heavenâ€™s sake.Â So, to pick up from a couple weeks ago, is Ethical Culture a form of humanism?Â Describing something new is usually challenging, so when people ask me what the Ethical Society is about, I often begin with the two-word answer â€œreligious humanism.â€Â How we are religious, while not obvious to those who equate religion with worship of the supernatural, is clear enough to those like me who call something a duck if it looks, quacks, and waddles like a duck: we hold inspirational Sunday services, we educate children and youth to live ethical values and to have reverence for the natural world, we marry and bury and counsel our members and hold community naming ceremonies for their babies.Â We mark the coming-of-age of children growing into adults.Â Et cetera.Â We are humanist in the same wayâ€”that is, not-so-obviously to those who equate humanism with atheism, but clearly enough to the duck-definers: we teach our children about the many forms of religion that worship god, but we donâ€™t worship anything in our meetings or festivals.Â We find inspiration and clarify our values by studying and experiencing nature, art, the humanities, and especially by struggling together to act more kindly and fairly toward more and more people.
Some Ethical Society folks donâ€™t want us to use the word â€œhumanistâ€ because they donâ€™t want to imply weâ€™re all atheists, since some of us arenâ€™t.Â Some donâ€™t want to use the word â€œreligiousâ€ because they donâ€™t want to imply weâ€™re all theists, since some of us arenâ€™t.Â But to me, itâ€™s clear that weâ€™re both religious and humanist.Â Ethical Culture is an odd duck, but still a duck.Â Perhaps even an ugly duck, but if I recall, thatâ€™s the one that got the last laugh.Â Or quack, I guess.
What do you think?Â Does “religious humanism” describe your experience of Ethical Culture?Â Is it a creed that gets in the way of our deeds?Â How do you describe the Ethical Society to others?
Last week I was in New York City for a meeting of the National Leaders Council. Iâ€™m often asked if I miss New York, and the answer is No.Â I wonâ€™t enumerate why, since some New Yorkers read this blog.Â Iâ€™ll just say that Iâ€™m very glad I grew up there, and Iâ€™m very glad I live here.Â My blood pressure lowers when the arch comes in to view through the airplane window.
Which reminds me.Â On my flight out I had a Very Angering Airline Experience, the kind where you end up waiting around a long time, wanting to strangle an airline employee (or two).Â Insert your experience here.Â I passed the time examining my own anger and feelings of vengeance, and accepting that I was incapable of affirming the worth and dignity of airline employees, no matter how much I preach against anger and vengeance.Â Unlike with the deer from this summer (see the July archives), I didnâ€™t actually want them dead.Â But I didnâ€™t particularly care whether they lived, either.Â I did a lot of soul-searching, without much result.Â Then I resumed my trip.Â Now the ordeal is over; Iâ€™m back home; the anger and vengeance have evaporated.Â I probably could reignite them by reliving the experience, so I wonâ€™t.Â But what have I learned?Â Perhaps, again, that time may not heal all wounds, but it sure helps with the petty, irrational ones.Â And that even if sometimes we lose sight of the worth and dignity of people, if we go on with our lives and stop salting our own wounds by dwelling on them, we can regain our perspective and our values.
Iâ€™ll get back to ethical humanism soon, I promise.Â But we bought this house, see. . . .
Last night I was on the floor of the bathroom scrubbing the baseboards with a toothbrush.Â I am not the best of housekeepersâ€”one of Billâ€™s band mates once turned down a proffered bagel because our toaster oven wasnâ€™t up to his standards of cleanliness, and generally speaking if your kitchen is too dirty for rock musicians youâ€™re lucky to be alive.Â Iâ€™ve gotten better since then, but itâ€™s unlikely that I will ever scrub the baseboards with a toothbrush again, even if we stay in the house the rest of our lives.Â Because in a few months, all the dirt will be our dirt.Â Weâ€™ll know where it came from, more or less.Â Just as I didnâ€™t mind eating bagels from our toaster over because I knew no one had performed animal sacrifices in it, no matter what it looked like.
Which is why cleaning the bathroom of our new house makes me think about ethics.Â We all know our own dirt about as well as we know our own mindsâ€”that is, enough to know that people who wonâ€™t eat our bagels, or who misunderstand or get hurt by our words, are over-reacting, right?Â We know our own history, our intentions, our feelings, what we really mean and when weâ€™re kidding or just in a bad mood.Â Why are other people so touchy?Â The trouble is, other people canâ€™t read our minds or our autobiographies.Â And just as dust builds up so slowly that we might not notice when our white walls turn to eggshell, our habits of communication build up over the years, and we donâ€™t realize how we may seem to someone else.Â We need to clean up our own behavior before we go giving others the white-glove treatment.
As Confucius or Jesus might say if they were around now and watching Martha Stewart, we need to scrub our own baseboards before we go getting grossed out by the dirt on othersâ€™.
These are just a few impressions of my experience this weekend when Bill and I spent a morning outside the Hope Clinic for Women, as part of the Peaceful Presence program of the Missouri Coalition for Religious Choice. We were there to support the patients and counter the protestors, who that morning came in three flavors. Stage left was a small group that seemed to be having some sort of open-air Catholic mass. Their lovely framed art of Mary and Jesus (I assume) contrasted oddly with their Cardinals attire and American flag folding chairs, as if they were at some sort of religious sporting event. They prayed loudly but did not yell at anyone that I could tell. The center stage crew had an RV, several large dismembered-late-term-fetus posters, and a boombox playing Christian soft rockâ€”it was a rather soothing song, especially for early morning, but unfortunately they played the same song on continual loop for two hours. I was sure it would be stuck in my head for a week, but since the only word I could understand was â€œJesus,â€ that hasnâ€™t happened. Stage right was the sidewalk preaching corner. There were two preachers who took turns, one from the black church tradition, one from the AA witnessing tradition. Stylistically, I preferred the former, though the personal story of the latter was more interesting. I was glad to hear that his belief in Jesus had helped him stop drinking and taking drugs, but I still donâ€™t get how that led to his intense need to harangue young women who were already probably having one of the hardest days of their lives.
Overall, it was a very easy morning for us; I felt ashamed that it had taken me so long to volunteer. Itâ€™s a little hard on the knees, to stand around for a couple hours with a sign (I had a specialized one that said â€œAbortion can be an ethical choiceâ€â€”Thanks, Allison!), and at one point an odd-acting man was a reminder that some protestors actually try to kill people at clinics, but the guards had their eye on him. A few of the protestors muttered or shouted at us, but their assumptions and understanding of life is so radically different it was almost like being addressed in a foreign language. It was a pleasure to meet the other peaceful presences, including several seminary students (who took issue with the certainty of the protestors that Jesus was on their side). . . . The group of us supporting the young women entering the clinic seemed to include a lot more women, and women of childbearing age, than the protestor groups. Go figure.
I just got an advance copy of the fall Dialogue, the newsletter of the American Ethical Union. As usual, there are several good articles from Ethical Culture Leaders and lay leaders across the country, as well as an in-depth piece on the AEU Lay Leadership Summer School, where I was fortunate enough to be teaching and counseling this past summer. Itâ€™s strange for me now to see the picture of the Summer School class and remember that only 6 years ago I was a student there, just beginning to wonder if Iâ€™d make a good Ethical Leader. (Juryâ€™s still out on that, of course.)
Also in this Dialogue are opposing responses to a previous article on religious languageâ€”whether Ethical Societies should use terms such as â€œspiritual,â€ â€œholy,â€ â€œfaith,â€ etc. As a form of religious humanism, should Ethical Culture use and redefine traditional religious words, and/or create new terms, and/or use poetic but secular terms? Iâ€™m wary of the language discussion, as talking about talking further distracts us from doing, but it is a discussion that needs to be had periodically. Here at the St Louis Society we have just replaced the traditional opening quote from Felix Adlerâ€”â€œThe place where people meet to seek the highest is holy groundâ€ with another Adler quote: â€œMay the humanity that is within every human being be held more and more precious, and be regarded with ever deepening reverence.â€ I suggested this change in part because many people think â€œholyâ€ is too churchy and â€œhighestâ€ is too vague, but more because the old quote focuses on place whereas the new quote focuses on people. Iâ€™m not content with the new quote, as â€œhumanityâ€ and â€œreverenceâ€ are also somewhat slippery and perhaps churchy, but itâ€™s a step toward a common language to inspire us all to act more ethically.
Coming up in Part Two, is Ethical Culture a form of religious humanism, as I just-so-casually stated? Or is that just another Creed that we should eschew in favor of Deed?
Coincidentally, Sunday’s Post-Dispatch had an article on cheating by business-school students that also quotes David Callahan, the author of The Cheating Culture, which I talked about in my platform.Â This article discusses a new survey that reveals that business students cheat even more than other students, which does not bode well for the future of business ethics.
I’m currently reading Arthur Dobrin’s new book, Good for Business: Ethics in the Marketplace.Â Felix Adler talked a lot about vocational ethics when he first founded Ethical Culture.Â Adler saw our vocations as the primary way we realize (or don’t) our ethical ideals in the world.Â I had hoped that younger people had learned from the ethical failings of business in the past couple decades, but it seems that primarily what they’ve learned is that everyone cheats, and most don’t get caught, so why not do it?Â More regulation is needed, and many hope that enlightened self-interest will eventually convince folks that being unethical is just bad business, but I think the only thing that will truly turn around the trends in business ethics is a cultural shift away from using wealth as the primarily measure of a successful life.Â Happiness studies show that it’s true we can’t buy happiness, but most of us still believe that we can–or we don’t know any better way to get it.
The U.S. Senate is about to pass a bill on the treatment of terrorism suspects that was passed by the House yesterday. Among some benign things, this bill also does the following, according to the Associated Press:
- Prohibits “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions. Defines grave breaches as acts such as torture, rape, biological experiments and cruel and inhuman treatment.
- Notes the president has the authority to interpret “the meaning and application” of the Geneva Conventions.
- Allows hearsay evidence.
- Allows coerced testimony if the statement was acquired before a 2005 ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and a judge finds it to be reliable.
- Bars individuals from protesting violations of Geneva Conventions standards in court.
I guess we are okay with breaches of the Constitution now; unless, of course, they are “grave.” And of course, only for bad guys, and we know they’re bad because they’ve been proven so beyond a reasonable doubt in fair trials. And of course, by “proud,” I mean “nauseated.”
This past Sunday we started a new tradition of splitting our collection with a relevant nonprofit organization.Â We raised $135 for Doorways, which provides housing for people living with HIV and AIDS in St. Louis. Â Thank you to everyone who donated.Â Whether or not you were there Sunday, please check out Doorwaysâ€™ web site and spread the word about their good works.
FYI, there are now podcasts available of my 9-11 anniversary reflections and my last platform on “Saying Yes.”Â You can listen to them at a computer or download them to an iPod-type device.Â Â As always, feel free to send our podcasts link to your friends if you like them, and to your enemies if you don’t.
My partner and I are in the process of buying our first house.Â We donâ€™t close for several weeks, but already I have become at least twice as boring as before.Â I think only about paint treatments and gutter guards and furniture arrangement.Â The other day I was talking with someone and had trouble paying attention because the wall behind them was exactly the color Iâ€™m thinking of for our kitchen.
Home improvement is the most prevalent disease in America, affecting renters and owners alike.Â I have been known to rail against our obsessions with our homes on the occasional Sunday, so I am deeply embarrassed to have caught the disease myselfâ€”though not too surprised, as we always rail against things that weâ€™re secretly attracted to.
Even more ironically, the book I put down last month in order to spend more time researching how to build a window seat is Living High and Letting Die by Peter Unger, a no-holds-barred ethical polemic that argues against the â€œillusion of innocenceâ€ of most relatively wealthy people (and thatâ€™s anyone with the ability to read this online blog, even if youâ€™re doing so at a public library).Â Using a simple ethical hypothetical, Unger describes how most of us believe we are morally required to help a person drowning before our eyes, even if we have to ruin a good outfit to do so, but we donâ€™t believe we are morally required to give a lot of our money to starving strangers.Â Unger claims that this is a logical fallacy, and that a lot more is truly morally required of us than we want to believe.
I would rather not believe it, because of the changes it would necessitate in my life.Â And I imagine that some economists might argue that the paint, wood, furniture, gutter guards, and hundreds of other things I will probably buy as an American homeowner will help underdeveloped countries more than donating money would, as Iâ€™m creating jobs for folks in those countries, etc.Â Â Â It would be nice if someone could crunch all the numbers and tell me exactly how much paint and how much charity is ethically optimal.Â Because if I just assume that Iâ€™m not doing enough, I get depressed, which makes me put down Living High and pick up Built-in Furniture Projects for Your Home.Â Martha Stewart might say we need â€œhome therapyâ€ to make our lives better.Â Unger would likely say home therapy is a soporific that distracts us from our ethical obligations, and that what we need is world therapy to make all our lives better.Â I guess I wonâ€™t know till I finish the book.
This is a little late for the Katrina anniversary, but I just found the letter I wrote to some of the people who donated to the Ethical Culture relief effort last summer. This multi-Society effort sent a truckload of school supplies and donations to an elementary school in Mobile, Alabama. The area near Mobile was hard-hit, and the school took in many children whose own schools and homes had been destroyed. About three weeks after Katrina, then, I accompanied the Leader of the Riverdale-Yonkers Ethical Society, Curt Collier, and two of their employees in driving the truck from New York to Alabama. In two days. Hereâ€™s some of my description of the trip:
â€œBefore my mini-travelogue, a couple thoughts about giving. I hope Iâ€™ve learned the lesson that charity isnâ€™t an opportunity to get rid of things you donâ€™t want, but rather a chance to make a connection with other real people who want to help and who need things. Most of the donations we received were perfectâ€”just what was needed, in respectful condition, carefully packed. But we also received donations I was disgusted to touch and would have been deeply ashamed to pass on. What were these people thinking? Then I thought about things I had thrown into Salvation Army boxes or other places in the past. I made a promise that I would never again donate something I wouldnâ€™t offer to a friend, or treat volunteers as servants or trash collectors.
â€œWe picked up generous donations from many Ethical Societies, from New York and New Jersey to Baltimore, North Carolina, and a school in Virginia. It was wonderful to see old friends if even for a few minutes, and although the truck blew a tire in NC, otherwise the trip was blissfully uneventful. I had a hell of a time finding vegan food on the road, but I survived; next time Iâ€™ll pack more food.
â€œWe drove straight through, arriving in Alabama around 5am, when we were given a place to crash for a few hours by a very kind woman at a motel, as all the rooms in the area were full of evacuees and relief workers. We were due at the school at 9:30am, and as we went through Mobile, we started to see signs of the hurricaneâ€”mostly brown-leaved or snapped-off trees and neat piles of branches at the edge of nearly every yard. Many of the signs and billboards along the highway were shredded, bare, or twisted.
â€œAs we neared the school, I heard a noise I knew from childrenâ€™s theaterâ€”hundreds of cheering, screaming kids. The entire population of the schoolâ€”kids in their white-and-navy uniforms, PTA in their matching T-shirts, teachers and staff, were all arranged in a giant half-circle in the parking lot, yelling and applauding and cheering. There was a big banner in front welcoming us and local news vans. It was overwhelming and exciting, but I felt uncomfortable with the cheering and all those people waiting for us in the hot sun. We had one truck of supplies and a few thousand dollars of donations, in that sea of destruction and need. It made me realize how important it was that we went down in person, though, instead of just mailing off boxes. We were people caring about other people, not anonymous â€œdonorsâ€ giving to â€œvictims.â€ The principal and the other staff were terrific, despite the stress they were under. Everyone was very moved that we had come all that way. They know down South that theyâ€™ll soon be off the front pages and forgotten, and theyâ€™re very skeptical about the big relief agencies. They told us about one boy, from New Orleans, whose family had lost everything and who was distraught. They discovered that what he used to do when he was upset was ride his bike until he felt calmer, so they went out and found him a bike. Would that have been considered a real need by an outside agency? How long would it have taken? I was happy for the kid, and impressed by the compassion and dedication of the staff.
â€œWe stayed for an hour or so, talking with people and unloading the truck and giving interviews, and then we had to get back on the road. Before we headed back north, we took a side trip to the coastal town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, 40 miles west, to check on friends of Curtâ€™s family. The town is 40 miles from Gulfport and over 100 miles from New Orleans. As we neared the water, the damage increased block by blockâ€”houses missing roof shingles, then houses with blue tarps covering roof holes, then a brick church with its whole front wall blown out, pews sitting drying in the sun. Curtâ€™s friend lived a couple blocks from the beach, and he was there, healthy and okay, and the houses on the block looked okay from the outside, but every one had a huge pile of water-soaked furniture and belongings out front, and most were abandoned. Curtâ€™s friend said they had been without power for 8 days.
â€œWe drove the final few blocks to the edge of the water, the road getting narrower as the debris and garbage built up on either side; these piles hadnâ€™t been put out by residents but instead had been plowed off the roads like snow. The scene by the water was surreal. You saw it on TV but itâ€™s different when itâ€™s all around and as far as you can see along the ocean road: big houses collapsed like they were punched by a giant fist; a pristine roof, dormers intact, clean, sitting on the ground, the house beneath it gone like in those cartoons of chopping down a tree where the tree gets shorter without falling over. Many, many lots with just foundations and a staircase, or a chimney. Some houses seem to have been built on stilts, but itâ€™s just that their first floors have been gutted and swept away. One house is ripped to a tattered shell, except for a perfectly preserved kitchen cabinet still hanging on the one remaining bit of wall, probably with unbroken plates inside. Spray-painted signs are here and thereâ€”some of those search-and-rescue runes you recognize from TV but donâ€™t know if they mean â€œAll clearâ€ or â€œBody needing removal.â€ A couple messages of hope. Mostly warnings that looters will be shot. It smells like a construction site and a little bit of dead fish. People here and there are sitting or standing in the ruins, but not many. Lumps of clothes are strewn in the streets. Thereâ€™s pulverized wood and wallboard and brick and trash covering every square inch, but thereâ€™s actually less garbage than I thought thereâ€™d be, and I figure theyâ€™ve begun clearing. Then on our way out I look down the side streets a block or two from the beach and see where the beach houses landed, on top of other houses.
â€œWe stop at a restaurant in the middle of town. The carpetâ€™s been ripped out and the booths are in a pile out back. We ask the waitress how high the water was and she says â€œOnly about 6 inches. . . . in here. Outside it reached the bottom of the windows,â€ which are about 4 feet off the ground.
â€œThen we start back. No more blown tires, not even much traffic. We have a portable DVD playerâ€”â€œSidewaysâ€ is indeed a good movie, but everything else we have is pretty stupid, so I talk with Peter in sign language, which is harder in a car, but I learn some new signs–he really doesn’t like bad drivers.
â€œThanks again, from me and hundreds of cheering kidsâ€”
Several people asked to see the rest of my 9-11 poem that I quoted from during the platform this morning.Â You can find a complete version at https://aeu.org/01911/lovelady1.html
Joining the new California circle that I mentioned in my August 21st post, here’s a nice article about an Ethical Society forming in Rockland County, NY.Â Here’s a virtual toast to them.
For those of you reading this blog who don’t live near an Ethical Society–yet–check out the brand-new Ethical Society Without Walls, a virtual Ethical community and/or a great way to find like-minded folks with whom to start your own face-to-face community.
These are fertile times for the seeding of new Ethical Societies.Â Maybe because of all the manure out there.
Iâ€™m a little behind on some of the summerâ€™s news, particularly news that was dropped like a runny popsicle by most news agencies.Â Earlier this month, the American Bar Association formally protested President Bushâ€™s overuse (in their eyes) of â€œsigning statements,â€ which U.S. Presidents can add to bills as they sign them.Â Historically, these signing statements were usually on the order of â€œGreat piece of legislation, everyone!â€ and they were relatively rare. Â Recent presidents have been using them more frequently, often â€œto declare that sections of the bills they sign are unconstitutional [in their opinion], and that they thus need not be enforced as Congress wrote themâ€ (Boston Globe, 7/24/06; outraged emphasis mine). Clinton did this more than 100 times.Â Bush has done it more than 700 times. Which explains something that puzzled me; namely, why Bush doesnâ€™t veto legislation.Â Vetoes call attention to themselves and can be overridden by Congress.Â Signing statements tend to fly under the radar, and theyâ€™re much harder to counter.Â By using signing statements, presidents can essentially give themselves the line-item veto, which has been ruled unconstitutional.Â This is not only a separation-of-powers issue, but a nonpartisan issue, as the next President will be sorely tempted to continue the trend if it isnâ€™t stopped, no matter his/her party.
Is the widespread use of signing statements unethical?Â Letâ€™s look at it the way Kant might.Â What if everyone used them? Â Try it.Â The next time you have to accept or reject a contractâ€”a job description, a mortgage, wedding vows, etc.â€”just write in small letters (or mutter under your breath), â€œNot,â€ next to any parts of the contract you donâ€™t think should be enforced.Â Then donâ€™t feel obligated to fulfill that part of the contract, and see what happens.
As youâ€™re being escorted out of the building, sitting in jail, or watching your former spouse burn your possessions, just think what a shame it is you arenâ€™t President.
This morning I listened to her interview with Karen Armstrong on “Speaking of Faith” (NPR).Â Armstrong is a well-known religious historian and writer, and she seems like a very thoughtful and ethically minded person.Â I haven’t read all her books, but her main message in the interview clearly was that the highest ethical/religious virtue is compassion–being able to imagine yourself into the experience of another to better understand them.Â She also said in several different ways that what she learned from leaving Christianity (she was a Roman Catholic nun as a young woman) and studying many religions is that how people treat each other is the important thing, not beliefs or creeds.Â So how did Tippett summarize Armstrong’s story?Â As (yet another) “journey back to faith.”Â I felt that the phrase undermined Armstong’s whole point and shoved it into the popular girl-meets-god, girl-loses-god, girl-gets-god story.Â I’m getting sick of the word “faith,” and I agree with Armstrong that what the world needs is less faith and more compassionate acts.Â And I’m disappointed in Tippett for changing the subject.
I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things after being away.Â So I’ll save the profundities (or what I like to imagine are profundities) and just pass on one lesson I learned while teaching this summer at the American Ethical Union Lay Leadership School: Practicing Non-Violent Communication is one of the hardest things on Earth.Â Making cold fusion work is a walk in the park compared to trying to re-wire yourself to do things such as (a) describe an action without making a judgement (e.g., “When you turned away silently” vs. “When you ignored me”) and (b) figure out and state specifically what you really want and need (e.g., “I need you to say, ‘I love you but I can’t talk about this now'” vs. “I need you to pay more attention to my needs”).
And that’s just a couple parts of it.Â There’s also describing your own feelings using actual adjectives (e.g., “I feel sad” vs. “I feel you are a big jerk”), making requests, etc.Â Clear, compassionate, honest communication.Â Terrifying to contemplate, isn’t it?Â I thought ethics was just about telling other people why they’re wrong. . . .
For the past couple weeks Iâ€™ve been in New York, keeping an eye on my dad, who is convalescing from a very nasty tick-borne disease called babesiosis.Â Itâ€™s rather like malaria for the American Northeast, spread by the ticks on the proliferating deer and mice.Â Although my father is on the mend, Iâ€™ve been surprised how quickly my former attitude toward the deer has changed.Â Although they have ruined almost every garden my parents and their neighbors have planted in the last dozen years, and although Lyme disease runs rampant in the area (also carried by the ticks), I formerly held the line separating the deer as beings from the problems they cause us.Â Itâ€™s humans that have moved onto their turf in such numbers that they have nowhere to go but our backyards.Â Bleeding-heart vegetarian etcetera.Â
Now I want them dead.Â To paraphrase George W. Bush, They tried to kill my daddy.Â There is apparently a company that will come onto your land and kill your deer and donate the meat to homeless people.Â Clearly this company exists to placate the consciences of people like me.Â
What will we do?Â Well, my parentsâ€™ property is part of a co-op with many other houses, whose daddies the deer have not tried to kill.Â I will leave it up to them.Â Sometimes the only honest way you can solve an ethical dilemma is to recuse yourself.
I believe that summers should be about not having a schedule, so I can’t tell you exactly how much blogging I’ll be doing for the next couple months.Â Some, but not a lot.Â I will be attending the American Ethical Union‘s yearly Assembly in Chicago next weekend, and after that I will be on vacation.Â My plans include continuing to search for reading as good as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series (very difficult, though I’m enjoying Independent People by Halldor Laxness), and, not at the same time, going on a one-week media fast: no Internet, TV, movies, radio, magazines, not even books.Â Which leaves gardening and cooking.Â Assuming I survive, I’ll let you all know how that goes.
We went to see Shakespeare in the Park last week.Â The play was Julius Caesar, and it was a good production, but what came to my mind, sitting out on Art Hill on a perfect summer night, were some words from another Shakespeare play, words that have been coming back to me again and again for the past few years.Â Theyâ€™re from Henry V, in the scene where King Henry is in disguise and talking with some of his soldiers the night before a battle:
KING HENRY V
. . . methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honorable.
That’s more than we know.
Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kingâ€™s subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
King Henryâ€™s response to this accusation, after some lame analogies, is that the king is not responsible for soldiersâ€™ deaths because their deaths are not his express purpose in going to war.Â This is also the argument that no one is morally responsible for â€œcollateral damage,â€ even though such deaths, like soldierâ€™s deaths, are a certainty of going to war.
I saw my brother play the soldier Williams when I was a kid, but if you Google â€œBut if the cause be not goodâ€ and â€œIraqâ€ together, you get over a hundred hits, covering everything from casualty numbers to the justification for the war to torture and atrocities,Â so clearly I am not alone in being haunted by this scene.
And itâ€™s worth mentioning that in Julius Caesar, replacing the â€œkingâ€ doesnâ€™t help, as long as those who replace him suffer from the same blindnesses.