"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." --Edmund Burke (apocryphal)
Most of the idiots who leaned anti-Todd -- or worse, pro-Helen -- in their reactions to my C-SPAN2 appearance seemed to be under the impression that my comments were out of place, even though few of them seemed to have watched the entire C-SPAN2 broadcast for context, let alone read our essays in the fine anthology Proud to Be Right (one online writer seemed to think the G.K. Chesterton reference in my C-SPAN2 comments was completely irrelevant, for instance, even joking about it, presumably because the writer himself had no idea who Chesterton was or why Chesterton came up in Helen's essay -- in short, "How dare anyone talk about things I don't understand? He must be a jerk! Now why isn't he putting these comments in some sort of philosophical context?").
In truth, Helen's philosophy and behavior go hand in hand. The latter is not an irrelevant footnote to the former, and indeed helps illuminate the considerable ambiguities in the former -- and illuminate the reasons that elements of that philosophy are deliberately kept obscure. Helen Rittelmeyer is the most disturbing human being I have ever encountered, and I once spent a day in a maximum-security women's prison (for journalistic purposes). To pretend that her thought has no direct causal tie to her actions would be the real insult to her thinking.
But wait, you say, weren't you praising this woman and in love with her just a year ago, even during a (temporary) prior breakup? In a sense, yes, but I fully concede I was deceived then, and not just in the usual mundane sense of thinking my mate was better than she really was. I was in love with a fictional character -- something she might herself liken to a perpetual drag-act impression of a nice conservative woman -- who she knowingly constructs in order to be loved by people who would react with horror to her true nature. Like many other Helen-watchers (even watching at a closer distance than most), I thought -- as she quite consciously intends us all to think -- that her brutal-sounding philosophy was some sort of entertaining juggling act and that her conscious goal was for it all to lead up to a finale in which -- against all seeming odds -- virtue, loyalty, and basic decency are somehow left standing upright (thus all her conservative-sounding references to the olden days).
Nothing could farther from the truth.
Helen's thinking and behavior -- her praise of fighting, suffering, partisanship, anger, punishment, and general thuggery -- stripped of the seemingly endless layers of irony and misdirection, resemble nothing so much as the timeless drunken white trash battle cry "You ain't better'n me!" She displays a self-loathing desire to see everyone dragged down to her level: kindness replaced by cruelty in the hierarchy of virtues, logic by willful irrationality, peace by real violence, civility by endless conflict, meritocracy by a winking awareness of special privileges and by an indulgent love of corruption and decadence.
And, though my "Hitler" reference in my old joke personal ad was written before I ever met Helen, now that you mention it, in a strict Aristotelian sense -- that is, judged by motivations -- it might well be fair to
call Helen more evil than Hitler, Stalin, or bin Laden, for the simple reason that they (in their ignorance, stupidity, or madness) are all presumably true-believers who think that vanquishing their foes (the Jews, the bourgeoisie, the Jews again) would make the world a better place. Again, they're horribly wrong -- and we'd do well to kill them -- but they likely believed they were in the right, for what little it's worth.
Helen, by contrast, does what she does -- breaks the moral rules she does, sometimes with blatant sneering pride -- precisely in order to do harm, to increase human suffering, to prove to herself that immorality and viciousness are inevitable (that sin is inevitable, to put it in a bad-Catholic formulation she might like), and to erase any hint that one could plausibly pursue compassion, empathy, reform, improvement, or gentleness -- these things being alien to her and thus sources of constant confusion and frustration, even anger. She can't reform -- how dare anyone suggest that any of us can? Fight, fume, and do harm until Jesus comes.
One of countless odd and stilted conversations I had with her -- peppered with just enough of her jokes and items from her vast storehouse of obscure historical knowledge to keep one engaged despite its tortuous bends -- involved me trying to convince her that most of us do not go through each day hoping our fellow citizens will literally get punched in the face.
But we want people to suffer, Helen would insist -- since we simply intuit that to be "excellent." She seems somehow unable to understand that this view does not merely make her a "conservative" or a "Catholic" (and thus merely at odds with libertarian atheists like me) but instead makes her something scarier, akin to a street-fighting proto-fascist before fascism took the reins of power, with a complementary dash of Weimar decadence to boot (one Jewish acquaintance to whom I described Helen immediately asked if she was of German descent, and it had never occurred to me before to think of her that way, but perhaps South Park was right that "there's something wrong with German people").
It strikes her as absurd -- even infuriating -- that some of us are kind and rational all day long, whereas she waits for the opportunity to let the mask drop, to end her theatrical performance as the harmless little librarian-type and take up her preferred role of noir-like corrupter and destroyer. Helen, I am as sorry to report as anyone possibly could be, is bad news -- in her own words, "a terrible person."
Sadly, I don't think she believes she can do any better than play that dark role to the hilt, and so, last I knew, she does.
I remember thinking, in my moderately-conservative way, back in college, that if someone tells you "There is no truth," you probably ought not to trust the person too much, regardless of his philosophical arguments. In a similar fashion, Helen has written that the most unimportant thing to know about any statement is whether it is true -- all that matters is whether it's "interesting." That was a warning sign in retrospect, as were so many then-baffling pieces of the puzzle -- the Rittelmeyer Riddle, if you will. When people try to tell you about themselves, listen carefully, even if they're lying. If a woman loves country "cheatin' songs," for instance, it may be because they speak to her a bit too much.
Helen admires the Gen X alternative rock band the Hold Steady -- and describes them as perfect for millennials such as her -- precisely, she says, because they don't write about the morality of, for instance, destructive actions or illicit sexual encounters but instead ask "What happens next?" She may not be as conservative as she thinks she is (and at one point or another she has explicitly rejected tradition, conservative lamentations about the coarsening of culture, and warnings about millennials' loose morals). The Ritteler, lacking ordinary compassion but perversely unable to simply keep her mouth shut, loves to drop hints and make jokes (in person and online) about her own misbehavior, all the while thinking that if she's not immediately called on it, it must be because the person she is talking to is dim or doesn't grasp the use of metaphor -- rather than because the listener is simply too horrified to believe the implications of what the Ritteler is saying, preferring to hope that she is psychologically human.
She's charming and well liked by many, but you'll notice few of those close to her have weighed in in her defense in any detail, unless I overlooked it. Much easier to defend her if one doesn't look too closely. If there were more people like the execrable Robert Stacy McCain who seemed to understand her and still defend her, I would be quite worried. A veritable army of darkness could perhaps be summoned if one writer were truly seen as speaking to the creepy subset of the population that is frustrated by good behavior but outwardly conforms to it while winkingly suggesting to others of their kind a desire to inflict damage on the innocent.
Even Nietzsche did not really speak for mere thugs and lowlifes (but rather for an imaginary group of future nobles, as it were), but in an era of flashmobs and fight clubs, perhaps someone will yet arise who does tell the masses that thuggery is good for its own sake, in words more refined than the lyrics of gangsta rap but with similar disregard for ethics and social cohesion. We should not help such figures work stealthily by pretending to believe their conservative-sounding cover stories.
Part of Helen's rationale for it all, I think, is a sort of dark version of Burke in which we not only ought to avoid unraveling the multiple strands of tradition -- for fear the whole fabric of society will fray -- but ought to avoid making, so to speak, lowlifes and chronically ill-behaved people feel that their ways of life aren't a valued part of that fabric. There's no denying there's something earthy and appealing about that, in the short term.
That she thinks of herself as North Carolina white trash helps make her a partisan in that particular cultural conservation effort, simultaneously providing a handy rationale for bad behavior, even if she could as plausibly be held to the standards of "a nerdy Ivy Leaguer raised in the yuppie section of her state by near-hippie members of the United Church of Christ," which is considered America's most left-leaning denomination.
It's Obama's denomination, as Helen enjoys telling people -- and, despite all her paleo talk, it may be the real underlying source of her affinity for populist/Marxist "class struggle" talk, folk music sing-alongs, labor unions -- especially the dreaded teachers unions and even "card check" legislation -- the pro-choice position on abortion, and fondness for green, anti-car urban planners -- not to mention "brutalist" modern architecture, power-mad urban planner extraordinaire Robert Moses, Chicago "machine" politicians including the Daleys, Continental philosophy, and "queer theory."
(At a time when everything from stage shows to snow removal in New York City is being hampered by unions, it's especially troubling to see someone on the right defending them just because they're ostensibly tough, manly scrappers with a sense of solidarity, which is about all Helen cares about, like a cartoon Viking with little concern for morals or dry economic analysis. Naive as it would sound to a leftist, I honestly don't understand why someone with contempt for morals would go into a normative business like promoting conservatism. What on Earth would conservatism look like with Helen's morals and allegiances? Perhaps moderate fascism -- not in the sense of very-draconian or racist but in the more Mussolini-tinged sense that our C-SPAN2 co-panelist so aptly skewered in his first book, with direct, violent action providing a sense of purpose when bourgeois ethical reservations no longer do.)
Too, she might have made a perfectly respectable moderate Democrat (perhaps in the mold of one of her heroes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan) if not for her perverse belief -- taught to her more by the left than the right itself -- that the natural home of sadism and suffering is the right. Her conversion to Catholicism in college ostensibly signaled a turn to the right, though she has written about it as the natural next step for someone who (like Catholic convert Oscar Wilde and several of his contemporaries) first labeled herself a "Decadent" (in itself surprising to anyone who still buys the nice little church lady act).
If she'd simply fallen in with a different circle of smoking buddies, she might well have turned out a Catholic adherent of "liberation theology," I can't help thinking, taking United Church of Christ thinking up an ecstatic notch, as it were. Her essay in Proud to Be Right is largely about the importance of one's smoking circle, after all -- and besides, cigarettes, the single leading preventable cause of death (the cause of fully half of cancer deaths each year, in fact), are a new-fangled modern phenomenon popularized in the mass-culture crucible of World War I, not an ancient Western tradition.
Conservatives who can't kick nicotine probably ought to restrict themselves to a relatively harmless and more traditional monthly cigar or weekly pipe -- or, far better, if they're high-tech libertarian types, the new "e-cigarettes," which deliver nicotine without the deadly burning tar of tobacco cigarettes. Alas, part of being an ornery meritocracy-smasher in this case is refusing to think in terms of cost-benefit analysis. (I know a man of the left who wants strict anti-global-warming regulations who also rejects cost-benefit analysis. It's only a conservative thing to do if your conservatism looks more like Nietzsche than the bourgeois virtues of individual responsibility I had thought the West was working its way toward and had thought conservatives were now fighting to preserve.)
If her love of union thuggery and (to her mind) delightfully anti-bourgeois street brawls such as the so-called "Hard Hat Riot" in New York City in the 1970s (in which hippies and upper-class bankers were beaten by lower-class construction workers) aren't sufficient to convince you that sadism and the promotion of suffering (at least as she assesses likely outcomes) are the best means of predicting her otherwise often-baffling and random-seeming assortment of positions, or if her love of director Lars von Trier doesn't do the trick, consider her cautious defense of Southern slavery -- or rather, her lamentation that it may have ended too abruptly, not because whites are superior to blacks or because the Civil War was needlessly violent but because mass slavery was such a handy metaphor for the way in which we should all live, so long as the ultimate slavemaster is God.
(She has even hinted at thinking, quite unlike Reagan and Pope John Paul II, that totalitarianism would also be compatible with Christian values so long as it didn't suppress the Church. I knew Catholicism was somewhat authoritarian, but I thought it was Islam that meant "Submission.")
For all I know, mass internment of Japanese-Americans is also a great metaphor for some aspect of Christianity (or perhaps Shinto), but I'd never want to inflict suffering on people to preserve a metaphor. But then, I don't think suffering or slavery are beautiful things to have around, literally or metaphorically, any way you slice them, alone or paired, in this world or another. This issue gives you some idea how dark this whole mode of thought gets, even without delving further into the more personal stuff that some people felt was off-topic. (She, at least, knows the personal and political fit together naturally here.)
Her view on slavery is even more troubling, from a libertarian (or merely humane) perspective, than her strange fondness for the U.S. Postal Service, of which she at one point talked about becoming the great conservative defender (in much the same way Diane Ravitch was regarded by some, including Helen before growing disillusioned with her, as an exciting case of a quasi-sort-of-ex-conservative turned teachers union defender). But then, just defending the post office would be enough to count as a warning sign in a saner world.
While recognizing Edmund Burke's wisdom in saying that we can't just dissect society and keep the parts we like when we're so unsure how all the parts function together, I do believe we have inherited some things that are terrible -- and that we should always be striving, both as individuals and as a society, to improve, not always looking for ways to justify unending brutality. It's often a good thing when society proves somewhat modular, the good things becoming keepers, the bad things being (cautiously) discarded. I wish sometimes people were as modular -- the wit extractable from the viciousness in some people, for instance.
A presumably-Christian commenter on one of my recent posts seemed to suggest that by sparring with religious folk such as Helen, I am undermining the Western moral tradition. On the contrary, it seems to me that I am trying to salvage and advance what remains useful from it, while people like Helen -- who have decided that layers of theatre, self-contradiction, and hypocrisy are the best way to do faith in the twenty-first century -- are the ones causing Western morals to self-destruct. If Moses (the Biblical one, not Robert) was the Alpha of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Helen is the Omega, the final postmodern death rattle of what was always a hopeless lie and should now be discarded, along with Islam, government, and other systems of control that have become more destructive than helpful and more adept at juggling lies than continuing the natural human search for truth -- and happiness (if I can't have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I don't want to be part of your dark, vaguely-Germanic counterrevolution).
And with that (barring some provocation from her -- or me hearing even fourth-hand that she is somehow misrepresenting me or abusing more people), I will not mention Helen Rittelmeyer again, and (barring her moral and psychological transformation, which I would welcome as much as anyone) it may be best for the culture if no one else does either.