In the spirit of spending time with family and avoiding thorny topics at the dinner table, I will steer clear of politics as much as possible. Besides, it is the holiday season and it’s in poor taste to be writing about the one topic that so very much consumes our day to day throughout the rest of the year. Instead, I have chosen simply to write down some year-end reflection. I fear writing something so general (and not particularly related to Latin America) because anything I write will probably amount to little more than adolescent sophistry. Nonetheless, as they say: screw it.
I began to think about this column as I concluded a novel called Mr. Sammler’s Planet. This novel is one of those that you find yourself at odds explaining what it is about and yet you want to recommend it to absolutely everyone. The truth is that not much happens, and yet with his characteristic erudition and rapacious use of language Saul Bellow talks brilliantly about the folly of modern existence and humans’ place in the universe. The novel is about a man confronting his later years and trying to resolve the meaning of his own existence. However, the novel is about so much more than that. It is this “so much more” that gave me some pause.
Among the many things explored in the novel, is the wonder of scientific precision, but also that precision’s “mathematical indifference.” Bellow makes the point that however amazing our modern science may be, it can have a dehumanizing tendency. As a student of public policy, this strikes me as true. As students and practitioners we are given the tools to categorize disorder and to justify decisions on numbers. It is undeniable that these metrics make our jobs better, however it is arrogant to believe that they make it flawless. We need to be more humble despite the scientific methods we use, for these can make us cow from using our common sense and appealing to our common humanity.
Mr. Sammler is a character that suffers from a desire to order the world. He does not allow himself, or others, to just be, instead he is consumed by ideas. It is through abstraction that he copes. Our modern existence is plagued with such a will to rationalize. We are deluded in thinking that if we can just find the proper explanations for events, we can be in control of them. With the right diagnosis you can move to the appropriate treatment. What I think Sammler realizes is that this mentality is a fallacy. It is not that we cannot strive to understand more, and that this understanding can help us lead better lives. It is that even if we are to understand more about the world, we will still not be in control of it. We need to become more comfortable with this lack of control. Our lives are threatened constantly. I don’t mean fake existential threats like terrorism, but real ones like natural disasters, life-changing accidents, illness, the very nature of the finality of life. This condition is not a bad thing however. We need to start accepting that which we cannot control, and focusing on that which we can. The ability to make this distinction will lead us, I think, in the general to have better policies and in the personal to lead richer lives.
Finally, I think there are elements of the novel that explore the banality of evil. That so-often misunderstood concept that describes evil as an absence of thought, not as a condition present in only a few of us. Bellow explores indirectly that which Hannah Arendt wrote about explicitly: the capacity for each and every one of us to be capable of horrors. Every day in the news, we are presented with the picture that crazy people are out there perpetrating horrible crimes. And while that may be true in many instances, in most it is not the case that these people are any less human than we are. I am not trying to acquit people from their guilt; that would be far too relativistic even for me. What I am saying is that in the face of tragedy we need to resist the urge to distinguish between “us the good” and “they the bad.” We need to think about the reasons for the tragedies, without pontificating that we understand perfectly well why things happened. More importantly, if we are truly going to try to make these horrific tragedies end, then we need to lead “examined lives,” and encourage others to do the same. For it is only through critical thought that we can avoid the tragedies of evil.
May this coming year be a happy and healthy one for all. Big cheers to everyone.