June 09, 2007

To feel envy is human, to enjoy schadenfreude is devilish.
- Arthur Schopenhauer
Prison is an alien place.

Children are not born there or brought up there. Perhaps through family we have come to know a little of what it means; but really, until we experience it, we can have no idea. Until the moment we find ourselves powerless within its walls, we don't know. We can't.

I find a great gladiatorial cruelty in the viewing crowd, of late.

Completely independent of justice -- but sometimes confused for it -- there is a great wish to see others suffer: the richer or more perversely powerful the better. No longer is there any sense whatsoever of "there but for the grace of God go I", replaced instead by a complete separation from the other: a separation perhaps essential if that other is to be an acceptable source of entertainment and celebration. I saw a variant of it last year, when Fidel Castro fell seriously ill -- and people were laughing and counting down and dancing in the streets, without apparent awareness of the 9/11 parallel to those other pictures of people dancing in the streets. Again, when Saddam Hussein was captured and later executed: celebration and cheering, mostly among people who had never lived under his rule. Not of the same gravity but drawing from the same wellspring, today, the utterly insane celebrations when Paris Hilton was sent weeping back to jail (and the cheers were the louder for her tears).

Justice perhaps demanded action. At the very least I suggest that money and privilege ought to be independent of punishment for repeatedly flaunting law, and thus that some jail time was definitely appropriate for Paris Hilton's carelessness of consequences. How much is under debate: was the trial judge biased in the opposite direction? Because, by the same token, privilege ought equally to be independent of deliberate targeting.

In no case is justice served by a ravaging illness, and to seek pleasure in this is obscene. Why not look in the mirror and take a gleeful pleasure in one's own wasting illness? I can't even excuse it with survivor's relief: he died, but I lived! for in such delighted glee exists not even enough empathy for that. At the extremes, no longer is the victim even a human being in the eyes of those laughing and celebrating; but has been completely dehumanised into a scapegoat for every injustice we have ever felt ourselves to have received, independent of personal or familial or racial responsibility.

There are other times in history we have seen the tilt toward this societal pattern of Schadenfreude, almost invariably in other great empires on the edge of collapse. (Consider, for example, the period of history when this German word became common currency: and what resulted.) As microcosm, so macrocosm: what can be expected of a country whose citizens have so completely abandoned empathy for exploitive, vengeful entertainment?

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