During a typical day of online reading, I’ll open content that I intend to read in new tabs across the top of my Web browser and look at each as I have the time. Sometimes, a link or a blurb will win the to-read tab; sometimes just the headline will be enough.
The latter was the case today when I put aside a column by David Brooks titled “When the Good Do Bad,” which turned out to be about Robert Bales, the soldier “accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians,” as Brooks summarizes it.
Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.
According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.
This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.
Adding profundity to the essay, for me, was that it was not at all the topic that I had expected to find when the headline caught my eye. Rather, I’d expected something on the much lighter subject that I’d just read (the pseudonymous) David Kahane addressing in National Review’s Corner — namely, a New York Times essay by lit-crit heavyweight Stanley Fish titled “Two Cheers for Double Standards.” Fish, whom English majors may know to be more than waste deep in intellectual relativism, argues in favor of treating sexist remarks from “the good guys” (for him, Bill Maher) differently from sexist remarks from “the bad guy” (Rush Limbaugh, naturally). As Kahane sarcastically addresses his fellow conservatives:
Oh, the hell with [fairness]. As Stanley says, we don’t give a fish’s patootie about fairness and never did; it was just another club with which to beat you. All along, we’ve wanted you to be fair to us, for you to tolerate us, while we were merrily undermining the foundations of your illegitimate country. But the time has come at last for us to drop our unreasoning masks and step boldly into the sunny uplands too long denied us by our need for stealth and secrecy. In other words, no more Mr. Nice Guy!
The entire project of relativism among (very) highly paid academics like Stanley Fish has always had the not-quite-barely tongue-in-cheek feel of Fish’s Times musing. Those who’ve had a strong, almost instinctive aversion to it veritably pray to hear the unspoken disclaimer that “of course it’s a put-on.” But we’re now decades into the project, and no disclaimer has been stated.
Look behind Fish’s sly implied smile and apply his reasoning to the alleged actions of Robert Bales. Brooks quotes a childhood friend of the soldier saying, “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”
We can all agree that the killing of innocents, including children, is monstrous. But what if they weren’t “innocents,” but rather, Fish’s branded bad guys? Well then, it’s two cheers for double standards, and “That’s our Bobby!”
If objective standards don’t apply to sexist remarks based on their source, then there’s no reason they should apply to killing. Fish “can live with” it, if his proposed worldview “implies finally that might makes right.” Those with whom he disagrees ought to wonder if they can live with it, especially when it’s part of the broader project of Fish’s “good guys” to limit Americans’ access to the might-making technology of firearms.