July 02, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: "Conscience." It comes in many varieties, from guilty to clear. But in this wondrous November 27, 1995 edition of "The Misanthrope's Corner," our beloved Miss King discovers and dissects that one distinctly American version of the scruples bone: the rogue conscience.
Words fail some of us, but, thankfully, they never fail Florence. This column is a hoot, and ends with a favorite observation from our Great Curmudgeon. You'll love it.
Now the summer is upon us all, and beaches and hammocks beckon, and hence the requirement of reading good books. Friends, there is no better book to have at your side through these sultry months than the faithful collection of each and every one of Miss King's sacred cow-tipping NR columns. I speak of STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002, and if you are a King fan, you must order your copy, which can be done (securely!) here.
The O.J. verdict and the Pope's visit should not have anything in common, but they do. As throngs cheered John Paul II, a poll found a majority of American Catholics favored "the dictates of their own consciences" over Catholic doctrine.
The Simpson jurors, encouraged by their own Pope John, ignored the evidence and followed the dictates of their own consciences.
The rogue conscience is a uniquely American development, as we can see by the characteristic oxymoronic twist of the words themselves. Take two words that do not go together (e.g., diversity/strength) and put them together anyway, and you will get something that is tearing us apart.
The rogue conscience was an idea whose time had come before most Americans even got here. The country was settled by people who made a fetish of "individual conscience" and pioneered by people who made a fetish of staring grimly off into the distance and intoning, "A man has to do what he has to do." Conscience as open-ended compulsion took root, becoming the wellspring of inspiration and energy for our most tumultuous social causes. Abolition and Prohibition were about conscience; slaves and drunks were the "what."
The 1960s were the golden age of the rogue conscience. The civil-rights movement turned the white conscience into the eighth wonder of the world, a marble colossus that loomed over cocktail parties and transformed swizzle sticks into tridents of the heart.
Draft dodgers gave us the cafeteria conscience, picking and choosing their ethics carefully as befits those with weak stomachs. The conscience du jour was the fruit of the grape and lettuce boycotts. Then feminists replaced conscience with consciousness and diddled it in "consciousness raising" sessions, a group effort in which the search for truth became simply a matter of listening for "clicks" in one's head.
The machinations of the Sixties softened us up for the next faddish distortion of conscience, one that would make Hester Prynne turn to Hamlet and say, "They've got to be kidding." It was the pseudo-conscience of sensitivity, which has made cowards of us all.
It was a foregone conclusion that Lance Ito had to be the judge on the Simpson case. They could not give it to a white judge because blacks would get mad; they could not give it to a black judge because whites would get mad; and they could not give it to an Hispanic because Hispanics are either white or black unless they're brown, in which case everyone would get mad. What was left but an Asian? And not just any Asian. It could not be a Korean because they own too many stores; nor could it be a Chinese or Vietnamese, both synonyms for valedictorian. Ito, whose parents had been sent to a Japanese internment camp, was a twofer for the ages: an Asian victim.
Once Ito was on the case the problem of his wife came up. There was a time when "The judge's wife is a cop" would have been the punch line of a dirty joke. But Ito's wife really is a cop, and the feminist consciousness on which we are impaled made it impossible to fire her after she married a judge. We used to prohibit married couples from working for the same firm out of a prudent distrust of human weakness and a wariness about emotionalism on the job. But now we tell them, "It's between you and your conscience" hence the outlandish spectacle of Ito examining his conscience from the bench.
Americans talk about our consciences the way Frenchmen talk about their livers, but at least they know what a liver looks like. We must reify our obsession.
"To reify" means to regard as concrete and material that which is not. The vitamin has been reified; a chemical intangible originally defined as a unit of nutritive value, it is now a pill and thus "real": I swallow it, therefore it is. Most reification consists of cartoonish mental pictures of things like the calorie and the kilowatt. Freudian terms are especially easy to reify; we imagine the "id" as a grinning demon and the "ego" as a large fragile bubble.
WHAT does our rogue conscience look like? I see it as a glistening silvery cloud, about the same size as the dark green cloud in foot-odor commercials, rising out of our brows. Two hundred and fifty million American puffs of amorphous adjudication; making a difference, sending a message, separating the message from the messenger, and skywriting "Everybody's gotta right to be Sir Thomas More for 15 minutes."
The rogue conscience has made all too many people lose sight of what real conscience is.
Conscience is the transmission system that enables us to shift into empathy. The reaction to the Simpson verdict reached a nadir at a mostly black cosmetology school in my town. Our local paper, after describing the taunting, flaunting, and high-fiving, recorded something even worse: "Others made fun of the sad look on prosecutor Marcia Clark's face or mocked what victim Ronald Goldman's father was going to say next."
Conscience is what makes us conscientious. We haven't heard that word much lately; it's been replaced by "meticulous," which is not quite the same thing. A compulsive picture-straightener is meticulous; conscientiousness corrects more important irregularities.
In 1977, as I watched the scene in Roots in which Kizzy is punished for learning to read, I experienced a rare burst of idealism, visualizing millions of black youngsters taking a solemn oath: "I vow to become the best reader in America, to honor my ancestors who were forbidden to learn." I was sure it would happen how could it not, when the obligation was so clear?
Now, a word to Catholics who would follow the dictates of their consciences instead of the dictates of the Vatican.
Congratulations, you're Protestant. Practice your singing, and remember to say "gambling" when the pollster asks you which sin you hate the most.