In Times Like These I Think of Albert Camus

The reemergence of White Nationalism as a visible political movement will be a big part of my policy courses this fall semester.   My hope is that as we explore policy and race through the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, my students will come away with a better understanding of the historical context. Perhaps they will understand that the events in Virginia are at least in part just a modern iteration of the same old racial politics that have haunted this country since its founding.  If my classes were not already so jam packed with readings, I would make The Plague by Albert Camus required reading; it is one of the most poignant moral tales of modern literature.  Camus reminds us that while we may recoil at the hatred and violence our fellow men and women can so easily muster we must not lose sight of the human capacity for goodness as well.  He also cautions us that hatred and violence is never defeated once and for all, but rather is only temporarily driven back and waits quietly in dark corners for an environment where it can again thrive.

Like many, I have been disturbed by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We are not far removed from a generation of men and women who made profound sacrifices to defeat the symbols and ideology that the White Nationalist now feel emboldened to display on the streets.  We still have among us many men and women who were the victims of the genocidal impulses of the fascist movements of the mid twentieth century.  When the climate is right, such hatred can thrive. In the aftermath of a particularly vicious campaign that sought to stoke white discontent, the ugliness came creeping out.  That is all such hatred and viciousness needs to thrive, a structure of power that protects and promotes it.  But as disturbed as I may be by the images and rhetoric I am not surprised.  The darkness is always there, biding its time and hoping for its moment.  Within such reactive mass politics is, as Camus pointed out, a reflexive totalitarianism.  Thus, we see how human freedom is never really safe and how political systems can be so easily infected by our darker impulses.

Camus’ masterwork is ostensibly about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the walled city of Oran in North Africa.  When the outbreak begins, the city is sealed off leaving its inhabitants to labor ceaselessly to assuage the suffering of their fellow residents. They must carry on as best they can as they watch their friends, neighbors, and loved ones die around them. The story is of course a parable about the disease of fascism that had spread across Europe in the 1930s and 40s.  Having been a member of the French resistance and editor of the resistance journal Combat, Camus understood firsthand what it means to live in a time of pestilence.   Camus understood that in the end our sole moral duty becomes resistance to the any movement that is powered by such searing hate.

Sophie Scholl memorial in Munich


Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

We honor the men and women who resist because we recognize that out of the depths of despair come great acts that reassert our humanity:

 “And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Having born witness to the horrors of the totalitarian movements that swept across Eastern and Western Europe, Camus was also aware that the dark impulses that would destroy human freedom are never defeated.  Today, we see in our own battles with White Nationalism (AKA Fascism) at home and terrorism and totalitarianism abroad that Camus was right: he predicted the politics of hate that would rise and fall and rise again throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.  But for Camus that prescience was never a cause for hopelessness, but rather was a call to moral rebellion.  Let the stories we tell be those of the men and women who have resisted: the fight against fascism in Europe, the solidarity movement in Poland, and the civil rights movements here at home. However, the stories we tell must also come with a caution, which is that there is never a final victory.

“… the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.”

I think a lot about virtue ethics and the role of character in moral courage.  Paradoxically, moral courage requires not self-righteousness, but humility.  It requires that recognize that when we undertake the fight to create a world that is more just we should always be aware of our own human frailty.  The Greeks would have understood this as the virtue of reverence, the opposite of which is not irreverence, but rather hubris: a dangerous overconfidence.  When one begins to think of one’s own moral judgment as infallible one becomes positioned to be the new oppressor. When I was young I watched the series The Ascent of Man on PBS, and I will never forget the great historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski quoting Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.” Despite his own endorsement of socialism Camus often found himself “out of fashion” with the intellectual and political left in France.  Camus’ commitment to human rights and human freedom meant that while he could join with other intellectuals in condemning the Fascist right, he had a serious falling out with the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, a leading apologist for the other horrific ideology of the mid twentieth century, Stalinism.  For Camus, our morality was not in our adherence to proper political doctrine or simple rule following, but rather in our willingness to rebel against the totalitarian impulse regardless of its political origins.  Camus showed implicitly, if not stated explicitly, reverence in his understanding of our great moral capacity but also our moral frailty.

I don’t know if The Plague is taught in colleges anymore, let alone high schools.  Given the current state of lit-crit, I fear it would be read only as an expression of French colonialism in North Africa (or some other such abstraction that misses the point) instead of the great moral tale that it is. Perhaps I’ll figure out a way to make it a required reading.





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