This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Here Is Your Feel-Bad Quote For This Friday

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Conjurer" (circa 1450-1516)Since the release of the CIA torture report, which revealed (let’s be honest — to no one’s particular surprise) that the US has tortured people as part of the War on Terror, and that torture has proven absolutely ineffective, there has been a lot of (again, not surprising) hand-wringing on the Right. Simultaneously denying that torture is torture and claiming that torture is okay because Ticking-Bomb Hypothetical are par for the course, naturally. What especially amuses me, however, is all the whining to the effect that even if torture is torture, and even if it’s ineffective, and even if the US has tortured people, it’s definitely not okay to talk about it, because talking about how we’ve tortured people is far, far worse than torturing people. Openly confessing that we are not the paragon of virtue and the bastion of freedom we often claim to be means our enemies win! — lament the Righties, like this one. Appearances über alles, people.

I have to confess, this shit leaves me speechless. Despite the fact that I often comment on politics, I usually leave the worst scandals alone. Not by design, mind you, but because in such cases, there isn’t really anything to say that wouldn’t be simply elucidating the obvious. Still, when I hear people complain that publicizing bad conduct by our country is unpatriotic, I am reminded of a passage from Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel Dead Souls which I reproduce below.

Gogol anticipated that his unflattering depiction of Russian society would provoke a lot of hostility, and so he wrote in Part I’s final chapter:

Possibly the author may also provoke accusations at the hands of so-called “patriots”, who dwell quietly in their corners and go about their completely unrelated business, building their small fortunes at others’ expense; but let something which they perceive to be derogatory to their country occur — for instance, let there be published some book which voices the bitter truth — and out they will come from their hiding places like a spider which perceives a fly to be caught in its web. “Is it well to drag all this out into the light, to proclaim it to the world? All this, described here, implicates us — is it wise to publish? What will foreigners say? It is hardly pleasant to hear an unfavorable opinion of oneself. Is is not painful? Are we not patriots?”

To these sage remarks no answer can really be returned, especially to such of the above as refer to foreign opinion. But see here. There once lived in a remote corner of Russia two natives of the region indicated. One of those natives was a patriarch named Kifa Mokievitch, a man of kindly disposition; a man who went through life in a dressing-gown, and paid no heed to his household, for the reason that his whole being was centered upon the province of speculation, and that, in particular, he was preoccupied with a philosophical problem usually stated by him thus: “A beast, he would say, “is born naked. Now, why should that be? Why should not a beast be born as a bird is born — that is to say, through the process of being hatched from an egg? Nature is beyond the understanding, however much one may probe her.”

This was the substance of Kifa Mokievitch’s reflections. But herein is not the chief point. The other of the pair was a fellow named Mokij Kifovitch, the son to the first named. He was, what we Russians call, a hercules, and while his father was pondering the parturition of beasts, his, the son’s lusty twenty-year-old temperament was violently struggling for development. Yet the son could tackle nothing without some accident occurring. At one moment would he crack someone’s fingers in half, and at another would he raise a bump on somebody’s nose; so that both at home and abroad everyone and everything — from the serving maid to the yard-dog — fled on his approach, and even the bed in his bedroom became shattered to splinters. Such was Mokij Kifovitch; and with it all he had a kindly soul.

But herein is not the chief point. “Good sir, good Kifa Mokievitch,” servants and neighbors would come and say to the father, “What are you going to do about your Mokij Kifovitch? We get no rest from him, he is so above himself.” “That is only his play, that is only his play,” the father would reply. “What else can you expect? It is too late now to start a quarrel with him, and moreover, everyone would accuse me of harshness. True, he is a little conceited; but, were I to reprove him in public, the whole thing would become common talk, and people would begin giving him a dog’s name. And if they did that, would not their opinion touch me also, seeing that I am his father? Also, I am busy with philosophy, and have no time for such things. Lastly, Mokij Kifovitch is my son, and very dear to my heart.”

And, beating his breast, Kifa Mokievitch again asserted that, even though his son should elect to continue his pranks, it would not be for him, the father, to proclaim the fact, or to fall out with his offspring. And, this expression of paternal feeling uttered, Kifa Mokievitch left Mokij Kifovitch to his heroic exploits, and himself returned to his beloved subject of contemplation, which now included also the problem, “Suppose elephants were to take to being hatched from eggs, would not the shell of such eggs be of a thickness proof against cannonballs, and necessitate the invention of some new type of firearm?”

Thus, at the end of this little story we have these two denizens of a peaceful corner of Russia looking thence, as from a window, facing the accusations of certain of our ardent patriots, heretofore busy with their philosophy or commerce carried out to the detriment of their tenderly beloved fatherland, living in less terror of doing what was scandalous than of having it said of them that they were acting scandalously.

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3 thoughts on “Here Is Your Feel-Bad Quote For This Friday

  1. Maybe if Ken Burns would do one of his tiresome documentaries on the American torture machine, the depravity of it all would sink in. Lewis Mumford observed after WWII that we went to fight fascism and came back infected with it. It’s taken my lifetime to see that come to maturity.

  2. Pingback: Here Is Your Feel-Bad Quote For This Friday | The Socialist

  3. Well, there goes the moral high ground. I read some of the report until I couldn’t take it anymore. Reading about torture is like torture…except without the forced sleep deprivation and being confined to a tiny coffin for months. It’s sad that there also won’t be any repercussions for the architects of the torture. What fun times we live in. And by “fun” I mean “depressing.”

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