The Indecency of the Decent
Recently, as I was involved in an exchange of letters with an old friend, actually an old girl friend with whom I had not been in contact with for many years, I was reminded of a passage in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. In that passage, the narrator, Thomas Fowler, is talking about Alden Pyle, the quiet American, who is in Vietnam in order to “save” that country from the Communists and has managed to commit an atrocity that he thinks will help his cause.
And Fowler says of Pyle: “What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”
I was reminded of this quote because my former girlfriend, who is Republican and a Trumpette, has claimed in her letters to me that what she wants is to recreate the “civility,” the “stability,” the “morality” that use to exist in the United States but that exists no longer. It dawned on me that she thought nothing of her desires, that is, she thought nothing could be more self-evident than restoring such things as they once existed. Certainly, she gave no thought to the harm she might do in pursuing and achieving her goals. After all, what could be controversial or dangerous about restoring civility, stability, and morality? She was convinced that her politics, like those of Trump and other right wingers, was harmless.
But that got me to thinking and I wondered whether in fact her desire to restore decency to American society was as harmless as she assumed it was. And that would depend on whether the decency that she pined for had been harmless in its earlier manifestation. What did constitute decency when she and I were in high school and college in the 60s?
Well, one aspect of that decency was a condemnation of homosexuality and homosexuals. Such condemnation was the decent thing to do then because it wasn’t enough to let gays and lesbians alone, let them be. Moreover, another aspect of that decency was condemnation of interracial romantic relationships and even interracial relationships of a non-romantic character. My mother, who allowed my brothers and I to play with the Weathers family, a black family, was criticized for that behavior, especially when Jimmy came to our house to play or we went to his house to play. That was the decent thing to do in those days and it was my mother who was, according to many, behaving indecently.
You see, the problem with decency and the decent is that they depend on judgments rendered elsewhere, as it were, judgments that reflect the prejudices and hatreds of the broader society. In a racist society or a homophobic society, as society was in the 60s, decency requires that the decent be racist or homophobic. It is like when in Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn decides that he will not turn Jim in even it means that he will burn in hell for his actions. In a racist society, racism is the decent thing to do, even that which is required by the gods or by god. But undeterred even though convinced of his own indecency, Huck will do the indecent thing even at the price of his eternal life.
I knew a young man in the 60s who I suspect was gay. Without being required to do so, this young man enlisted in the armed forces, went to Vietnam where he died. I imagine in some sense that possibility didn’t look so bad given how indecently he would have had to live as a gay man in American society in those days. And if he had survived, who would dare question his “manhood?”Maybe, he thought, he could even reclaim "it" from his demons, proving he was a "real man."
The decent people often, in fact very often behave indecently as Alden Pyle did – and many other Americans as well – in Greene’s Vietnam. But as Fowler noticed, “you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them.” Because, after all, “innocence is a kind of insanity.” And like lepers, Fowler asserts elsewhere, the innocent ought to be required to wear bells so we know when they are present and we can protect ourselves from their madness.