YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 20, 2014

“Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society

free_will-net_This blog is about personal responsibility and how that demand affects the writing of both personal histories and world historical events, especially catastrophic ones that cause mass death.

Personal responsibility/free will: I have written before about the ambiguities of assigning praise and blame for our life choices. When Melville did it in his under-read novel that followed Moby-Dick, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,  his mother thought he was crazy and called in Oliver Wendell Holmes (author of the snake-infested book Elsie Venner) to evaluate his mental health, perhaps to institutionalize him. Yet on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told to take an individual (not collective) inventory of those whom we have harmed, to change our conduct, and to make restitution to the damaged victim of our presumed malice or carelessness. (On Melville and free will see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

If only it were that easy to determine cause and effect. My baby may be screaming and driving me to distraction, but is her wailing an inherited feature of her temperament, or is she responding to negligent or stupid parenting choices, possibly picked up from my own parents?

Social responsibility. I have been reading books by historian Michael Burleigh, who seems quite Catholic to me in his leaning toward a late 19th century version of social democracy (see Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891), and Burleigh’s rejection of the liberal theory of “totalitarianism” that equates Nazism and communism, i.e., Nazism is bad because of its divisive racial theories, while the Soviet Union attacked the materialist, modernizing bourgeoisie; at least the Reds were not wigged out with nationalism and differing sets of rules for hedgehogs and foxes. Or perhaps Burleigh dislikes the notion of totalitarianism because it implies total control and hence threatens his notion of free will and personal responsibility, without considering the details of Soviets versus Nazis. (The latter seems more likely, as he uses and abandons the term “totalitarian” depending on his outrage.)

Burleigh’s co-authored book on the Nazi “racial state” (with Wolfgang Wipperman) makes the point that Hitler’s welfare measures were directed solely at biologically fit, sports loving Aryans and depended on a racial hierarchy that demeaned Jews, feminists, Slavs, gypsies, “asocials”, and homosexuals; i.e., he is protecting the welfare statism of social democrats and their much vaunted “tolerance” of “difference.”

socialresponsibility

As an historian of the Third Reich, Burleigh has emphasized individual acts of resistance to Hitler’s policies, thus linking him to those believers in free will and social responsibility. BUT this traps us in the double bind so plainly delineated in “crazy” Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) that mocked “virtuous expediency.” (On the latter see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

I would gladly atone for my lapses and flaws; would that I knew what they are, without the inevitable muddle. “These free men are  not as free as they think” wrote Melville in his novel Mardi (1847).

doublebind

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