A Fireside Dialogue

A Fireside Dialogue October 30, 2017

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2. The Guardian

We faced each other across the study, this strange midnight visitor and I. There was a chilly draft in the room, but the Guardian’s presence pushed it back, as if hidden fires burned beneath robe and flesh.

“I know what the Tempter wants, when he chooses to show himself,” I said. “Why are you here?”

The Guardian gave me an appraising look, half-warning, half-challenge.

“I’ve come to tell you not to give in to despair.”

I leaned back in my armchair, a smirk tugging at my lips.

“Well, I acknowledge I’m disillusioned. Can you blame me? But I object to your wording. I don’t despair. I’d rather call it cynical realism.”

“Whatever you choose to call it,” the Guardian said. “I’m here to remind you that there’s hope for the world, and goodness worth fighting for. The planet is becoming a more humane, more enlightened place, even if that trend is subtle and quiet and easily overlooked amidst the roar of the day-to-day.”

“I used to believe that,” I conceded. “I suppose that in the long run, I still do. But in the long run, we’re all dead. I’m more concerned with the near future, the next few decades ahead. On that timescale, I’m less optimistic. All the trends are moving in the other direction. It’s as though something dark and ugly has been set loose in the world – an impulse toward anarchy and disintegration, a mass rejection of the values that once seemed solidly established.

“The old democracies are paralyzed by separatism and infighting. They’re fading from the world stage. And the new, rising powers poised to replace them are far more authoritarian. Look at what’s happening in Russia, in Turkey, in the Philippines, in Hungary and Poland. Even traditionally democratic countries are feeling the pull of the strongman. It’s a worldwide trend toward more blind nationalism, more fear, more distrust, more hate. And I don’t need to tell you that the disease is worst in the U.S. I’m starting to fear it may be terminal.”

“In a vast and complex world, there are always both good and bad things happening, both triumphs and injustices,” said the Guardian. “If you choose only the evils and ignore the good, you can construct a story of inevitable decline. Doomsayers and catastrophists have been doing so for as long as history has been unspooling. But humanity has continued its march despite them, and so far, all those gloomy soothsayers have been proven wrong. What you overlook is that all people share the same fundamental desire for tomorrow to be better than today. If they act accordingly, the world is bound to continue improving.”

“I can no longer join you in that opinion,” I replied. “There’s no overarching direction to history. There’s nothing inevitable about progress, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. People may want a better life for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they know how to achieve it, nor does it guarantee that their choices won’t make things worse. As we see happening before us now.”

“This is present bias,” the Guardian said flatly. “It’s a fallacy to believe that the way things are right now is the way they’ll always be, or that whatever you see happening around you can be extrapolated indefinitely into the future. History goes in cycles; it has its dips as well as its peaks. That means that things will seem bleakest just before they start getting better again.”

“Not everything works like that. Changes don’t have to be like the tide. Some are more like melting glaciers and rising sea.”

The Guardian’s implacable face didn’t change, but the figure’s robe rippled, as if in an unfelt breath of wind. The fire in the hearth and the candles around the room flickered, throwing off sparks. My shadow swayed and danced on the wall.

“You place too much importance on what’s happening in a single country or a single election,” the apparition said. “In the grander scheme of things, they matter less than you think. Haven’t we had bad presidents before, or atrocious laws, or self-destructive wars? But society has endured, in spite of far worse trials and tribulations than it faces now. The injustices you lament, although real, would have seemed trivial to past generations. They would eagerly have traded their problems for the ones you face.”

“But they’re no less real to the people suffering from them today,” I countered.

“All the more reason not to give in,” the Guardian parried instantly. “If anything, that constitutes a reason to fight on, to redouble your determination to make a difference. Evil demands a response. Yet you seem to be inclined toward withdrawal from the world. How do you justify that?”

“This was the hardest lesson for me, but I’ve come to accept that moral advocacy is less effective than I once thought. In fact, misplaced compassion may be at the root of the problem.”

“A bold statement,” the Guardian murmured. “Would you care to defend it?”

“Gladly. And let me be clear that I’m not concerned for myself. I’m confident I’m going to be OK, whatever happens in the world. I’ve been privileged; I’m not denying that. In fact, that was always the motivation that animated my politics. I didn’t want the good fortune that I’ve enjoyed to be the exclusive possession of a minority. It’s not fair that my life has been so easy while others have it so hard. The advantages I’ve enjoyed should be open to everyone.

“That’s why, when a progressive majority swept into office nine years ago and set to work on health care, I was all for it. Granted, it was a belated attempt to solve a problem that’s already been solved almost everywhere else in the world. Granted, their plan was more modest than I would have preferred. Even so, it was the most significant thing this country had done in decades.

“I thought – naively, perhaps – that this would be a political turning point. I thought that when people all over the country benefited from liberal policies, they’d come to appreciate liberalism as a philosophy. What happened was the opposite. This gesture of compassion faced the most unrelenting, vicious, bad-faith opposition that any social reform has ever endured. At least half the country took on a berserk determination to destroy it at all costs – even when it was helping them. And when they had the chance to choose between two candidates, one who wanted to defend and improve it, one a sociopathic tyrant who wanted to burn it all down, they chose the latter.”

“Not by a majority,” the Guardian murmured.

“But by the rules that were set out in advance, which amounts to the same thing. Blame October surprises, or stubborn my-way-or-the-highway liberals, or a candidate who didn’t make people feel ‘excited’ enough, or whatever other cause you like. The consequences are the same.

“What I’ve come to appreciate is that you can’t help people against their will. You can’t enlighten those who would rather stay in the dark. That was our mistake all along – trying to protect conservative voters from the consequences of their choices. Maybe what we should do instead is stand back and let them have the outcome they wanted. In fact, I’m coming to think that’s a good idea.

“Let them live in the world they chose, where they can have all the guns they want but no doctors to treat their chronic pain. Let them plunder the schools and then wonder why the jobs continue to flee their towns. Let them frighten immigrants away and then watch their crops rot in the fields. Let them go hungry to give the ultra-rich another tax cut. If they vote for a candidate who promised to deport them, why should they be surprised when he keeps that promise? It’s harsh, but can you deny that it’s deserved? I’ve done nothing to them; they did everything to themselves.”

“And what about people who didn’t vote for the burn-it-all-down candidate? Do you care nothing for them? Must they be swept along by the poor choices of their neighbors, and pay the same price all together?”

“If it were up to me, they wouldn’t be. But the decision isn’t mine to make. This is what America chose, and America is going to reap the consequences of that choice. As for me, from now on, I’m going to be more selective and only extend compassion where it’s reciprocated. I’ll help the people I care about, but I no longer want to help those who made the wrong choice. Why should I advocate for people who won’t advocate for themselves?”

“Because you know better than them,” the Guardian said. “They made bad choices, but out of ignorance and fear, not malice. You can see that, even if they can’t. You should help and guide them, not take glee in their suffering. They’ll never learn a better way if you don’t.”

“Ah, but that’s where your do-gooderism blends into condescension. Who am I to tell other people I know better than they do what’s best for them? I’m just as fallible as anyone else. Maybe the people voting this way have looked at the alternatives and decided that this is what they truly want. Why should I contradict them?”

“Making any moral judgment requires belief that your view is right and others are wrong, whether it’s to act or refrain from acting. You can’t wash your hands of that responsibility, not so long as you’re a part of the world.”

“But neither can you accept that every injustice you hear about is your burden to solve,” I countered. “That weight would be enough to break the greatest human being who’s ever lived. Sometimes the role we’re called upon to play isn’t to triumph, but to endure. Sometimes we have to withdraw from a hostile world and preserve what we can until a better day comes, however long that may be.”

The Guardian gave me an almost pitying look.

“You wear your armor of cynicism well. It may protect against heavy blows. But take care it doesn’t become too thick, or else it will become a casket in which you entomb yourself.”

We faced each other across the room, our gazes meeting in the center, neither daunted. Something in the figure’s voice carried the tone of farewell, and I knew our time was almost over, at least for now. But I had one more question I had to ask.

“I was expecting the Tempter tonight, not you. Where is he?”

The Guardian gave me a steady look. A hint of unreadable emotion passed across the figure’s stern, marble countenance. “Do you really not know?”

There was a light, a sound. The flames in the hearth leaped up, burning bright and tall for a split-second. Then they were banked embers again, and the candles on the table guttered and went out. I was alone in my study, my shadow motionless on the opposite wall.

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