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.