Reflecting on the Romans’ destruction of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the rabbinical sages later said the tragedy was the result of “senseless hatred.” In their taut way, they were referring to the deadly factional infighting that plagued the city during the Jewish Great Revolt against Rome, which had begun four years earlier, and which the historian Josephus recounts in detail. It was the kind of dynamic that has become horrifying familiar in our own time, of fanatics attempting to outflank one another by murdering anyone who shows any signs of openness to compromise, along with countless apolitical innocents whose deaths ratchet up the hatred even more. Islamist terrorists have been doing this for decades now, and MAGAs and Q-Anons are sinking deep into the same mentality.
It is a tragic truth about human nature that hatred feeds on itself, like an out-of-control wildfire, while love and fellowship need to be carefully nurtured, like a flickering candle flame. The feedback loop of the brutality the Very Stable Genius spews at the MAGA mob, and their vicious glee in inciting him to yet further atrocities, has consequences beyond themselves, as we who oppose them begin to lose our own humanity in response. It’s just too tempting to retort, in the face of white racism, that all white people are the problem. An old friend of mine is a white man from North Carolina, who grew up poor, with a single mother who had a series of abusive boyfriends. He still has that cornpone accent, despite spending two-thirds of his life up North, so a lazy anti-MAGA might automatically peg him as the enemy. But he is so terrified by the VSG that in November 2016 he had three cardiac incidents.
Can we even attempt empathy for those who are not like us, or is it “racist” even to try? In a trend that long predates the rise of the VSG, “progressives” have been policing the literary world for any sign of wrongthink. “Cultural appropriation” is supposed to be a cardinal sin, meaning mainly any attempt by a “white” writer to put herself in the shoes of any person “of color.” Now, it’s true that if such a writer has never even met a Native American, and attempts to write a novel with a Navajo protagonist based on what she’s seen in the movies about “Indians,” the result is likely to be cringeworthy. If we totally ban writers from stretching their imaginations that way, though, wouldn’t a Black writer be forbidden to create white characters, a Muslim author be ordered not to write about Christians, or a Chinese American be refused permission to write about Latinos? If we restrict writers to only exploring their own race, ethnic group, religion, gender identity, etc., the result will be the death of meaningful fiction, for both writers and readers. It’s called “the humanities” because we’re meant to ask what it means to be human. Put another way, what is the point of literature without the attempt to transcend the barriers between us and to say with the Roman playwright Terence, and the African American poet Maya Angelou, that nothing human is alien to us?
Instead of aspiring to this noble philosophy, America, Left or Right, has become the land of the all-consuming Self, to which all things must be sacrificed. We are all constantly outraged on behalf of our narrowly defined selves and indifferent to the misfortunes of others, if not openly gleeful at the sight of their suffering. The idea of progress turns out to be an illusion, for we have fallen far indeed from the greatest American prophet’s exhortation to judge based on the content of a man’s character, not on the color of his skin. Once he was safely dead, most Americans pretended to honor Dr. King’s memory while ignoring his message. For that matter, the Golden Rule itself, two thousand years old in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, is proving to be far above our grasp.