The political writer Mark Steyn makes a rather strange and way-off-base point in his latest opinion piece for the Chicago Sun-Times.
First he quotes Time magazine columnist as writing, "By letting go, we become. By giving up, we gain. And we learn how to live -- now, which is the only time that matters."
Which is, of course, only a pithy restatement of a spiritual teaching that is basic to all major religions. But Steyn doesn't see it that way. He objects:
That's almost a literal restatement of Faust's bargain with the devil:
"When to the moment I shall say
'Linger awhile! so fair thou art!'
Then mayst thou fetter me straightway
Then to the abyss will I depart!"
In other words, if Faust becomes so enthralled by "the moment" that he wants to live in it forever, the devil will have him for all eternity.
Marlowe may or may not have meant his lines to be interpreted in this way. If he did, he was tilting against the windmills of a mystical tradition that extends back for thousands of years.
Steyn's argument is part of a case he's making against the two Fox News journalists who converted to Islam in order to save their lives.
Not even the dumbest jihadist believes these infidels are suddenly true believers. Rather, it confirms the central truth Osama and the mullahs have been peddling -- that the West is weak, that there's nothing -- no core, no bedrock -- nothing it's not willing to trade.
Perhaps. But it also confirms the central truth that the West is learning about the most radical elements of Islam: that the radicals are thugs, that there's nothing - no morality, no basic decency - nothing it's not willing to violate. When dealing with such people, all bets are off; you do what you have to do, if you want to survive.
Another conservative columnist, Canada's David Warren, has gone even further, declaring
[The Fox newsmen] were told to convert to Islam under implicit threat (blindfolded and hand-tied, they could not judge what threat), and agreed to make the propaganda broadcasts to guarantee their own safety. That much we can understand, as conventional cowardice. (Understand; not forgive.)
And ends up characterizing them as
Men without chests, men without character, men who don’t think twice.
Which is easy enough to say from the comfort one's keyboard. I wonder how Steyn and Warren would react if they were held hostage by terrorist fanatics. (Captain Ed at the Captain's Quarters blog also has some sharp words for Warren.)
There might seem to be no connection between this politcal point and Steyn's citation of Faust. But I think there is. Steyn and Warren have not learned the truth that Andrew Sullivan sees: that sometimes letting go is the only way to gain. Letting go of cherished "truths," relinquishing one's claim to stand in judgment of others - this is hard. It's so much easier to condemn and criticize, and (in the short term) so much more satisfying. It keeps us puffed up and full of ourselves, smug in our superiority over the unworthy objects of our detraction - those "men without chests" who are so much smaller and punier than we. It keeps our ego running full throttle.
Unfortunately, it also robs us of compassion and good sense, and ends up making us look like hypocrites, scolds, and asses.