I trust it did not escape your notice that I have eliminated an affectionate diminutive in my greeting. I am just a bit annoyed that those undamned Smiths in Fremont, Nebraska—whom I have placed in your keeping—persist in tithing. You did succeed in staying Mr. Smith’s hand briefly”he had pen in hand, checkbook before him, and you planted the vision of, in rapid succession, a new car, a motorboat”but he pushed those seductive objects out of his mind and went ahead with his obnoxiously virtuous duty.
May I suggest, Nephew, that perhaps your eagerness got the better of you. You should have remained with the vision of the car just a bit longer. By trotting out a second object Mr. Smith’s heart “wants” you inadvertently triggered his concern about having too much when so many have too little. If you had fixed the car image a bit longer, allowed Mr. Smith to linger awhile, things might have turned our way. But the word “selfish” came into his mind; then “excessive”; then, “I don’t really need these things,” a sentence I hope to eradicate from the English language by the year 2020. At that point all was lost, you see, and I am annoyed that I must teach you what you ought by now to have learned: if he had construed his desire as reasonable, he might have found a way to shave off his givings to the church. Please remember that overeagerness in the pursuit of diabolism is no virtue, not when we have them more or less where we want them. The “cultural context,” as certain of the smart set like to put it, is already temptation-friendly. We need not jump the gun.
Let me explain, for you seem to be in the grip of an unwarranted anxiety. You recall, I assume, our hero of the moment, Woody. I fear you may not understand the full extent of all he has taught. For his primary lesson is that guilt is everywhere, hence it is nowhere. He has wonderfully trivialized guilt. He is guilty when he gets up in the morning. So what difference does it make to add a little titillating borderline incest? By blurring any distinction between big and small things, he has helped to make our work easier.
The Enemy, as you were taught in The Infernal Day School, is an obsessive distinction-maker. He has worked all-too-successfully to instill this noxious habit in those debased creatures he seems truly, as Uncle Screwtape has already pointed out, to love. The more the popular and elite cultures embrace the view that guilt is bad, the better for us. And if guilt applies to everything by definition, its trivialization is the next best thing to eliminating it altogether.
I for one am so relieved that that pesky fellow, Sigmund Freud, has been misinterpreted in ways that more often than not support our cause. Freud was far too priggish and moral to be securely in the camp of Our Father. Undamnable fellow! He kept insisting on reflective ethical standards and the like. It was a close call for a while, but we appear to have tilted things our way by promoting the view that guilt itself is bad, rather like a nasty, automatic tic to be demeaned and turned into a joking matter or extirpated altogether. Because Freud is so pervasive a name, it was our lucky break to be able to associate his authority with our distinction-eroding work. You will recall—but please keep it to yourself, you are often far too blabby about our work—that Freud claimed the poor human race labored under too heavy a burden of guilt unattached to real infractions. Appropriate remorse for injuries actually inflicted is, for Freud—and I am sorry to report this—a “good” not a “bad” thing. To be sure, he made certain comments about The Enemy that have served us well. But he never left off talking about the integrity of being Jewish and similar babbling that seemed to undercut his salutary atheism. Thankfully, all this is behind us. What is left is the acidic residue—the all-pervasive moan and groan that guilt is bad or comic. A tremendous triumph for Our Father Below.
Keep your eye on the prize, Nephew. Try some distinction—erosion of your own. Those wretched Smiths, parochial rustics that they are, pay no attention to heavy metal and groups with demonic designer names: “Black Sabbath,” “Judas Priest,” and the like. Though even here things sometimes get tricky. For often such groups seem to be mocking rather than worshipping Our Father Below. Undamned human humor! Perhaps you could entice the teenage son into listening to the gloriously violent and marvelously misogynistic forms of “Rap Music.”
I’m thinking of lyrics my cloven-hoofed compatriot, Demonica, as clever a deviltress as ever confounded human beings, helped to write. In your backwater you perhaps missed “Death Certificate,” a song promoting salutary racism. Koreans are described as “Oriental one-penny countin’ mother-f . . . s” and threatened with being burned “to a crisp.” A second estimable lyric excoriates the “white Jew telling you what to do,” and the remedy is breathtaking in its fiendish directness: a “bullet in his temple.” One of my own favorites—Demonica played this for me the other evening when I was in a bit of a slump, having watched that horrible Bruce Springsteen spread the joys of parenthood and adult responsibility during a televised concert—is “Momma’s Gonna Die Tonight,” about murdering and dismembering his Mother shouted at fever pitch by an energetic recruit for Our Father below, one Ice-T. (Demonica instructed me that his musical genre is “speed metal,” not “rap,” but I told her to stop making distinctions.)
I am performing a nasty little thought experiment even as I write, imagining the capaciously cruel possibilities of this move. Suppose young Bud Smith were to begin listening day and night, hours on end, to lyrics of hatred of women and Jews and others being implanted in his budding (I am clever today!) mind. Suppose Mother Smith were then to announce that she must disallow this “immoral” stuff in her home. One of two strategies, both bearing the imprimatur of Our Father Below, should kick in immediately: forewarned is forearmed, Nephew, and I will brook no flabby excuses from your corner should you fail.
I suggest this first Machiavellian maneuver—old Nicky, what a charming fellow—as it is less subtle. Young Bud must scream “Censorship!” in the face of his beleaguered Mother’s protests. She is trying to censor him. He may accuse her of racism, too, but that would be rather ham-fisted as he knows her to be a leader in local interracial activities and she even taught him Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at one point. (I hope you found this as sickening as I did, by the way.) But the censorship charge might stick. When she protests that she is censoring nothing, rather, she is being a responsible parent, the riposte out of young Bud’s mouth should be something along the lines of: “You are forcing me to self-censor. You are denying me my constitutional rights to free expression.” Here, you see, we are on the ever-shifting sands of distinction erosion once again. For the charge of censorship is now so pervasive it is virtually meaningless. We have more work to do but we are nearly there in our effort to denude censorship of any lingering weightiness. I chortle each time I think of a mother beseeching a child to avoid hate-mongering (in other words, our sort of love lyrics) and one of the late and sorely missed authoritarian regimes of Central/Eastern Europe banning the works of a dissident, for this reminds me that we have been successful beyond our wildest projections in covering both such moments under one word: “censorship.” I implore you, Nephew, take advantage of the “cultural context.”
A second strategy, more subtle and probably not for a neophyte nemesis such as yourself, is to push Mother Smith into a fearful anxiety about all of American popular culture. Her overreaction will serve our purposes well. If she becomes hysterical and insists that Bud must listen only to albums of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Percy Faith chorales or that Lawrence Welk fellow, she will drive him closer to our clammy grasp. I would be particularly pleased if she chucked all the Springsteen albums. That fellow has been a thorn in my side for years, singing about people’s responsibilities to their own home towns and similar drivel. His current stuff is really a blow to our Popular Culture Division—moaning about how human beings need kindness toward one another, actually using the word “soul” in a song, condemning the wasteland of Cable-TV, even a rock-lullaby to his newborn son: terrible. I fear Mother Smith will not take the bait, however, so please stay with the censorship ploy. It is a proven winner.
Your affectionate uncle,
Jean Bethke Elshtain, discoverer of the Newtape File, teaches political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.