Sunday, October 22, 2017

Simone Weil and MLKJr. by Robert Coles

Simone Weil stumbled into an experience familiar in the history of social observation among intellectuals who have wanted to see firsthand how others live and share their fate for ethical as well as documentary purposes. On the one hand, there is the anticipated scene of people down on their luck: children sick, parents without work or barely able to feed their families, schooling thoroughly inadequate, if at all available, abysmal sanitation – a sad litany known to public health doctors  and nurses, muckraking journalists and welfare workers. And yet, in our ghettos today or in those Portuguese villages, an outsider willing to stop and look and listen (and remove any ideological glasses he or she happens to be wearing) will soon enough become confounded by something else waiting there to be noticed: people down and out, true, but capable, some of them, of thoughtfulness, perseverance, and an impressive kind of stoic forbearance. Sometimes those same people will show a personal honor, a courtesy and civility, a hospitality that make one go back home and take another look there, at one’s neighbors, oneself. How does one comprehend  them, in all their vanity, their conceits and deceits?

Simone Weil was too smart and tough to romanticize the poor as individuals, or poverty as a condition. She was also to observant and honest to sweep the dilemma under the rug and keep reciting the same old formulaic banalities. Instead, she bowed to fate in all its ironic, paradoxical, inconsistent, and ambiguous nature: those who have nothing materially can have a moral or spiritual strength, whereas those who seem to have everything that the world has to offer in the way of of possessions and power can be moral idiots, or maybe morally adrift and hungry, they know not for what. . . .

Martin Luther King often asked himself why people misunderstand or hate others, and so doing, do themselves so much damage.

I have begun to realize how hard it is for a lot of people to think of living without someone to look down upon, really look down upon. It is not just that they will feel cheated out of someone to hate; it is that they will be compelled to look more carefully at themselves, at what they don’t like in themselves. My heart goes out to people I hear called rednecks; they have little, if anything, and hate is a possession they can still call upon reliably, and it works for them. I have less charity in my heart for the well-to-do and well-educated people – for their snide comments, cleverly rationalized ones, for the way they mobilize their political and moral justifications to suit their own purposes. No one calls them to account. The Klan is their whipping boy. Someday all of us will see that when we start going after a race or a religion, a type, a region, a section of the Lord’s humanity – then we are cutting into His heart, and we are bleeding badly ourselves. But then, I guess there’s lots of masochism around!*

It was not false modesty that led Simone Weil to write, in a July 1943 letter to her parents a month before she died:

Some people feel in a confused way that there is something to what I have been saying, arguing for. But once they have made a few polite remarks about my intelligence their conscience is clear. After which, they listen to me or read me with the same hurried attention which they give to everything, making up their minds definitely about each separate little hint of an idea as it appears: “I agree with this,” “I don’t agree with that, “This is marvelous,” “That’s completely idiotic. In the end they say “Very Interesting,” and pass on to something else. They have avoided fatigue. What else can one expect? I am convinced that the most fervent Christians among them don’t concentrate their attention much more when they are praying or reading the Gospel. Why imagine that it is better elsewhere? I have seen some of those elsewheres. As for posterity, before there is a generation with muscle and power of thought the books and manuscripts of our day will surely have disappeared.

*Spoken in the course of a personal interview, January 10, 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia

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