The Moral Case for Silence


Norman Pollack makes the case in Counterpunch:

Herman Melville’s story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” written 160-odd years ago, is now more relevant than ever. Bartleby faces out to a blank wall–the subtitle is, “A Story of Wall Street”–his highest assertion of self being:”I prefer not to.” Melville, perhaps America’s greatest writer, was making an important statement: meaningful choice has been circumscribed, even by the mid-19th century, in American society. Not only was the heroic turned against itself, but a pervasive condition of alienation defined the individual’s inner life and relations to others. One encountered reality through basic compromises of the ideal vision of a democratic polity, so that engagement became complicity in the renewal of one’s alienation. This, Melville resolutely opposed.

So, too, did Sherwood Anderson seventy years later. (By coincidence, today the New York Times focuses on Elyria, Ohio, his birthplace and the locale for Winesburg, which remains essentially unchanged.) Anderson also captures the loneliness and sadness of American life, which finds the individual enclosed within walls, so that one’s highest affirmation becomes to say “No” to the materialism that trades in false values and destroys the human soul. From Melville to Anderson to the present, America is still in the same condition, only now in more intensified form in that we no longer recognize alienation and willingly accept complicity in a life devoid of self-knowledge and the cooperative social bonds which alone confers dignity on human beings.

Making the moral case for silence as imperative in the coming election may seem difficult. Liberals and many but not all progressives regard the choice to be crystal-clear: Romney, the Republican party, and the Tea Partiers in its midst represent retrograde social forces affecting all sectors of American life. The indictment is merited. Romney seeks a return to the Dark Ages of American capitalism. Both regulation and the social safety net would be severely impaired, and individual privacy would be invaded by a heightened puritanical zeal. Hester Prynne would lurk in every shadow. As for foreign policy, bluntness would rule the waves. One suspects that the Pentagon would be given a blank check to wage perpetual war founded on the belief that America, a pristine land of freedom, is surrounded by enemies, domestic and foreign. From the liberals’ standpoint, what could possibly be worse?

I submit, perhaps Barack Obama could be worse.