All week I’ve been transfixed by pictures of the destruction in Japan. One photo in particular is seared into my image bank. It shows a stretch of waterfront in the afternoon sun. The photo is naturally divided into thirds with the top third revealing a long curling wave towering behind a line of wildly whipping trees, and beyond that a tempestuous sea. The middle third shows buildings, homes, power lines, low shrubs, a trailer, a pack of cars huddled together in one corner of a parking lot. The bottom third of the picture is bisected by a silvery line, possibly a train track, with just the tops of some service buildings in the immediate foreground. As the eye adjusts to the scale and motion within the photograph we see, incongruously, a building upended and we realize, with growing horror, that the wave is already thundering ashore as fast as a fighter jet, tearing up everything in its path. In this moment an image frozen in the warm light of the afternoon becomes a lens through which we see the coming agony. In two, three, five seconds, nothing there will ever be the same again. What once was is no more.
In the 1790 edition of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the book that is overshadowed by his far better known The Wealth of Nations, Smith notes that however selfish people may appear to be they nevertheless can feel sorrow for the sorrow of others. “The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it,” he says. Smith lays out a psychology of the emotions, illuminating the ways in which we put ourselves in someone else’s place to feel with them what they are experiencing.
“To seem not to be affected with the joy of our companions is but want of politeness; but not to wear a serious countenance when they tell us their afflictions, is real and gross inhumanity,” he says.
I read these words this week as a kind of anodyne against the sentiments of some that the earthquake, tsunami, fires, and nuclear meltdown were God’s judgment on the atheistic Japanese nation. As one person put it on a Facebook exchange, “maybe God was trying to send a message to the Japanese people.” It reminded me that certain religious leaders attributed 9/11 to divine judgment on New York City for its gay and lesbian population. With a god like that who needs the devil?
This is the age of the public execution rendered with brutal efficiency on those who flout the norms. Thus it was that two public figures fell from grace this week for making jokes about the Japanese tragedy. Governor Haley Barbour’s spokesperson made a tasteless comment and was fired by the end of the day. Barbour, having bent the needle on the Offense-O-Meter himself in past months, and being a possible candidate for the presidency in 2012, was quick to excise the cancer of his fool’s intemperate remark, while over at Aflac the voice of the duck was heard throughout the land in a remark that was remarkable for its callousness. Neither politicians nor corporations want to be tarred with such a PR disaster; Aflac is a major provider of insurance in Japan.
“The cruelest insult,” continues Smith, “which can be offered to the unfortunate, is to appear to make light of their calamities.” If Smith were here today how would he regard these insultors? Ever polite, ever circumspect, and ever discerning of human foibles, Smith would hold up these gilded apples to the light and discover their rotten cores.
We could imagine a range of possible explanations for their actions. Perhaps they suffered a kind of synaptic overload and couldn’t handle the barrage of horrific images. In defense, they turned to an ancient weapon against fear and anxiety: laughter. Sorry about that, but better you than me. But laughter of that sort has a very narrow bandwidth and is usually reserved for those who are up to their knees in it and have earned the right to make light of their burdens.
Perhaps they are the sort that simply cannot pass up an opportunity to grab the mic, tap it loudly and bellow, “Is this on? Can you hear me?” We can and we wish not to, thinking of the proverb that even the dumbest person can be thought wise if he keeps his mouth shut.
Or—and this may not be such a stretch—they are simply taking a leaf from Charlie Sheen’s playbook and attempting such outrage that they transcend normal limits of crudeness to turn their brutishness into performance art. In the same issue of Newsweek that features a cover story on Japan’s earthquake there is an admiring piece on Charlie Sheen’s public implosion. We are living, says the author, Bret Easton Ellis, in a Post-Empire reality in which civility has run its course. The radicals of yesterday (read 60s) are today’s moneyed moguls. They have about them the stale air of set pieces, exhibits from a bygone era, a time of nostalgia and ferment long dead. By contrast, Charlie Sheen represents the death of civility, manners, courtesy. He is the reality of the celebrity who mocks his own image, makes light of the whole entertainment culture, and throws a bomb into the midst of America’s dark satanic media mills. We can’t make up our minds: is he completely nuts or is this all a subterfuge to remake his sodden career by giving the finger to everybody who would tut-tut at him?
The consensus Ellis flicks up before us is that for this era, all of two weeks and counting, Charlie Sheen is winning and this is the new reality. So maybe these two, giddy with their power to tweet to thousands, stepped—no, jumped—over the line of propriety, thinking that in the shine of Sheen’s glare their little infractions might get some laughs.
“We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner,” says Smith.
Lest we become self-righteous, Smith cautions us:
“Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentments by my resentments, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.”
With that in mind, if you, like me, were both moved by the plight of the Japanese and offended by those who would make light of this tragedy for their own shallow ends, then take some small comfort in your humanity. With all that would reduce today that noble concept to its lowest common denominator, we realize, with Smith, that “The amiable virtue of humanity requires, surely, a sensibility, much beyond what is possessed by the rude vulgar of mankind. . . . Virtue is excellence, something uncommonly great and beautiful, which rises far above what is vulgar and ordinary.”
We, all of us, have a long ways to go. There is nothing for it but grace abounding.