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Preemptive Forgiveness

October 28, 2009

To my mind, Andrew Sullivan is the preeminent reasonable conservative, but he will sometimes front-page readers’ comments that make me groan.

This reader quotes Marilynne Robinson, who argues that Puritans are better than prigs. She describes Puritans as those whose “belief that we are all sinners…gives excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation we might be saints, even while it affirms the standard all of us fail to attain.”

Prigs, on the other hand:

feel secure in their own reasonableness, worth, and goodness, and are filled with a generous zeal to establish their virtues through the whole of society, and with an inspiring hope that this transformation can be accomplished.

Sounds a lot like me! Then why are prigs so irritating? Because, according to Sullivan’s reader, they:

with a sort of superiority, correct the language you use or chastise you for your diet based on some idea of political correctness

I see. Prigs infringe on others’ freedom. But note the reader’s flightiness here. Why do prigs correct your language? “Some idea of political correctness.” Why do prigs chastise your diet? “Some idea of political correctness.” Whether prigs are noble or insufferable, then, has a lot to do with how the reader defines political correctness.

The reader never does, but let’s not bother: PC-bashing is so tired that The Goode Family couldn’t even attract viewers during the GOP Summer of Revanchism. I’d rather harp against the notion that the letters “P” and “C” constitute a fleshed-out Theory of Liberal Action. Suffice it to say, if I tell you not to make gross racial stereotypes, that is because gross racial stereotypes are an affront to my first principles. I most definitely did not chastise you because I’ve bought into a faddish abstraction beloved by effete middle-class whites. Effete middle-class whites love me enough already.

But let’s also notice the nifty rhetorical trick buried underneath this whole Puritan/prig distinction. Puritans are doubly praiseworthy. First, they stake out the moral high ground by “affirming standards all of us fail to attain.” They condemn divorce – they are champions of the family, defenders of innocent children! Next, they get to forgive the 50% of married people who get divorced. Upright and forgiving – who wouldn’t love a Puritan?

But wait – why does Puritan A get kudos for forgiving Puritan B for divorcing Puritan C? Isn’t forgiveness Puritan C’s job? Because I don’t feel it’s my job to go around forgiving people for divorcing, I lose out on a lot of opportunities to flex my forgiveness muscles. Divorce is so human – as are so many other things condemned by Puritans – that I can’t work up the enthusiasm for the whole condemn-pivot-forgive maneuver. For my part, consider yourself preemptively forgiven for all of your human failings.

I save my condemnation for evils that I think aren’t part of the human condition. Fear of the other is part of the human condition, but racism, sexism, and homophobia are not. Greed is part of the human condition, but environmentally unsustainable development is not. Preening and grandstanding are part of the human condition, but denial of health care to those in need is not. (I’m looking at you, Joe Lieberman.) I’d forgive the first in each pair, but not at the expense of the second.


False Equivalency PS – I was going to end on a conciliatory note, but perhaps the reader/Robinson would like to apologize to the millions of victims of Stalin’s purges, the Ukrainian famine, the Jewish Doctor Plot, etc. for equating these atrocities with liberals’ using social pressure to discourage the use of homophobic slurs. Stalin did not subjugate half of Asia and Europe armed only with dirty stares and the power of the cold shoulder!


History Lesson PPS: Contemporary ostracism is milder than Athenian ostracism.

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