On Seeing the World in Black and White:
Letter in Response to a Long-Time Correspondent
Your reaction to my recent letter is predictable. I knew it would be pretty much what it was. I think our recurring political disagreements have become tedious because in most cases they aren't so much disagreements as my attempts to consider political questions from different possible positions and to prod you into doing the same. But you will usually have none of it: anything you encounter that doesn't square with what you've already decided you brush off immediately, without really looking into it. This, finally, is what your character is like. It's a matter of your personality, rather than of your political leanings.
You happen to be an American Republican of the early 21st century. But if you had been a Hungarian Communist of the 1930s you'd have been the same way: you'd have condemned outright anything that didn't seem to you to smell like strict Marxist-Leninism, and you'd have been a staunch supporter of the great man of the day, the current leader, Joseph Stalin.
You think of the world in black and white. There is the black side and there is the white side, and most of your discourse or inquiry (your reading, for example) is undertaken in order to further whiten the white side and further blacken the black side. This is the tendency I've always known in you, the tendency I'm concerned with here. In the past couple years I've realized just how entrenched this tendency has become. But I wonder: Is it getting more entrenched as you get older, or am I just now noticing to what extent you look at the world in black and white?
Thinking in black and white is perhaps more convenient in America than in many other countries. For one thing there are basically two political parties instead of six, and the American state has functioned across the two-party dichotomy for quite some time. But the Christian element in American culture can't be ignored either: the fact that humanity is divided between salvation and damnation, Heaven and Hell, rather than between a variety of possible outcomes, encourages people to think in terms of the right way and the wrong way. And just as one is either entirely saved or entirely damned, so an idea or individual is imagined to be either entirely right or irretrievably wrong. At least the Catholics have a notion of Purgatory that tempers this cleanly divided universe. But America is in the main a Protestant country.
So my country is apt to look at the world in extremes. I've known it all along, and can see that this moral extremism is part of what's made America strong. But even in America, home of the brave, you are more of a black-and-whitist than most. And I've realized this is why I often end up arguing with you, even in cases where I more or less agree with your position. Because I can't really stomach the virulence that characterizes your black-and-white thinking. I disapprove of the way you have always already made up your mind on things and will no longer consider the possibility that those you've deemed to be wearing the white hats may be wrong on some points or may, in the long run, be wearing hats that aren't so white after all.
I've never once heard you admit you were wrong on a position you've taken. This is one of the marks of the black-and-whitist. He must always be right, because he is always on the white side. The white side is right because he has chosen it to be right. There's a circularity here that, finally, has nothing to do with thinking. Because thinking is a matter of entertaining various ideas, posing difficult questions, correcting one's stance according to what one learns along the way, and then posing more questions. But the black-and-whitist has little interest in posing questions. When he begins to read an article or book he doesn't agree with, he simply says: "I don't agree with that at all," and puts the book down. He's already made up his mind in the first couple paragraphs. The black-and-whitist is there to distribute hats as quickly as possible, and then begin fulminating against the black side.
The world I live in is all in shades of grey. I see almost no black and white around me. I do believe there's an actual black and white on the spiritual plane, but here in the world where we muck it out it is mainly a matter of greys. And thus I see our current born-again president as basically grey. And though I'd give him credit for being a lighter shade of grey than the likes of Saddam Hussein, he is certainly not wearing a snow-white hat. As I've said, I see no white hats anywhere.
What is frightening to people like me is that his supporters really do seem to believe--to want to believe--that this current president is a spotless white. He can do no wrong. And those who question his policies--such as Tom Daschle, such as most of the people of Europe--they are not simply seen to be engaging in open debate, something to which they have a right as citizens of free countries--but rather are seen to be nearly as black as Saddam Hussein or the extremists in Al Qaeda. Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bin Laden, Chirac, Tom Daschle--they are all shoved into the same camp of the black hats because they refuse to go along with the uplifting charade that too many Americans are currently engaged in: namely, the desperate need to believe that we and our current government are lily-white and whatever we insist on doing is above question because--look!--there is a gleaming white hat on our current leader and we ourselves are in an almost ecstasy of holiness and perfect self-righteousness. We have conferred the grace of God on ourselves and this grace will shine forth from every move we make, every international law we break and every bomb we drop on cities in which we deem there may be terrorists.
The attack of 9-11 was horrifying. But I think much of the world may be right to say the Bush Administration is going too far in its reaction (i.e., the new military doctrine of pre-emptive strike; the erosion of civil liberties at home). Because I think the rest of the world can see the fury of self-righteousness that's gotten hold in our capital, and such fury makes the world uneasy. That we were successfully attacked on 9-11 does not de facto put everything we do beyond criticism. In our self-righteous tantrum we are losing the world's respect. Living overseas I see this more clearly than many can see it at home.
What is the Christian basis for seeing the world in black and white? I mentioned the notions of salvation and damnation, but these are not things that are decided by men and their political parties, but by God and his grace. When I look at the human world I see mainly our misguided and fallen state. I see that this fallenness is universal, that none of us can surely say the truth is on our personal side, that we are all of us warped by selfishness, egotism, blindness. Given that this is true there must then be no black hats or white hats to be seen, but only hats in differing shades of grey. To believe otherwise seems to me un-Christian.
Strictly polarizing the world between us and them is vain: because the decision as to who is us and who is them is not ours to make. This is said in the spiritual sense. In the political sense, polarizing the world between us and them is mainly a formula for further conflict. And those who--based on a notion of their own perfection--seek to promote conflict against others are forgetting Jesus' assertion that "blessed are the peacemakers." Their tendency to divide the world into us and them is forgetting the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable Jesus chose one of the "others" of his day to remind his hearers that they as Jews, the chosen people of God, should not assume that the heretical Samaritans were necessarily lesser people and further from God than they were. In fact the parable showed the opposite may be true: that the heretic behaved in the right way, while the representatives of the chosen people did not.
Bush and his supporters talk of America as a nation above reproach. His policies at every turn show that his Administration thinks America doesn't have to follow the same laws other nations do, that America through its greatness is beyond criticism. He and his supporters have spiritualized the American state in a way that would not have been acceptable to the Founding Fathers. Many who support him seem to consider Americans a new Chosen Race whose actions, whatever they may be, cannot be wrong. This is a dangerous brand of triumphalism. Meanwhile the new Samaritans, heretics in the eyes of Bush orthodoxy, worry about supposedly irrelevant things like civil rights and respect for international law. They worry because they see that America's power does not stem simply from America's weapons, but also from the esteem America has gained through its support for international law and institutions. But these critics, the new Samaritans as I'm calling them, are attacked as wimps who are betraying the Chosen Race. Because they see the world in greys, rather than strict black and white, they are apparently unworthy of the new unilateralist and spiritualized America promoted by the Washington hawks.
The complexity of the world is ignored to our own peril. And this doesn't only apply to America as a nation, but to individuals as well. To the extent you persist in seeing the world in black and white, you are only digging yourself further and further into a fantasyland of your own making. Finally the truth may knock you out of your shell, but the knock will be painful, and the disillusionment strong.
March 25, 2003
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