Fusion or Confusion?
Joseph Bottum's intelligent and clever essay on “The New Fusionism” (June/July) offers a possible hypothesis, but as the last surviving Protestant Democrat on the editorial boards of FIRST THINGS, I am bound to see things a little differently. I cannot accept the Republican party as the leader of the new moralism. It pays selective attention to the “life issues,” while ignoring too much else of moral import. The Bush administration's “preferential option for the rich,” in all its manifestations, is not morally defensible, nor is the widespread support for the death penalty among Republican stalwarts. Meanwhile, the Republican Senate majority was built solidly on the infamous “Southern strategy,” whose moral implications are painful. Republican protestations of moral sentiments are all too often purely for the sake of votes and not from conviction. Hypocrisy is the right word.
Nor can one seriously claim that the Democrats, on the other side, are the locus of moral relativism. That is not a very convincing way to describe half the electorate. It is worth noting that liberal Massachusetts, the quintessential blue state, has the lowest divorce rate in the nation, while Wyoming, Dick Cheney's home state, a quintessential red state, has the third highest. Painting your opponents roundly as immoral, against what the “vast majority” of Americans want, as the Republicans do, is just wild political exaggeration.
As for reading the electoral tea leaves to yield an emerging fusion which produces an electoral shift, the formation of a new majority is solemnly announced from time to time, and either it crumbles soon enough or is shown to be wishful thinking in the first place. Republicans now have a way of crowing that “the American people” elected them to do whatever they now propose to do, finding an electoral “mandate” in 51 percent. I don't think we should take that very seriously as anything more than political boilerplate. The winning coalition, I think, will last only until the next economic downturn.
My principal reason for voting for Kerry is the gross economic incompetence of the Bush administration, almost shockingly wrong-headed, risking the American future. I have more mixed feelings about the Bush foreign policy, but on the whole I judge that severely wanting also. Interventionism is not the issue, but how it is carried out: the degree and manner of unilateralism involved. Morally driven foreign policy is in our tradition (thought not always in our practice), and it has served us well, earning us a “decent respect” from “the opinions of mankind.” But the maladroit Bush administration has actually managed to squander our reputation for virtue, and that will hurt us badly in the long run.
In sum, there are many, many ethical reasons for opposing this administration. It is absolutely not morality ascendant.
Joseph Bottum's “New Fusionism” is certainly the best account I have read about both the history of the fusion between social conservatism and conservative “internationalism,” and the best representation of how smart social conservatives and smart neoconservatives view their political project and the political landscape in which it has unfolded.
Nonetheless, may I offer two criticisms from someone who is a fairly conventional European-style centrist social democrat but who, in the context of FIRST THINGS or the Weekly Standard, would obviously be viewed as a leftist?
The first is that Bottum's account does not accurately describe the debate between liberals and conservatives on terrorism (as in my case, I would submit to you that only in the United States, and nowhere else in the world, could Nick Kristof be described as a “leftist”). Bottum recapitulates, without any acknowledgment that there are other views, the administration's argument, which is that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror. The advantage to this argument is, obviously, that one can “moralize” the war on terrorism—particularly after the WMD justifications wilted and were replaced by human-rights justifications.
But as Bottum knows as well as I do, there is a critique of the Iraq war—it has been made and continues to be made eloquently by both Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer, much as (it is rumored) they otherwise loathe each other—that the war in Iraq was and is a distraction from the war on terror.
The corollary to this argument is that terrorism poses an existential threat to U.S. security and the fight against it need not engage in what Bottum calls the project of building international democracy. Bottum's statement that “if you are serious about the war on terror, you will soon discover that you are mingling with those who are fighting against abortion” cannot be right—unless, that is, you think people like Clarke and Scheuer are not serious: something I cannot believe he really thinks, whatever other disagreements he may have with either man.
The second point is that I think Bottum grossly exaggerates what he calls America's regained “sense of national purpose” after September 11. That activists, including those on the pro-life side, have been energized, is true, obviously. But the polling data I've seen suggests dwindling support for the Iraq war, hostility to the moves on behalf of keeping Terry Schiavo on life support, and continued support both for contraception among American Catholics and legalized abortion among the American public at large.
Bottum and I probably differ on both issues, but I would be the first to concede that even if I am right about the polls, they establish nothing about the rights or wrongs of Iraq, Schiavo, or Roe v. Wade. Still, it seems odd that this data and its implications for Bottum's argument are not reflected at all in his piece's concluding paragraph.
New York, New York
In “The New Fusionism” we pro-life street-fighters are admonished that we should be the fire in the belly for the cause of the neoconservatives. We're told that, in our support of a vague “belief in the great American experiment,” a possible byproduct could be a revitalization of the pro-life cause. Why not just call it “Seamless Garment”? The Democrats told us the same thing in the 1970s and 1980s via their cheerleaders, many of whom were members of our own clergy: “Support our cause (you stupid pro-life street-fighters) by not talking about abortion until we redistribute all wealth, surrender our defenses to our socialist brothers in Moscow, free all criminals and then, maybe, peace and justice will find a way to address the abortion issue.” Now the Republican seamless-garment scheme directs us: “Support our tax break (you stupid pro-life street-fighters) and go stealth on the abortion issue until you've got a Republican in every electable position from president to dogcatcher and then, maybe, some sort of pro-life revitalization will take place.” Slowly but surely the Republicans are losing us for good with their lack of initiatives to save babies. Just for a start, might the Republicans who control Congress simply find a way not to fund Planned Parenthood for once? Throw us just one bone, for crying out loud, if your languid Wilsonian cause is lacking fire in its belly.
Joseph Bottum manages to reveal, contrary to his own intentions, that contemporary American conservatism is indeed “a crack-up waiting to happen.” Somehow, he tells us, opposition to abortion and support for an “activist, interventionist, and moralist foreign policy for the United States”—in blunter language, American imperialism—stand or fall together. Not logically, not psychologically, but by some political imperative that forces all issues into a Left-Right grid, at whatever cost to intellectual and moral integrity. The assumption that everyone who opposes the standard Right agenda is somehow morally soft will not withstand the gentlest scrutiny. Midge Decter says that eventually we all have to join the side we are on. But what side is that? Why not sign on to a seamless garment culture of life that opposes both abortion and what diplomats call “wars of choice”? No one has ever accused John Paul II of moral relativism or social defeatism.
Philip E. Devine
Providence, Rhode Island
The estimable Joseph Bottum proposes a close alliance between social conservatives, specifically the pro-life movement, and advocates of a neoconservative foreign policy in the fullest sense—the war on terror, the war in Iraq, regime change, democratization, nation building, and, presumably, preemptive war. A fair reading of his “New Fusionism” indicates he is going beyond mere description in characterizing the current coalition within the Republican party. Rather, he aims to shape a synergistic fusion of these groups based on a fundamental understanding of inalienable human rights as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Spurning traditional definitions of conservatism, Bottum argues for a “new moralism” flowing from the sense of national purpose regained by forceful response to the attack of September 11. This joining together of two variants of conservatism “could help summon the will to halt the slaughter of a million unborn children a year. And the energy of the pro-life fight—the fundamental moral cause of our time—may revitalize belief in the great American experiment.”
This line of reasoning underestimates the long-term staying power of the right-to-life movement and puts at risk its potential, over time, to transform American society. It effectively writes off anyone who might be open to the claims of the humanity of the unborn, or any human subject, but still resists the broad claims of a neoconservatism as it pertains to the use of force abroad to achieve a given set of national objectives. It is the conservative version of the liberal “seamless garment” concept and “consistent ethic of life” which elevated prudential matters of policy—economics, welfare, war, and peace—to the same level of concern as inherently immoral acts such as abortion or euthanasia.
This is not to say that all pro-lifers disagree with the neoconservative agenda for national and homeland security. Some do. Some don't. Some pick and choose. Indeed, they often work side by side with them, laboring in the Republican vineyards and elsewhere, given their banishment from the Democratic party and the warm welcome they received from Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries.
Yet the fact remains that pro-lifers will only transform the culture of death when they effectively engage blue states as well as red states, Democrats as well as Republicans, doves as well as hawks. Assume that Republican presidents appoint enough Supreme Court justices to reverse Roe v. Wade. What happens next? The debate moves to the state level. While further GOP gains in red states are entirely possible, even likely, there is no compelling reason for pro-lifers to tie their fortunes to the philosophic or political claims of foreign-policy neoconservatives.
In the mid-1970s, when Cardinal Carberry of the archdiocese of St. Louis demonstrated real leadership by organizing one of the first pro-life committees in the country, the predominant number of the rank and file volunteers came from the Labor Democrat community. Many became Reagan Democrats, and then Republicans. But many did not.
This was common throughout America at the time. The point is that the future configuration of the pro-life constituency may shift in the decades ahead. To foreclose the opportunity of reaching out to, for instance, foreign policy liberals or paleoconservative isolationists makes no sense at all—at least from the perspective of the right-to-life movement.
In the Los Angeles Times Max Boot, a prominent neoconservative, questioned social conservatives' opposition to women in combat and gays in the military: “Are they more concerned about winning culture wars at home or winning the war on terrorism abroad?” Clearly, this neoconservative has a different set of priorities than his social-conservative allies. Pro-life advocates have expanded their political influence for more than three decades by maintaining a tight focus on their core issues: abortion, euthanasia, and now stem-cell research. Polls consistently show that younger citizens are responding positively to arguments for the humanity of the unborn. The right-to-life movement has always taken the position of “No enemies on the Left or Right.” God willing, may that ever be so, too.
G. Tracy Mehan III
After reading “The New Fusionism,” I was bothered by Joseph Bottum's marriage of the pro-life impulse with the impulse for an active and moral U.S. foreign policy.
Bottum, like so many other Catholic neoconservatives, continues to defend America's decision for preemptive war with Iraq in defiance of the Vatican's clear opposition to that war. By taking such a position, I believe that Catholics such as Bottum risk a destructive reversal of the original purpose of church-state separation.
Throughout history, loyal churchmen have invoked this doctrine in order to protect the church from the state; not the other way around. Some examples of these loyal churchmen would be St. Ambrose of Milan who stood up to the Roman Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 390, or of Pope St. Gregory VII who took on the renegade King Henry IV of Germany in 1075. A radical exception to these men were the French clergy of the late seventeenth century who invoked this doctrine as a means of protecting the French state from the church—the historical embarrassment of French Gallicanism.
It is disturbing that the pro-war arguments of Catholic neoconservatives today resemble those of the Gallican heretics in the Four Gallican Articles of 1682. Who is in fundamental need of protection from whom? I find it hard to make a convincing argument that the state (in its current condition) is in need of protection from the Church. It seems far more plausible that the opposite is the case. And where do our fundamental loyalties as Catholics lie? The French clergy found out the hard way when they abandoned their naive silliness as the guns of the French Revolution drove them back into the arms of the Roman pontiff. Let's hope that today's Catholic neoconservatives such as Bottum don't find themselves in a similar position someday.
In “The New Fusionism,” Joseph Bottum suggests that economic issues like “tax reform and social security and the balanced budget” are not particularly important for holding the new conservative coalition together because these issues “do not bear hard on . . . the deep changes that might reawaken and remoralize the nation.” If these issues are treated superficially, as they usually are, Bottum is surely correct. But viewed from a proper historical perspective, these economic issues could play a decisive role in the revitalization and “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty” (as George Washington put it).
A simple question will suffice to illustrate: What would our Founding Fathers say about these three economic issues? While tinkering with the tax code is a matter of indifference, throwing off the ninety-two-year-old federal income tax and replacing it with a consumption tax—specifically, with a federal retail sales tax—is in perfect harmony with the Founders' understanding of liberty. As Publius points out in the Federalist Papers, “It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess”—namely, that regardless of how much you earn, if you choose not to spend your money on that particular article of consumption, you do not pay that tax.
The sacrosanct principle of Social Security (which the Bush administration is trying to rescue from impending bankruptcy) is that the federal government has to save our money for us. Even if most of us are content with this arrangement, the Founders most certainly would be appalled. Balanced budget? The Founders, too, had trouble with that. But today, as budget deficits accumulate into a gigantic national debt, a lonely voice crying out in the desert for a balanced budget is the only faint warning that remains against the growing threat of an unbounded, all-powerful central government.
In short, Bottum may be “misunderestimating” the potential fusing effects of these economic issues—considered from the perspective of the Founding Fathers—as the new coalition of conservatives begins to rediscover the foundational principles of the American experiment.
T. Dan Tolleson
Joseph Bottum's essay on fusionism seriously discounts the degree to which a fundamental distrust of Israel and of American Jewish support of Israel determines the animus of the paleoconservative ideologues—Pat Buchanan, for example, and Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch—have openly declared those labeled most prominently as neoconservatives within the United States government and their associates (Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, etc.) as being fifth-column traitors. We must also note, however, the great disparity between the overly-romanticized view of Israel held by “Christian Zionists” and the reality of a country that is, despite its obviously religious aspects, secular.
Falls Church, Virginia
Joseph Bottum replies:
My thanks to all who wrote about my essay on the new fusionism. The topic generated far more correspondence than we could publish, and each letter printed here represents many others that made similar arguments.
Thomas Derr, a member of the FIRST THINGS advisory board, objects that Republicans are no more eternal emblems of virtue than Democrats are of vice. The well-known writer David Rieff remarks on the sleight-of-rhetoric by which the foreign-policy goal of fighting terrorism is elided into the war against Saddam Hussein. Pat Sullivan mocks the new fusionism as merely the contemporary Republican version of the Democrats' old “seamless-garment” trick for downplaying abortion, while Philip Devine longs for a return of that seamless garment. G. Tracy Mehan thinks I am putting the pro-life movement at risk, while Adam DeMuro thinks I am risking the Catholic Church in America. T. Dan Tolleson thinks—as did many, many correspondents—that economic issues are far more central to the American experiment than I allow.
Can I make clear to all our correspondents that the Republican association with the causes of a strong, morally motivated foreign policy and the fight against abortion is a historical accident, and one I don't particularly care about? If the Democrats were the pro-life party, I would vote for them reluctantly. If they were both the pro-life and the serious foreign-policy party, I would vote for them cheerfully.
Perhaps this marks, as Tolleson thinks, my surrender of the economic issues, although I remind my friend Tom Derr that a majority of the nation's billionaires and multi-millionaires are now Democrats, while the Republicans have carried huge majorities of the nation's rural poor in the last three elections, which suggests something about how poorly Depression-era rhetoric of “rich Republicans” fits our current political landscape. But the particular party identification is beside the point I wanted to make. The demoralization of the society, from the 1970s on, gave us both millions dead in the abortion slaughter and millions dead in the international genocides that Henry Kissinger's hard realism and Jimmy Carter's soft détente alike prevented us from halting. The morally serious have to be concerned about both these effects.
Many correspondents took Pat Sullivan's view that the new fusionism is merely the return of the seamless-garment doctrine. What this ignores is that abortion is central to new fusionism, and if the Republicans understood the fusion, they would increase their opposition to abortion. The seamless-garment notion was an attempt to hide abortion, and Philip Devine got the seamless-garment candidate he seems to want in John Kerry, a Catholic endorsed by the abortion lobby.
David Rieff makes an important point, however, about how the invasion of Iraq may not fit into the moral foreign policy I desire. I was, as he suggests, doing a little rhetorical elision—but not to trick, merely to keep an already overlong essay from getting even longer.
The short answer to Rieff is that I do defend the war against Hussein, but the reasons given for the war by the White House are not those I would give. And the portions of my essay reporting the fact of the new fusionism (rather than the portions defending it as intellectually plausible) were meant to document the reality I found over and over in Washington: The pro-life thinkers, writers, and activists were joining with the foreign-policy moralists. When I went to meetings of the neoconservatives, the social conservatives were there. If that isn't fusionism, what is it?
I enjoyed Philip Turner's rant about the Episcopal Church in the United States (“An Unworkable Theology,” June/July). I enjoyed it until he dragged Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) out behind the woodshed for a whipping. Turner uses CPE as a major example of the Episcopal Church's adoption of “the doctrine of radical inclusion,” which seems to be about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”—forgiveness without repentance.
As a CPE supervisor I do not recognize Turner's description of our methods. He described a process in which people are called “clients” and the chaplain-interns “counselors,” and the pastoral relationship is defined by “transference and counter-transference.” Turner declares that “the dominant assumption” throughout CPE is that “clients have, within themselves, the answer to their perplexities and conflicts.” “Successful adjustment,” he claims, is the goal of pastoral care purveyed by CPE.
In fact, CPE students today are learning that there is no successful adjustment to suffering and to dying. CPE students are taught to assist the suffering in accessing their religious and spiritual resources, but often those resources are low or nonexistent because of the person's own neglect or the poor preparation for suffering and dying they have received from their congregations. “Unconditional positive regard” as a guiding philosophy died along with Carl Rogers.
I suppose we could argue about what good pastoral care, from representatives of Jesus Christ, should look like. I want my students to respect the sufferer, to be pastoral caregivers who give the sufferer attention unlike other attention they receive in hospitals. I think Turner is wrong about the hospital not being a place where people wrestle with faith, forgiveness, repentance, and amendment of life. CPE is training seminarians and clergy to help people explore these issues of life and death. When students preach to suffering people, I cringe. When they are purveyors of cheap hope, I am aghast. Turner protests that God is “depicted as an accepting presence” in CPE. Yet God also arrives through CPE in many other images: Creator, Father, Comforter, Son, Redeemer, and even as a hen watching over her chicks.
Theology is a much larger part of CPE than Turner believes. As a member of CPE national and regional certification committees over the last fifteen years, I have seen candidates denied certification because they could not explicate a doctrine of sin and evil in relation to their work as pastoral educators.
If you want to see an example of the kind of theology successful CPE supervisory candidates are writing, take a look at the Lutheran Theology of Angelika Zollfranke in the 2005 annual Supervision and Training for Ministry.
You could take CPE to task for other failings, but I don't believe we are the cause or the representative of the theological malaise in the Episcopal Church today.
The Rev. Paul D. Steinke
Bellevue Hospital Center
New York, New York
As a physicist, I must take issue with Timothy George's statement that “by itself, abstraction will always lead us away from what is truly real” (“The Pattern of Christian Truth,” June/July). I believe that any honest line of inquiry, pursued conscientiously, with loving regard for its subject, will point toward God. I support this contention with an example:
Steven Weinberg (co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) is an atheist who has been quoted as saying that the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. And yet in his textbook, The Quantum Theory of Fields, he states, “It is natural to identify the states of a specific particle type with the components of a representation of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group, which is irreducible.”
The inhomogeneous Lorentz group is a collection of transformations of an object or an observer in space and time. These transformations are rotations (spinning around), translations (standing at different places), and boosts (which are shifts to a frame of reference that is moving at a high, but constant, velocity). The Lorentz group is significant in that equations of both relativity and electromagnetism are invariant under its transformations. There are a number of mathematical ways to represent the Lorentz group. Any set of symbols and rules to manipulate them will do, provided they behave the same way the Lorentz group does. Those representations that cannot be decomposed into subgroups that also represent the Lorentz group are said to be irreducible.
What we have here, then, is the statement that representations of the invariance group of relativity are the platonic forms of the basic constituents of all presently understood matter and energy in the universe. To me, if not to Weinberg, this immediately raises the question: “In Whose mind can these forms give rise to reality?” This is probably as close as theoretical physics has ever come to postulating the existence of God, even though that was not the author's intention. I do not mean to imply that George's statement is incorrect—merely that it does not stand without some qualification.
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory
Timothy George replies:
I take J.A.H. Futterman's point as a friendly corrective to my comment about abstraction. I did not say, however, that abstraction was useless but merely that it was insufficient to yield more than a segmented view of reality. Could it be that Futterman infers from his study of the Lorentz group something Steven Weinberg has missed not because he is more prescient, nor because the abstraction by itself compels such a conclusion, but rather because he approaches this data with a different pre-understanding? As a Christian, I believe, of course, that God has revealed himself in the created order but I also believe that our perception of such vestigia is severely limited by our fallenness and finitude.
The French physicist Roland Omnes is fond of quoting Aristotle: “Like night birds blinded by the glare of the sun, such is the behavior of the eyes of our mind when they stare at the most luminous facts.” Such blindness is removed only by illumination, and such illumination is received only by grace.
I found Eric Cohen's “A Jewish-Catholic Bioethics” (June/July) most instructive. I was moved by Cohen's commendation to the Catholic Church for its “witness in defense of human life” and his admonition that Jews should “stand more humbly before the mystery of new life.” Such statements are powerful in the continuing dialogue about the use of embryos for stem-cell research. Cohen also made the clear connection between the burgeoning practice of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and the resulting “spare” embryos unclaimed and sitting in freezers in IVF clinics. I have often wondered why Catholics did not speak out more strongly against IVF decades ago. Without the growing supply of hundreds of thousands of “spare embryos,” the scientific field might now be focusing on more licit sources of stem cells for research: from adult tissue, umbilical cords, and placenta tissue.
It was especially helpful to learn more about the deep-rooted Jewish view of the pathos of infertility and the special meaning of procreation within Judaism: the significance of birth over baptism in the passing of Judaism through generations shed new light on why IVF is permissible in all branches of Judaism. I was troubled, however, with Cohen's reference to “particularistic ethics” and his hint at some moral justification for IVF. I certainly empathize with women struggling to have children, since cancer and other illnesses have denied me the joy of motherhood. I am blessed today with wonderful nieces and nephews spanning two generations. But I have sought comfort from my faith, family, and friends. I also gleaned meaningful insights from an important Church teaching that “children are a gift, not a right.” In working through my own painful experience of infertility, I have come to embrace my Catholic faith more deeply, to be open to God's invitation to be of service
to others through my unique charisms—perhaps even to understand more profoundly the meaning of sacrifice in one's journey to holiness and salvation.
Susan Emily Jordan
Oak Park, Illinois
Richard John Neuhaus suggests (“Polite Gentiles,” June/July) that Rabbi Daniel Lapin may have overreacted when he accused fellow Jews of anti-Semitism. One ventures to suggest that Neuhaus himself may have underreacted.
Lapin decries the “anti-Semitism perpetrated by Jews rather than non-Jews,” citing the famously vulgar likes of Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and Dr. Ruth, and especially a recent blockbuster film (the vulgarly suggestive title of which he refuses to name) starring Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman. He marvels that Jewish leaders and organizations can consider Mel Gibson's The Passion defamatory (even though “polls show increased regard for Jews among the film's audiences”) while they ignore culture “trashers” who “possess Jewish names and proudly proclaim their Jewish identity.”
Neuhaus agrees—for the most part. “Rabbi Lapin makes serious charges,” he says, “which, although directed against his fellow Jews, should be taken seriously also by Christians.” But he also thinks perhaps that Lapin “too readily . . . describes as self-defamation” mere good-natured self-deprecation: “Some of the films that concern [Rabbi Lapin] are aimed at mainly non-Jewish audiences, inviting them to join in the mainly good-spirited laughter at these crazy Jews.” He suspects that this “usually humorous, if unflattering, depiction of Jews in popular entertainment” may even contribute “to making ours a society so friendly to Jews.”
Perhaps I am overreacting, but I read Lapin rather differently. Lapin has no quarrel with Jews poking fun at themselves, nor, I suppose, would he disagree that a little self-deprecation could help break down barriers. The problem, however, in Lapin's words, is that “we Jews routinely depict ourselves in repugnant caricatures of people you'd want nothing to do with in real life.” Worse still, in doing so, the debasers trample their Jewish legacy in mire: “Jews used to be known for having endowed the world with the notion of sexual restraint and modesty. Judaism is now being defamed by Jews.”
Which prompts us to ask what it means to say that a film Lapin calls a “horrible excrescence” might signal (as Neuhaus suggests) “a Jewish sense of security in this mainly non-Jewish society?” Are we to reduce Gentile-Jewish relations to the proposition that “everyone is equal in the gutter?” Shock jocks and raunchy movies with Jewish pedigrees do not merely foster cultural decay, they deny their God-given Jewish identity. Christians should take seriously Lapin's charges.
C. Richard Wells
South Canyon Baptist Church
Rapid City, South Dakota
I maintain that Stanley Milgram did much more than a simple service for us, as Richard John Neuhaus claims (“While We're At It,” June/July).
In his haunting, though brief, cinéma verité film Obedience, Milgram left us a classic horror film that fully reveals the banality of evil which is a trademark of modernity. The film encapsulates many of the essential elements of modernity—technology, organizational imperatives, and professional expertise—and uncannily demonstrates how any of us might be seduced, thereby, into unreflective evil behavior.
In Milgram's studies, ordinary men and women willingly complied with authoritative commands to shock the supposed victim. In showing the film to many different groups, I have found most viewers respond that they too would have kept shocking the victim.
The great tragedy of Milgram's legacy is that we have all dropped the ball he handed us. Because his work was thought by academics to be “unethical” (despite the fact that most of his subjects, in post-mortems, stated that they had learned something very important about themselves) and because he exposed the “delusion of the morally innocent and self-directed rational self,” we have largely ignored Milgram's probings into the seamy consequences of modernity.
Donald K. Wilson
Wakefield, Rhode Island