“How to Pick Your Fights”

From "All The Mowgli Stories," Illustrated by Kurt Wiese, 1946

From “All The Mowgli Stories” by Rudyard Kipling, Illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

“How to Pick Your Fights” 

“I’ve been perfect,” said Ammon Hennacy, pacifist, anarchist and dedicated Platonic lover of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. He had taken my arm as we walked the picket line together. “I’ve had to be,” he went on. “I wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t been.”

Why have his words stayed with me? What did they signal? They were about the life of action, which is real life. They said, it’s a precision business.

Aristotle said the same thing long ago. The right action has to hit the mark, as an arrow goes to the center of its target.

What is the aim of “the right action”? Are there guidelines?

Really, I wouldn’t know. That said, I have won some combats that onlookers were pretty sure I’d lose. Also lost some that maybe I should’ve stayed out of.

I’m not a connoisseur of right action, not a master of life’s martial arts. Mostly it’s by guess and by golly that I go forward, listening to my gut, or my sense of right, or a Voice that’s inaudible but neither still nor small, or the sense that – if I don’t act – my world will never be as much mine again.

The list above is only of prompts that have sometimes moved me to action – at times when something rather large was, I felt, at stake.

What was at stake? The intelligibility of life.

The people who maintain that life is “absurd” lack the motive I have, which is to make sure it’s not absurd. When legitimate hopes are frustrated or quashed entirely, when reasonable points are gagged, when the obvious sense of the situation is turned upside down by misdescription or malicious falsification – something large is put at risk.

This is God’s world. But he doesn’t – pace Christian friends! – have it all under tight control. He rides it with a loose rein. (At least, that’s been my experience. I’m no theologian, just doin’ my best here.)

Anyway, God’s world has to make sense. One needs to be able to tell right from wrong, the sacred from the profane, the true from the lie, the high from the low, the noble from the base, the gold from all that glitters, true love from seduction and – in any fight – who started it.

Someone said that a lie can get halfway round the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. One recent example. In Michael Oren’s new book, Ally, which tells the story of his years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he corrects a tale that got wide credence. The story went that President Obama had left Prime Minister Netanyahu to sit alone and “think it over” in a darkened Oval Office, while he went off to dine with Michelle and the daughters. If true, this would have been a diplomatic insult on a par with the seventeenth century’s Defenestration of Prague. Apparently it wasn’t true — wasn’t near true — and no one knew who had circulated the disinformation.

I told what I’d learned to Jerry, who said that, among the trying features of the years he’d spent in Washington were the fictions that were wholly fabricated, yet widely believed.

Consequential lies have, I believe, their own energic power and facticity. They are not empty air. It takes personal force – mental and bodily — to swat at these weight-bearing phantoms.

Among the phantoms are those words spoken incautiously that are – for ulterior reasons – misconstrued as “hate speech.”

I pay great mind to words and the power of words. Therefore I have to care when words believed by the speaker to be true are spoken in honesty and then dishonestly stigmatized with a view to pushing the speaker out of the realm of discourse.

The late Herman Badillo was a Puerto Rican-born Borough President of the Bronx, congressman, and sometime New York mayoral candidate. He was rough-spoken and tactless but, from what I knew of him, very much in earnest about the need to preserve the quality public education to which he owed his own rise in the world. Speaking to a private group, Badillo gave a vivid physical description of a group of indigenous people – Mayans I think they were – who had lately joined New York’s ethnic mix. Pounce! Swat! His enemies, and he had many, branded him a purveyor of hate speech.

When I see someone transformed into a pariah on this pretext, if he or she is in my field of experience, I try to step forward. At that moment, the branded person is quite alone. Doesn’t matter how high placed they are. Or rather, were. No one wants to know the instant pariah. But I do. I sent Badillo a copy of the letter (never published) that I’d written defending him to the editors of city newspapers. He called me at home. Don’t know how he got my number. A few of us wanted to meet the Chancellor of the City University to advocate for Brooklyn College. It wasn’t easy to meet the Chancellor. Badillo said, “It’ll happen.” And it did.

I recommend doing this. Not only do you put the upside down world right side up again, but you get to meet the most high placed people (on their way down). That’s not why I do it. But it’s an interesting side benefit.

Take the case of Larry Summers, then President of Harvard. Like Badillo, Summers had made many enemies. They were lying in wait for him when he addressed a conference on the topic of the scarcity of women in the sciences. Summers, with a naïve confidence in the incisiveness of his own mental powers, remarked that the cause of this scarcity would be either nature or nurture or some combination of nature and nurture. This observation is what our friends in analytic philosophy would call “trivially true.” He further transgressed against what one is allowed to think or say by suggesting ways researchers could proceed if they wanted to determine which causal factors were at work, and in what proportion of each to each. In the ensuring dust-up, Summers’s adversaries achieved his resignation from the presidency of our premier liberal arts university.

At the time I was a member of a university women’s organization that issued a pamphlet purporting to educate the rather bright Dr. Summers in the basics of this controversy. Since the pamphlet spoke for the membership, I felt that my name was on it and I read it through rather carefully. Finding its reasoning wobbly, I sent my corrections to the leadership. When that group failed even to acknowledge my letter, signed with titles and letterhead, I decided to send it to Summers.

Since that darkest hour, he has gone on to other platforms and titles and no one need feel sorry for him. But at that moment, he stood (as far as anyone could tell) alone and friendless. He wrote back instantly, a warm and appreciative personal letter.

According to rabbinic legend, the world is permitted to continue because there are 36 “righteous persons” (and no more) in it. They are the 36niks or lamed vovniks.

What does that mean? Does God look down and say to himself, “Looks ugly, but I see 36 people I can bear to look at, so I won’t destroy it today”?

Or does the existence of those people who try to make the world make sense allow the rest of us to discern in the melee “a world” – and find the heart for going on?

You tell me.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “How to Pick Your Fights”

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    Reminds me of a favorite quote attributed to Edward Everett Hale:
    “I am only one, but I still am one.
    I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
    And because I cannot do everything
    I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

    to which I would add…

    and hope like mad that my actions have the intended results and are received by others in the spirit in which they were offered.

    • Abigail says:

      Ken, I never heard a bad word about you. The only thing you are short on is enemies. If you ever feel the shortage, you can have some of mine. (Only kidding.)

  2. Ken Kaplan says:

    Those who chose to live a “life of action” are self selected from the masses whose lives are dictated primarily by external circumstance or stronger personalities. Self directed action requires the use of will power and discrimination. Even so, the correctness of our actions always remains a function of perspective. Many try to be righteous but don’t realize the “mark” they target at any given moment is an illusion. They get high grades for effort but as for results…not so much.

    I think God looks down and smiles at the irony of all of us well intentioned folks creating discord while trying to make the world a better place. As for the “Lamed Vovniks,” they’re the 36 who are lucky enough to somehow always guess properly when attempting action.

    • Abigail says:

      I’m happy to get your comment, Ken. I agree that we see from where we stand. But does that have to mean that our angled seeing is no better than illusion? Couldn’t it merely suggest that we need to take in other perspectives besides our own and be prepared to correct course? It’s all too true that we can make things worse while trying to make the world a better place, and many have! Planners are notorious for over-estimating the reach of their intelligence & vision. But can’t underestimating go too far in the other direction? If I pick up litter from the lawn in a public park it will at least succeed in making that stretch of park litter-free. So that bit of the lawn really is better than it was. Your humility is perhaps a character trait but, to the best of my knowledge, you have more than once (including now) taken on responsibilities that it would have been easier to shirk, and done beautifully!

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