Colonel Hans Landa and the limits of civility

There’s nothing like a villain:  Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger as the Joker, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and, now, Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds.

It is hard to think of a more vile character than Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, bizarrely amusing film.  Col. Landa, who has earned himself the nickname “the Jew Hunter,” stands out as sadistic, even among his fellow Nazis, and yet he is a delight to watch.  You almost start rooting for him just so he’ll be on screen a little longer.

Landa, for one, is a charmer.  He is intelligent, urbane, and witty, speaks elegant French and Italian, and at times positively exudes joie de vivre (“Bingo!  How fun!”).  Whether it’s ordering crème for his strudel or interrogating a victim over a glass of delicious milk, Landa overflows with social graces.  He would be a most agreeable guest at a dinner party.

Col. Landa only loses his temper once in Inglorious Basterds, letting the hidden violence show its face.  To those who can see through his veneer of civility, such calm makes him that much more menacing.

In his combination of witty charm and wanton cruelty, Col. Landa reminds me of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  Humbert’s prose is a delight to read—until you remember that he is one of the most morally repugnant characters in all of literature.  He’s a bit like Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter, too:  even though we recognize Hannibal as a monster, aren’t we just a little thrilled to hear that he’s having an old friend for dinner?

Charming criminals like Humbert, Lecter, and Landa are good to have in fiction—though not in real life—because they provide us with the most extreme examples of the limits of social charm.  They remind us that those qualities which make people likeable and attractive do not necessarily make them good.

The limits of charm are a particularly valuable lesson to bear in mind as we enter yet another political season in which much of the news coverage will no doubt focus on spin and the mechanics of campaigning rather than the substance of arguments.

Indeed, one of the more ironic—if now quite common and fairly effective—lines of attack in contemporary political campaigns is to charge incivility:  to attack one’s opponent for attacking oneself.

Now, I’m not defending political attacks per se, though my time in Kazakhstan’s one party “democracy” taught me that a political campaign with no negativity (i.e., where all the coverage is of the president and all the coverage is positive) is not a wholly good thing either.  But the thing about the I’m-attacking-you-for-you-attacking-me line of attack that I find disturbing is that it has a way of shifting the debate to style (tone and tenor) and away from substance.

We can see this shift from substance to style (debating the debate)—to pick just one example from the front page—in the coverage of President Obama’s comments about building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.  The focus of debate has shifted away from the substance of the President’s remarks to whether they were well-timed, politically savvy, etc.

Of course, the President himself has also made use of the same device, often quite effectively.  The example that springs most readily to mind is last year’s speech at Notre Dame.  (I don’t want to reopen the whole can of worms, just peek under the lid).

The President and Fr. John Jenkins, the university’s president, aimed most of their rhetoric at the anger—the incivility—of some of those opposed to granting the President an honorary degree.  (The most recent Notre Dame Magazine, in which Fr. Jenkins again complains of the “[a]ngry rhetoric” of his critics brought the issue to my mind.)  In his speech, Pres. Obama used his well-known line that “we should disagree without being disagreeable.”

Most of the time I am inclined to agree with the President’s sentiment, and I would argue that generally speaking we need more civility rather than less in our public discourse.  But the President’s speech at Notre Dame is an example, I believe, of the moral limits of civility.

In his speech the President defended the constitutional right to abortion and the destruction of human embryos for scientific research.  He did so in the most agreeable possible terms, mind you, terms intended to charm (or at least mollify) even those who disagreed with him.  But the civility and charm of his speech only served to obscure the far more fundamental fact that the practices he was defending are barbaric and wrong.  In fact, making the killing of the innocent sound agreeable is an offence against the truth, not to mention the innocent.

Does all this mean that I’m calling for more crazed rhetoric in politics, more demagoguery and comparisons to Hitler?  No, not at all.  Civility is a very good thing and important for public discourse because generally it is quite useful in helping us to get at the truth, not to mention in persuading those who disagree with us.  Crazed rhetoric tends to be inaccurate and crude, obscuring the truth and making us angry and unreasonable.  And reason is something we need far more of in our public life, more even than we need civility.  But sometimes the reasonable thing to say—the true thing—is not the agreeable thing, and those times are usually the most important, the times that separate the Bonhoeffers from the Eichmanns.

Our public discourse might also benefit, becoming both more civil and more truthful, if we recalled the distinction between persons and beliefs made in Catholic thought.  We owe no real respect to a wrong and erroneous belief—in fact, we are obliged to oppose it—but we do owe an absolute respect to all persons, even if their beliefs are wrong.

We owe our respect, even to those in error, because of the truth of who they are and the truth of the One who made them.  Civility is valuable because it helps us to pursue the truth, but when it is set in opposition to the truth, then it becomes mere pomp and air—a good sauce for one of Dr. Lecter’s meals.

7 Responses to Colonel Hans Landa and the limits of civility

  1. Father Joseph Leppard says:

    To make sure you understand where I am coming from, I am an alumnus who certainly disagreed with his presence at Notre Dame. I still feel strongly, even though we all cry free speech, that a Catholic University, and that goes for Georgetown, Fordham, et alii rei, not to give a forum to those who speak in contra to the Gospel message and Church teaching. Granted, I am sure you and I because of age difference could debate this day and through the nights.

    I am in total agreement with your position on civility. Yes, it would be nice if we could all speak to each other in respectful fashions . .it is not going to happen primarily because it all involves politics and “getting re-elected”, and probably more on getting re-elected” in the political sphere.

    As for the civility within the Church, well, I would hope that we could have some of those “teachable moments” that we hear so much about from the pulpits.

    This is certainly a good post for good debate . .probably no resolve. .but idealism can always be talked .. .take care ..

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Actually, Fr. Leppard, I do agree with you on the responsibilities of Catholic universities. Academic freedom, like civility, is generally a good thing because it usually facilitates the search for truth. But if it is used as a justification for promoting ideologies contrary to the Gospel, then it no longer can be justified on these grounds.

      On a happier note related to our alma mater, the dean of ND’s school of engineering had an excellent letter to the editor in today’s New York Times related to the stem cell debate, which I’ll reproduce below. On this issue Church teaching and the most successful scientific research complement one another.

      To the Editor:

      The national debate about the use of embryonic stem cells has ignored the advances made with adult stem cells in recent years. Unlike the embryonic stem cells that are at the heart of Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth’s ruling, adult stem cells are currently used in therapies to treat many cancers, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. Many thousands of people are helped each year.

      Your article quotes Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, as saying the ruling was “devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies.”

      Those hopes should be soaring on the good news that many dozens of chronic and debilitating diseases are already being treated successfully with adult stem cell therapies.

      Washington’s policy makers would do well to support and publicize these advances rather than continuing to raise false and unrealized hopes for morally objectionable avenues of research.

      Peter Kilpatrick
      Notre Dame, Ind., Aug. 24, 2010

      The writer is dean of engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

  2. Pete Lake says:

    Anthony, I have to tell you that I think you’ve done us all a great service by introducing and discussing the idea of moral limits, even on things we generally consider to be good (i.e., tolerance, charm, politeness, etc.).

    Interestingly, Archbishop Chaput just delivered an excellent speech that develops this idea even further in the context of living a Christ-centered life. Much like your essay, the speech is a must read. Here is a link:

  3. Martha says:

    Hi, Tony! I’m behind on my blog reading so I’ve been going through your archives, and I had to comment on this one.

    I’ve found it to be a very fine line between remaining respectful of an individual while you argue against their beliefs. In conversations with people who are quite sincere (and wrong) it’s been a difficult balancing act between the two. Even now it’s very tempting to equivocate and attempt to soften the truth to make it more palatable, especially with difficult topics.

    My first experience with this was coming home after converting to Catholicism and having a friend come over to ask me if I thought he was going to hell because he’s gay “now that you’re Catholic.” I told him, truthfully, that I didn’t love him before because he’s gay and that my being Catholic didn’t change my love for him, and that, thankfully, it isn’t my job to decide whether people are going to heaven or hell. This was clearly not what he wanted to hear. He wanted to hear “You’re a wonderful person, of course you’re going to heaven.” Even what I told him, however, was not the full truth of the matter. I stopped because I didn’t want to lose his love or friendship.

    There was also the time I completely dropped the ball on explaining to a friend why abortion is wrong once I found out that she had had an abortion ten years previous.

    I must say, it’s gotten easier now that I’m more comfortable in my social setting. Knowing who your support group is – who your family and friends are and being at least content if someone doesn’t want to be your friend because of your beliefs – has made me, at least, more confident in telling people the truth. One doesn’t have to be rude, condemning, or harsh in order to convey the truth, but one does have to be willing to take the risk of being rejected by the person to whom one is talking.

    It strikes me as sad for our country that our decision- and law-makers seek to make friends rather than do what is right for our country, and it borders on frightening that too many leaders in the Catholic Church and schools act in the same way. We are not called to be friends or even friendly with everyone we meet, although that would certainly be nice. That, I think, is meant for after the general resurrection. 🙂 While not everything is a battle, we are still engaged in a general war between truth and lies, good and evil and that, it seems to me, is the critical thing to keep in mind. We do no one any favors by softening or refusing to tell them the truth as it has been revealed to us, although we do have an obligation to explain the truth in a way the hearer will understand whenever that’s possible.

    I’d like your readers to know that it is possible to have success in the endeavor of being civil and still speaking the truth. People that I am now friends with from one of the schools I attended disagree with me about most matters, political, social and religious, but they know from long experience and heated discussions that they themselves are not being belittled or judged when I tell them what I think and why. There are only two of them, but I count it a victory of the Holy Spirit that I was prevented from sticking my foot in my mouth too much and have been guided along that fine line between equivocating and speaking the truth gently.

    Great article as always, Tony, and thanks! 🙂

    • Martha says:

      Well I just realized that perhaps my comment strayed a bit from the main post. Sorry about that. 😉

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        Hi Martha,

        No, you’re right on. That’s exactly the sort of challenge I’m getting at — speaking the truth with compassion and love when it would be easier simply to be quiet. There’s a real art to it, I think, which I certainly haven’t mastered myself, but hopefully we get better at it with time and the sort of experiences you mentioned.

        Thanks for reading!

  4. […] year I wrote a post arguing for a link between civility and truth; the reason we should speak with civility in the blogosphere or anywhere else is because doing so […]

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