Feeling their pain
So what has happened since 1954? How did William March’s somber, frightening, historically informed meditation on evil become a joke? In part it is due to the fact that, in an era when the longstanding mockery of suburban culture has culminated in American Beauty and Desperate Housewives, the film’s seriousness now reads to us as melodrama. But it is also because the immediacy of the Holocaust and Hiroshima has faded and been replaced by new horrors. The carnage of Vietnam; the murderous regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile; the genocide in Rwanda; and the current war in Iraq have become commonplace. Meliorated by passive television coverage — 1960s television brought the violence of Vietnam into the living room but also rendered it mundane — and an increasingly knee-jerk nationalism, the American public has become increasingly inured to horrors around the world.
As a nation, we have, in short, succumbed to “the Rhoda reaction,” a lack of basic empathy for the pain of others in spite of — or more likely because of — our government’s complicity in horror. It took the attacks of September 11 on American soil to remind us that really horrible things can happen in the world. But it hasn’t helped at all that, thanks to George Bush, our national rhetoric sees it as result of “evil” and not geopolitics.
“Evil” has been and still is a bipartisan word. You won’t catch Bush describing Henry Kissinger’s decision to carpet bomb Cambodia as “evil,” likewise the Reagan administration’s appalling support of Pinochet’s large-scale, state-sponsored murders. While there was some outcry over these events, by and large “the Rhoda reaction” was and continues to be the operational mode for too many Americans. Bush’s invocation of “evil” heralded a sea-change in our political discourse. Yet the worst aspect of “Rhoda reaction” is not the lack of empathy for human suffering — we can all understand how humans deaden themselves to avoid dealing with pain — but rather the lack of curiosity that goes along with it. We, as a nation, have become appallingly incurious — a word many pundits have used to describe our president who is so quick to revile “evil” in others.
So let’s continue to camp up dear little Rhoda — the pain really is almost too hard to bear. Until we humans — of all nations — can discuss, without relying on religious abstractions, the harsh reality of what we are doing and why, we will live in a world that eludes comprehension. But that doesn’t absolve us from continuing to try.
: News Features
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