“Of hasty marriage, wasted time, false hopes, and misjudged powers the race of men must ever exclaim, ‘If only I had known!’ But we do not know. If you doubt this dark ignorance, listen to the average man discussing politics. You will be appalled that each vote counts one; and you will recall that men choose demagogues, not merely through wickedness, though that ingredient is always present, but through ignorance.” — George Arthur Buttrick, Christ & Man’s Dilemma, Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1946.
Astonishing cynicism, or a way to insight? Bear in mind Buttrick wrote right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a world war had darkened things already for many years (consider the Asian and African experiences, not just the period between 7DEC41 and VJ Day). And he focused his discussion on the dilemma of our ignorance, our inability to generate Light for life.
Of the demagoguery he mentions there are examples held fast in memory, the “Kingfish” Huey Long of Louisiana who was murdered at the capitol in Baton Rouge in 1935. Without forgetting his populist devotion to Louisianans, I associate Long’s remarkable saga with Sinclair Lewis’ fascistic Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here (1935). “Berzilius” rings as “Beelzebub” in my ears; but, well, it was a satire, though with plenty of American referents. Others have suggested other loose parallels — among the worst Hitler comes to mind.
It is not that people are “bad” or that they choose demagogues – and what American politicians can rise to the top unless they can “draw the people together” unto themselves to some degree? No, “bad” doesn’t get it. Says Buttrick, our known burden of ignorance pales before the “worse burden and deeper need” – that we are wicked. We know that, too, and mostly deny it. Though in admitting it we cannot help ourselves, we need a deliverer. A demagogue? No, but someone who can also take our mortality to task and assure us of Life. So, Buttrick ended his chapter on these themes this way:
- Man is constitutionally ignorant, endemically wicked, irrevocably mortal; but he knows it, and is therefore above his ignorance, sin, and mortality; yet he is not delivered from his lower life by his own power, but remains helpless without the Great Companion.
- There is no book logic to uphold, or refute, these contentions. There is only the logic of life: the reader must ask himself if this description of the paradox of human nature is true or untrue of his human nature.
- If he finds any truth in the description, he may be willing to ask further if the new-old words of the creed have an answering truth: “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, . . . and was made man.” (from the Nicene Creed)