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January 02, 2006



"I have a threshold question: What possible good could come of this mean-spirited little game? Why on earth did ATB choose to stir up trouble like this? (To attract readership, duh.)"

Well actually, for a blog that calls itself the Questioning Christian, what is it that you find offensive in listing what I described as "each person will have a vastly different understanding of wickedness. What you consider the definition of evil, will be very different to someone else's, and it's your definition of wickedness that will give us such a diverse selection of figures on our list of evilness in America, which is what will make it so interesting."

Are you suggesting that your form of questioning is ignoring it’s existence?

There was no intention of malice in my challenge, (not a game), and as I said at the beginning of my post, it was inspired by the list produced in England by the famous historians, called 'The 10 Worst Britons', in the last 1000 years. We have a rather shorter history, so ours had to be in the last 230 odd years. As I said earlier I found it interesting how differing opinions of evil were. I do not influence the way the blogosphere takes the challenge nor the answers given which is why I personally abstained.

I am afraid the only mean spirited person here is you, and I shall not go into my definition of evil, it might upset you to hear it. As for calling yourself the Questioning Christian I suggest you do not live up to the name, the first or the latter part of it.

Next time you intend to insult me, at least have the decency to Track me Back, as is the common practice as a blogger, so I can answer your unfair accusations.

D. C.

Alexandra --

1. I included two trackback pings when I posted this item. The first was to the Salty Vicar's site; if you go there, you'll see the ping was posted to his blog yesterday afternoon. The second was to your site. If the ping didn't show up on your site, you might check with your provider.

2. I'll accept that malice was not your intent, but it seems to me that you were certainly reckless. I don't see how you could not have known that your "challenge" to the blogosphere would quickly lead to bashing. Where the living are concerned, such bashing lacks even basic charity, and of course de mortuis nil nisi bonum. (I'm curious why you "personally abstained" from posting a ten-worst list of your own.)

3. Your comment, that you "found it interesting how differing opinions of evil were," is a nice try at an after-the-fact rationalization, but I'm afraid it's not persuasive.

4. We'll let the readers decide whether I unfairly insulted you.

5. Your blog is very well done (and on the merits I agree with a good deal of what you say). But please lay off the personal attacks on others. It doesn't matter whether you personally post the attacks, or whether you bait others to do so. They're equally offensive in either case. You're a decent writer; you don't need to clutter your work with this sort of foolishness.

Ken Pierce

I spend a lot of time over at ATB; so you could call me biased in Alexandra's favor, I suppose. But if you want an answer to your question, "What possible good could come of this mean-spirited little game?":

My own reaction was to meditate on what it could mean to be "the worst," a word which is certainly one of the least precise in any language. I never got around to providing my own Top Ten list, but it got me thinking of how you would go about building one; and that led to my remembering that evil is really either absent or perverted good; and from there I decided that if I were going to build a Top Ten list I would want to define the different kinds of excellence, and then look for influential people who failed significantly in those types of excellence. Thus Jimmy Carter and Billy Sunday (Prohibitionist) would both show up high on the chart of "opposite of wise," on the far end of the spectrum from, say, Benjamin Franklin.

I was particularly struck by how easy it would be to list "opposite of chaste" people and how very hard indeed it is to find a notable twentieth-century American whose defining characteristic was chastity. (Sheldon Vanauken would top my list but he's hardly famous outside of Christian circles.) There are, of course, lots of chaste people, but my point is that no American gets famous for chastity, because Americans think of chastity as a negative, rather than as a postive, virtue -- it's not something you do, but rather something you don't do. But that has to be totally wrong, for it is evil that is the absence of virtue, not the other way around. Anybody who's read and loved the Divine Comedy knows (at second hand, at least) the positive, powerful, overflowing nature of Beatrice's chastity (which is not at all the same thing as virginity); but then not many Americans read the Divine Comedy and you can count on one hand the number of American Christians out of every thousand who actually love it.

At any rate, I found Alexandra's post very highly thought-provoking, kicking off meditations on the nature of good and evil and the various classifications thereof, and bringing to my attention the need to concentrate on making sure my own teenagers (I have eight children) come to see sexual purity as something more than mere abstinence.

I might also add that, as a friend of Alexandras for lo these many moons, she is (and would admit to being) hot-tempered and passionate, but I rarely if ever see her behaving in a genuinely mean-spirited way. (Assuming that you mean "mean-spirited" as "she is a meanie," as opposed to its original meaning of "small-minded and ungenerous," which original meaning is about as far opposite the real Alexandra as it is very well possible to be.) Flame her and she'll slap you back (as you perceive), but in actual fact the comment section of her blog is notable for the very high level of civility and courtesy with which regulars of very widely varying religious and political perspectives tackle the tough issues. That's actually the answer to your second question, "Why on earth did ATB choose to stir up trouble like this?" The very form of your question begs the question itself; she did not "choose to stir up trouble," but instead to "stir up discussion," because ATB is as much of a salon as a blog. She wanted a discussion that dug into the nature of good and evil, as her original post makes clear. "To attract readership" is the wrong answer and misrepresents her motives in this case.

Some of Alexandra's most loyal readers are those who disagree most radically with her, which is hardly something one associates with the mean-spirited. May I gently suggest that to be hasty in calling other people names, especially early in one's acquaintance with them, is to be less than perfectly charitable?

Respectfully yours,

Ken Pierce

Ken Pierce

Four other things:

1. A very minor point, but I'm applying the Golden Rule with a certain amount of confidence since you were picky about the sic's in quoting Alexandra. I myself like to keep my own grammar and spelling pure; so please don't think I intend disrespect in pointing out that vilification has only one l.

2. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is not part of any religion's moral code; it is a social nicety that, if rigorously applied, would require us to excise great big chunks of the Bible and 90% of the world's history, which history is the tale of the behavior of sinful people. It is absolutely necessary to pass on to our children such insights as, "You have a moral obligation to be wise because few things do more damage than the good intentions of a fool," and I defy you to do so effectively without pointing to an example such as Neville Chamberlain (out of bounds because deceased) or Jimmy Carter (out of bounds because still alive, and at the top of so many lists, to your evident astonishment, precisely because he typifies better than any other world figure in the Baby Boomer era, the particular vice of folly-despite-good-intentions). Unless all of the bad examples used for educational purposes are to be drawn from fiction, we're going to have to utter honest criticism of somebody, dead or alive.

3. What is your standard of vilification? -- an interesting one in that your post, I presume, does not qualify as vilification of Alexandra, yet the placing of Benedict Arnold at the top of a list of Worst Americans does qualify as vilification of the prototypical traitor (a man who, like the Italians in both World Wars, managed to betray both sides, the second time out of pique and frustrated personal ambition). I am not being sarcastic; it's a serious question: how do you define vilification and when do you determine that you have crossed a line?

4. The desire to explore different perspectives on badness is not at all an after-the-fact rationalization. I know Alexandra well; that was her primary interest in bringing the subject up. Whether you find persuasive my saying so is, of course, entirely up to you.


"Your comment, that you "found it interesting how differing opinions of evil were," is a nice try at an after-the-fact rationalization, but I'm afraid it's not persuasive."

The excerpt was taken verbatim out of the text of my original post, rendering your argument as simply nonsensical.

I have already explained to you in the above comment as to why I abstained from making a list of my own.

D. C.

Ken Pierce writes: " ... which history is the tale of the behavior of sinful people" (emphasis added).

I agree completely — so criticize the behavior, not the person; hate the sin, love the sinner. (Incidentally, that's precisely what I attempted, I think successfully, in my original posting.)

To stick with the Jimmy Carter example: Sure, President Carter made some decisions that many disagreed with at the time. Some of those decisions didn't turn out the way we (and he) would have liked. But I don't think anyone would deny that he worked devotedly in the service of his country.

By all means point out the problems with President Carter's decisions. But President Carter the man should be respected and honored for his service.

If memory serves, when Bill Clinton made his victory speech on election night 1992, some in the crowd started to boo when the president-elect said nice things about then-President Bush, who had just conceded defeat. Gov. Clinton then stopped and said something along the lines of, no, don't boo, we honor President Bush for his 50 years of service to our country. Precisely. (And it should be no different when conservatives boo the mention of Bill Clinton's name.)

Personalizing our disagreements, demonizing those who don't measure up to what we regard as political or moral standards, is a very slippery slope. It leads to denying the basic humanity of "Them." That's a dangerous path.

Thanks for commenting, both Ken Pierce and Alexandra.

D. C.

Ken Pierce, we'll never fully understand what caused Benedict Arnold to do what he did. I imagine that (i) if I'd been George Washington, I would have viscerally despised my former friend's betrayals, and (ii) if Arnold had been captured and properly convicted of treason, I would have soberly signed his death warrant on grounds that, all things considered, his execution would be appropriate.

But I also hope I would have tried to understand why Arnold did what he did, to learn from the experience, and to do the best I could by the man — this being one paraphrase of loving one's enemies — insofar as that would not jeopardize my other obligations to my troops and my country.

Naive? Probably.

Ken Pierce

It sounds as though you define the term worst in moral terms and assume everybody else is doing so as well? I would call President Carter the worst American of my lifetime in the limited sense of his being the person whose folly did the most damage to the American commonwealth without being amplified by deliberate malice -- that is, he is the best example of the purely foolish person whose has gotten in way over his head. On the other hand he was morally very much superior, on the evidence available to me, to Bill Clinton or to Richard Nixon. Therefore I honor his intentions; but I do not honor his nonexistent (objectively speaking) "service" to our country, as his so-called "service" consisted primarily of hurting the country. America would have been much better off if Jimmy Carter had been a selfish jerk who stayed on his peanut farm and got richer; we are highly unfortunate that he had such a strong sense of unselfish public service, and we made a terrible mistake in saying anything but, "Thanks, but no thanks," when he volunteered to serve. To say this is to pass judgment on the man's actions, in precisely the same sense in which you call Alexandra's post "reckless" while intending no criticism of her person.

In fact this point -- the point that in selecting a particular individual as "worst" you implicitly choose one of many possible meanings for the term "worst" in the very act of the choice, and therefore that a man can be one of the "worst" Americans in some senses while being a very good American in some other sense -- is precisely the point that Alexandra wanted to explore. I think perhaps you're stuck in a mode in which you assume that the only possible meaning of worst is "most willfully evil." If that were, indeed, the only possible meaning of the term, then your criticism of Alexandra's post would be justified. It is not, however, the only possible use of the term, a term whose actual usage is quite intriguingly complex -- which is the whole point of her post, and which point you seem to have missed entirely. (Of course you have the disadvantage of not knowing her, which makes such misunderstandings hard to avoid.)

By the way, if "Thanks for commenting" was meant as a tactful, "Now please be quiet, I don't have time for any more of this," please pardon my social clumsiness. You can bluntly tell me to be quiet without hurting my feelings in the slightest. I don't mean to intrude.

D. C.

Ken Pierce, if Alexandra's "salon" (your term) were a private affair, I don't think I would have reacted strongly to her inflammatory challenge to list the ten worst Americans. But her salon is very public. Her challenge attracted more than a few bashers. That should have been utterly unsurprising to her. And so I say she was reckless — but I should rephrase to say that, on this particular occasion, she acted recklessly, leading to others' acting in a needlessly-hurtful way.

Suppose Alexandra's challenge had been phrased as follows: "List the ten people repsonsible for the most-harmful (or least-successful) actions in American history, and explain why you think so." Then suppose she had enforced a rule requiring commenters to criticize only actions and to refrain from personal attacks. That would have been a truly interesting discussion.

The difference in wording between her phrasing and mine will doubtless seem forced and artificial. But in this venue, all we have to go on is words. Differences in wording, even forced and artificial ones, can make a real difference in tone.

The "thanks for commenting" remark was sincere. I greatly enjoy exchanges of this nature, not least because they force me to articulate, and in many cases to figure out, what I think.

Ken Pierce

D C,

Well, I probably would go along with your attitude toward Benedict Arnold if I thought it would make the slightest difference in the world to him... ;-) Which I suspect is a difference between us: I don't think the people who made the various "worst" lists care tuppence what a bunch of blog-commentors think, and I liked the conversation that ensued (since I don't have trouble simply ignoring trolls). So I think there was more good done than harm. But you're welcome to disagree.

You do realize that her wording was to a certain extent constrained by the fact that she was herself responding to a "Worst Englishmen of History" list that included Thomas Becket, right? (The Becket choice I thought said much more about the historian who picked him than it said about Becket himself, and that's pretty much the core truth about these Worst lists: they tell you about the people who compile them, not the people who appear on them. I will now cease belaboring Alexandra's point.)

John Wilkins

Hi DC,

I understand your point. The ten worst Americans did strike a chord, however. It dod force me to do a little research and consider what means "worst." Note I didn't use any theological terms [most hell-bound] although I surely have opinions about that.



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