Friday, July 8, 2022


Not long ago, I read a book review in The Wall Street Journal of an anthology called "Openings & Outings" by David Pryce-Jones. Buy it here. 

[I abhor Murdoch and his evil designs on the world. I hate myself more than usual for reading the fascist Wall Street Journal, but I love reading book reviews. And I think in terms of variety of books reviewed and the quality of their reviews, they do a better job than anyone. Fascism notwithstanding.]

Pryce-Jones is one of those odd British characters who's related to everyone, who comes from more money than you can shake an heiress at, and, like Rick Blaine is truly a citizen of the world. What does all that mean? He's cousins with both Helena Bonham-Carter and Baron Elie de Rothschild. That ought to give you an inkling.

Though I'd mark myself down as a Liberal, Pryce-Jones hails from the other side of the political spectrum--the right. And he's written and edited for "The National Review," "The Financial Times," "Commentary" and more. I bridged the political divide and ordered, on the strength of the Journal's review, this volume.

While reading Pryce-Jones, I came upon an essay he wrote on someone called Piers Brendon. Brendon is a British historian and educator. Pryce-Jones hates him and here's how he describes Brendon: 

"Piers Brendon is instead an anti-historian, that is to say one who describes the past not in order to capture how it really was but only for the sake of passing moral judgments about it. For him, the past is to be judged solely in the light of the present, as though the outlook in today’s moral and intellectual arena is not just the product of the times but rather some sort of final word."

I've read a lot of good writing in my time. 

And I've puzzled for more than a decade now over the absolutist moral judgments of today.

But Pryce-Jones captures it, perfectly.

It's hard not to, in 2022, get political. Or, as my adult daughters would say, get "judgey."

We banish people for songs they sang or jokes they told a lifetime ago. We assign them to the ash-heap of history. We take their names off of buildings. We have more people in the world today who are personas non grata, than we have people who aren't covered au gratin. We fire them for something they did in 1981. 

And it's wrong.

You cannot judge someone from 1880, or even 1980 by 2022's standards. Morals, beliefs, standards are mutable. They blow with the wind and change with the times. Sure, there are bad people in the world, but most people follow the temper of the day. They're swimming with the tide. They're not doing anything evil, they're just doing what's done.

It doesn't make them bad.
It makes them human.

Not everyone can be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. There ain't but one Moses, or John Lewis, or Gandhi every century or so.

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine. She happened to be religious. Her father was a minister. She went to church every Sunday.

I said something like, "Who are we to condemn the Aztec or the Mayan for rituals that involved human sacrifice and ceremonial cannibalism? That's their law, their truth. I'm not sure we can bring our code into it."

We had a falling out over that.

Most people today regard those practices as wrong. I agree. But that doesn't mean we have the right to condemn great cultures (civilizations that will probably last longer than ours) as universally corrupt, horrible or irredeemable.

What if in 30 years it's decided that keeping a dog as a pet is wrong? Will future generations regard me as a horrible creature because I've raised four spoiled golden retrievers?

The main point in all this is simple.

It does no good to appoint yourself the arbiter of morals for all time and for all humanity.

If you believe, as I do, in the words of Dr. King, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice," it means that the very essence of our species involves slow progress toward greater humanity.

It's easy to look back and say "those folks were stupid, ill-informed and inhumane. They were racists and sexist and worse."

It's easy to pass judgment on all that's come before. By your standards today.

It's easy to make the world an if-then proposition. It's easy to classify people who look a certain way or come from a certain place or who speak in a certain manner as retrograde and therefore unpalatable or worthy of scorn.

One of our main jobs as humans is to find understanding. Empathy. It's to understand that everyone carries a burden. None of that excuses or even tempers bad behavior. But maybe the entire world would be better off if we hated a little slower, listened a little more carefully and gave the benefit of the doubt a little more readily.

It's all-too-easy to pass judgment on all that's come before. By your standards today.

And that's exactly why we shouldn't do so.


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