Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bonhoeffer on folly and the making of fools

One of the stock features of the 100-day presidential frenzy in the media is the report from some rust belt town where an urban-based reporter interviews voters. "Do you regret that you voted for Trump?" they ask. "No, he's doing great," says the interviewee. Oh for goodness sakes, even if this voter does have a sneaking suspicion that Trump might disappoint, s/he is not going to trot it out for this interloper to smirk at. I am not impressed.

But I remain horrified that so many people thought an Orange Cheato who lies, steals, and corrupts all he touches was a suitable leader for the country. Since the election, I keep returning to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thoughts on human folly, arrived at while awaiting execution for plotting to kill Hitler.

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. ...

... If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish — a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. ...

... The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that they are independent. One feels in fact, when talking to them, that one is dealing, not with the person themselves, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of them. They are under a spell, they are blinded, their very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings. ... we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what “the people” really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the person who thinks and acts responsibly ...

But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.

Bonhoeffer concluded that we only turn away from our human tendency toward individual and collective folly through an inward liberation that is found through the practice of a responsible life seeking Good. In our diverse ways, an awful lot of us lately have been forced to take up this challenge more seriously than has been our comfortable custom. We reject the onslaught of fakery, of folly.

Resistance isn't fun, but it feels life-giving. When the horror gets you down, do something! And be gentle with others also struggling for hope, understanding, and effectual action.

H/t Slacktivist.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

"[S]o many people thought an Orange Cheato who lies, steals, and corrupts all he touches was a suitable leader for the country."

At the beginning of the campaign season almost everyone thought it would be a Hillary-Jeb face-off. Trump had run before but dropped out, so his candidacy was dismissed as a lark. And having over a dozen mostly similar GOP candidates against Trump helped him too.

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