The Right to Do Evil

December 27, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- Christmas anchors the year for the Western world, as Easter does for the Orthodox. Neither of them, I suppose, can really be called Christian worlds any longer, although the Christian religion provided their historical definition. It was religion, a theological quarrel, that divided East from West, in 1054, in the great schism.

What once were the bastions of Orthodox Christianity -- the old Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia -- today have experienced five to eight decades of aggressively atheist government, education and indoctrination. There is revival of religion in those countries today, but more important is what Vaclav Havel, speaking of his own country, called ''a sad heritage . . . of moral illness.''

The structures of values, civic and intellectual as well as religious, which had existed there before, were painstakingly attacked by the Communist authorities. Then communism itself self-destructed. Waste, consequently, is everywhere. One reason there is war today in Yugoslavia, and nationalist demagogy in Russia, is that national identity, national griefs, the sense of national victimization, are among the few things that survive amid these ruins.

Christmas in the West is, for the most part, no longer a Christian feast. The iconography of divine birth and miraculous events in Bethlehem is all but wholly crowded out now by the yule logs, spruces and snow of the (pagan) north European forest, the greeting-card jollities of Victorian British feasting and caroling, and finally by the peculiarly American reinvention of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus, in the 19th century a jolly if sooty elf slipping down chimneys with gifts to good children, in the 20th century leasing his titanic merchandising weight to commercial promotions from Tokyo to the Arctic Circle.

The U.S. among all the industrial nations, is the most religious in avowed belief. Yet it is hard not to think that the established religion is really a secular one that incorporates two dogmas: that of material satisfactions -- consumerism; together with the belief in progress, that things steadily are getting better.

This writer has found that it is his unprogressive ideas that prove the most controversial. I recently published a book on nationalism (''The Wrath of Nations'') in which I said that nationalism is a manifestation of loyalties and commitments felt by us all, which give us our sense of identity and ''place'' in society, and which have positive as well as negative consequences.

Most people seem to consider nationalism a wholly backward phenomenon, something from the past, which historical progress eventually will do away wIth. Hence the war in the former Yugoslavia is considered some kind of eruption of primitive passions that the rest of us can deplore, but from which we are safe.

This seems to me plausible but wrong. I do not deny that societies progress, in that their webs of communication and interaction, their institutions of popular representation and justice, for example, may become, as they have in the Western world, more sophisticated and disinterested over time.

On the other hand, it is the essential fact about the 20th century that it has seen political crime on a scale previously unknown -- peculiarly modern crimes, unlike the war in Yugoslavia. They were deliberately committed on the basis of ostensibly progressive intellectual doctrines: Marxism, meant to better the condition of the working masses, and fascism, meant to apply eugenics to the human race and to establish the rule of a new superman.

Thus while I believe that institutional and social progress occurs, the human adventure goes backward as well as forward. Some of my critics are uncomfortable with this argument. They suggest that it is excessively pessimistic. It certainly contradicts the progressive rhetoric of American public and political life, as well as the progressive assumptions of American foreign policy.

I believe that any idea that Americans are wiser than warring Serbs or Croats, or that modern men are superior beings to the men and women of prehistory, or those of Mesopotamia, Crete, Pharaonic Egypt, China of the Hsia or Shang dynasties, is an unacceptable presumption. I would argue that moral continuity is the essence of our humanity.

I write at Christmas because the significance of Christmas is that of a mankind redeemed despite itself. Man chose the right to do evil. That is what the book of Genesis says. God then chose to take upon himself the consequences of that human choice. That is the meaning of the Christian account of divine incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, and of divine sacrifice, at Easter.

It is a useful reflection, I think, even in a multicultural America where Christmas is about to be replaced by a non-sectarian ''Winter Festival,'' to consider where in fact we are going, and the actual meaning and content of that progress we ordinarily take for granted. Part of the reason for the anxiety felt by many Americans in recent years is that the country seemed not to be making progress. People were finding themselves worse off than in the past. But what is it to progress -- for an individual human being, or a country? The question seems a suitable one for Christmas.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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