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Posted on Jan 11, 2014
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

—George Orwell

In 1991, Woody Allen published an essay in Tikkun magazine titled “Random Reflections of a Second-Rate Mind.” In the piece he discussed, among other things, how the subjectivity of the God concept prevented morality from ever becoming anything more substantive than a matter of opinion, with one person’s idea of right and wrong, of truth and justice, being as relevant to our common ethics as an argument claiming the superiority of one favorite color over any other. 

Allen also talked about how he preferred the gutsy temerity of the female characters written about in the Bible over the credulous obedience exhibited by their male counterparts. He claimed that anybody too demure or subservient to defy the sanctimonious bullying of a “vain and sadistic Holy Spirit” deserved zero respect and infinite ridicule for the sin of not listening to the existential distress, animalistic passion, irrepressible curiosity and glorious self-determination of their own heart.

So, Eve’s defiance of the Almighty’s dictatorial command that she relinquish her desire for free will and follow her mate’s lead and remain gleeful and clueless and fearful of knowledge itself, was described as one woman’s brave opposition to an entirely automated life. Lot’s wife’s reason for turning around to lay her eyes upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, though she was warned by the Lord that such a deed would reduce her to a pillar of salt, was explained as an act committed in protest of divinity’s crippling inhibitions and pious intolerance of sexual and intellectual abandon.  When Job’s wife told her husband to “curse God and die” because she thought God’s method of testing Job’s faith—by knocking down their house and killing all their children and slaughtering all their livestock—was a bit excessive, she was being both sensible and heroic. 

Inferred by Allen’s praise of these fictitious women cast in Scripture as unvirtuous reprobates is the suggestion that the most principled among us have gotten it all wrong and that we are likely doomed as a result of our utter confusion regarding how we should conduct our moral behavior in a way that isn’t self-negating or self-serving.

The author ends the essay by describing a pair of cufflinks that he received as a present when he was 15 bearing the famous William Steig cartoon depicting a glum sage in a box, the caption reading “People Are No Damn Good.” For Allen, the drawing, which was Steig’s very first (and famously rejected) submission to The New Yorker in 1930, was a useful and succinct life philosophy upon which we should all base our common understanding of the world—particularly when compared with the pandering nonsense that he saw being expressed by the likes of Will Rogers, who never met a man he didn’t like, and Anne Frank, who believed that all people were good at heart. Indeed, by assuming the worst in people, one need no longer be baffled by the persistent cruelties pingponging back and forth among individuals, cliques, clubs and nations since time immemorial. Rage, barbarism and contempt suddenly make sense, once it is accepted that people are no damn good, while random acts of compassion and kindness are relegated to the rarified list of infrequent happenings, becoming unique and praiseworthy and magical. Precious, even.

Of course, what makes the Steig cartoon truly fantastic is that it reflects a sentiment that, though deeply felt by everybody on the planet at one time or another, is seldom expressed out loud. In that way it is less a pronouncement of a freshly minted truth than a corroboration of a rather conspicuous reality that resonates with us because it substantiates what we already know to be true. In fact, a convincing argument could be made that the overwhelming majority of so-called truth-telling artists working as cartoonists, satirists, muralists and social realists are merely men and women willing to reveal what is already evident to everybody. In fact, an additional argument could be made that it is our attempt to codify our moral understanding of the universe into a supercilious philosophy of the intellect that detaches us from our ability to honestly connect with our surroundings. In other words, it is civility, much more than ignorance or blindness, that often deters us from boldly stating the obvious and recognizing reality without needing to wait for qualification from whatever social mores happen to be in vogue at the time.


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