18 June 2010

Walter Mosley on Lesser-Evilism

Last week's Nation magazine published an acceptance speech delivered by one of its columnists, the novelist Walter Mosley, upon his receipt of the Upton Sinclar award from the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles. You have to subscribe to read his remarks on the Nation site, but they're also available here. In part, Mosley addresses a subject familiar to my own readers: the perils of lesser-evilism.

The notion of two evils is broadly accepted in American culture. Most working people are well aware of the rock and the hard place, damned if you do and damned if you don't. We accept the inevitability of a losing trade off on the long, declining, slippery slope of working class American life.

Mosley's context isn't partisan politics; his subject was a friend's struggle with lung disease. For this man, the lesser evil when faced with chronic bronchitis was accepting the risks that came with steroids. He found an alternative to the lesser evil, however, in the form of Chinese herbalism. Mosley concedes that herbal remedies "may fail sometimes," but in the case of his friend they've worked so far.

The real subject of Mosley's talk is the lesser-evil choice forced on many people between poverty and charity. In Mosley's opinion, charity is a lesser evil that remains an evil because it "weakens and ultimately eliminates our ability to live lives for ourselves -- leaving us dependent upon the kindness of bureaucrats." That sounds like the conservative critique of welfare-state dependency, but Mosley's talking about exactly the sort of philanthropic charity conservatives find preferable to welfare. But "the arbiters of philanthropy and good-will organizations never prepare us for liberation or revolution," Mosley protests. They are "misguided acolytes who aggrandize themselves by throwing money at people who are ultimately transformed into bondsmen under the domination of this lesser evil." This is a critique of charity that does not demand individual self-reliance; "liberation" and "revolution" are implicitly communal in Mosley's context.

This line of thought is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the way lesser-evilism sustains the American two-party system and restrains the rise of alternatives to our present Bipolarchy. Mosley objects to the lesser evil of charity because it renders recipients dependent upon itself by offering itself as the only alternative to an intolerably worse fate. By analogy, all lesser-evil reasoning, including the appeal to support Big Party A as the only alternative to intolerable Big Party B, instills a sense of dependency once voters are convinced that the good party, and not themselves, are the only defense against the bad party. Liberating oneself from lesser-evil thinking may mean taking risks -- I'm not sure if herbal medicine is the ideal analogy for independent political action -- but once someone sees, as Mosley wants, that "there is almost always a third and fourth and fifth approach to any predicament -- and any one of these methodologies may not be evil," the implications could well be revolutionary.

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