The Thirst Mutilator!

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Admit it: if you are under 50, you have thought about the movie Idiocracy occasionally over the last few years and said something to the effect that it’s coming true.

Ever since Idiocracy came out in 2006, its jokes have increasingly seemed to evoke a real jeremiad. The movie seems less funny and more didactic over time. In fact, given the state of our world in 2006, it wasn’t even clear then we should have been laughing at ourselves in the way Idiocracy invited us to. Any country that could be persuaded by  a boffo brand name alone (Shock and Awe!) to cheer on a pointless, ruinous war would seem to need an improved capacity for political deliberation more than a good laugh. Maybe, as Idiocracy suggested, our cloddish sadism abroad was caused by a masochistic level of stupidity at home.

Below its farce, Idiocracy is instructive. Its main idea is that the breakdown of enlightened democracy in America has as much to do with the demos as with the kratia. We cannot simply blame the powers that be for our failure to form a more perfect union. A government by, of, and for the people can only be as good as the people themselves.

Was Mike Judge, Idiocracy‘s maker, a prophet then? Maybe we are too stupid to govern ourselves. But today I would like to rephrase the contention in Marxist terms: perhaps we are not simply foolish but rather mystified by terminology. Our apparent stupidity is actually the outcome of having certain politically useful linguistic patterns drummed into our heads.

Exhibit A. In Idiocracy Americans have stopped drinking water or even irrigating crops with it because they’ve been brainwashed to believe a sugary sports drink, Brawndo, will not just relieve their thirst but “mutilate” it.  There are two points to be made about Brawndo’s offenses on language, farcical though they are.

brawndo

First, no one who knows even a scrap of etymology could feel at peace with the thirst mutilator’s misplaced metaphor. Thirst can be dissolved, slaked, quenched, and probably a number of other things, but destroyed by maiming?

No one likes a pedant, so let me take the fall for you: when we accept blatant distortions in our language, we should at least pause to discuss the whys and hows. Is someone benefiting from our easing of the rules? Are we re-arranging our mental furniture to accommodate the clumsy useage? (“Just Do It” may have conditioned a whole generation of us to revere naked, breakneck effort as a brave new kind of virtue.) As Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” when we help ourselves to stock phrases built from flawed metaphors, it shows we are not even thinking about what we are saying. And when we start allowing ad men and government officials to supply us with ready-made phrases,  we are  in the presence of what Thomas Pynchon calls the Angel of if not quite Death then at least Deep Shit.

Second, the aggressively superlative style should give us pause. At this point, if you’ve never watched a clip or two from Idiocracy to take in the monster-truck-show aesthetic of the thirst mutilator’s ads, you should. The comic macho voice of Brawndo is meant to seize you with the power to both command and fulfill your desires. Everything you need to know about a consumable, it tells you, can and must be shouted above the roar of oversized engines. And, since ads like this exist in the real world, we should ask ourselves where their appeal lies. Are we really inclined to believe lies the bigger and louder they come?

Exhibit B. The current president has an unabashed taste for the superlative. He’s going to provide the best healthcare. He knows the political system better than anyone. Everything he proposes, he will over-achieve. He’s going to eradicate Islamic terrorists, not just defeat them. On the campaign trail in 2016 he promised not just to outpoll Hilary Clinton but to imprison her.

Without a doubt Trump’s master stroke has been to designate any unfriendly news analysis as fake news. His enthusiasts can be counted on to resound the totemic phrase as reliably as Snowball’s loyal sheep in Animal Farm would auto-bleet “four legs good, two legs bad” the moment any animal hinted it might feel less than unconditional affection for the dear leader.

So what’s wrong when over-the-top becomes the new adequate? Isn’t more always better? Aren’t we Americans always reaching for the stars? Why shouldn’t we have a leader who expresses our high aspirations?

Politicians know very well that no problem set before government is ever solved completely. Competent parole boards spring future murderers; homelessness persists despite roaring economic growth; good, even great, public schools fail to educate a handful of students; some terrorists survive the campaigns to snuff them out. Politics is simply too blunt a tool to produce perfect solutions, and the world too imperfect a place to admit them; or to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it is impossible to organize society to abolish pain.

Superlative promises may make up the poetry of political campaigns, but no adult believes them literally after the campaign is over. Why does Trump continue to traffic in them? Actual governance–the prose of politics–is full of qualifications, clarifying conditions and other untidy details. Any leader wins some and loses some but never wins, wins, wins. Why does Trump persist, with consummate childishness, to disbelieve that reality will have its say?

Exhibit C. We are at a point where low farce meets high tragedy. Deep in Russia, in the winter of 1942, the weather and the Red Army were both having their say about Hitler’s plans to expand Germany’s Lebensraum to the east. Operation Barbarossa was not going well. Indeed, Hitler was losing, and he would soon be losing badly. How did he take the rising tide of bad news? The same way Trump and the monster-truck-show voice face the world: with outbursts of reality-defying superlatives. Faced with sure signs of defeat in Russia, Hitler doubled down, ordering his generals to “smash” and “annihilate” the Red Army’s divisions. By the end of the war he was telling them to use imaginary army groups to win. This level of utter, pervasive delusion is the logical endstate of accepting the aggressive superlative style in the first place.

The wartime memorialist and author of I Will Bear Witness Victor Klemperer called Hitler’s fondness for the superlative the “P.T. Barnum” style. It all started out innocently enough, recalls Klemperer, in the 1930s, as the young Nazi Party promised, not just to nurse Germany out of its post-World War One depression, but to reverse the very tide of European history, putting Germany back on top of the power order. Well, one thing led to another, and we all know more or less how it turned out. Hitler kept making superlative promises and kept insisting they were coming true despite the snowballing evidence to the contrary.

Let me pause for a moment for a qualification. I do not believe Trump is Hitler. I think the Don is much closer to an ordinary robber baron and, in any case, is too politically inept to become a Führer. But that said, I think it is perfectly fair to ask why he shares his P.T. Barnum style with Hitler. Why, in speech and in tweet, does he so thoroughly indulge the fantasy of slam-bang victory? I propose it is because he has happened upon a linguistic pattern that appeals so naturally to our baser selves. We all wish the world to be amenable to our wills. And once we feel we have been wronged by some group or force at large in the world, lord help us. Our idea of justice transmogrifies to conquest: we wish, not to incrementally improve our lot, but to gaze serenely over a smoking battlefield emptied of our foes.

But the problem of the aggressive superlative does not belong primarily to any particular party or leader. It belongs primarily to us, the people. We are the ones responsible for accepting or rejecting it. Marx may have been right that our leaders can bewitch us with terminology, but now that the cat is out of the bag, it is up to us to be on our guards. And now we know: once a desireable political goal (more jobs, better healthcare) has been expressed in terms of an unqualified victory, we lose our heads, it seems.

Do you disbelieve this? In his short, excellent book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, the historian Timothy Snyder recounts how a paraplegic German soldier returns from the eastern front in 1945 amid the Wehrmacht‘s collapsing defenses. Despite the obviousness of the defeat descending on Germany, the soldier continues to have faith in Hitler. “Hitler has never lied to us,” he says. Everything in the real world, right down to his missing legs, should tell him he is wrong about Hitler, but he persists in his faith.

This is the horrible power of the aggressive superlative. Once we buy into it, we can find it devilishly hard to let go. So I suppose we should still be able to laugh at Brawndo’s power to “mutilate” our thirst, but in the same way Kafka and his editor Max Brod laughed as they read the final proofs of The Castle–with a comic sense of the demise of the human spirit.

 

 

 

 

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Check My Flow

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The cognitive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhayi characterizes flow, the feeling one gets from excelling at a mentally absorbing activity, as an act of “effortless attending.”

In 1972, Daniel Kahnemann, another cognitive psychologist, was writing a book about the then little-regarded hypothesis that the act of focusing attention required effort. He discovered, among other things, that the brain burns more calories when it is actively attending to something. The name of Kahnemann’s book, appropriately enough, was Attention and Effort.

Glossing Csikszentmilhayi, Kahnemann expands on the feeling of flow we get when we freely channel attention toward the task at hand:

People who experience flow describe it as a “state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems,” and their descriptions of the joy of that state are so compelling that Csikszentmilhayi has called it “an optimal experience.” Many activities can produce a sense of flow, from painting to racing motorcycles–and for some fortunate authors I know, even writing a book is often an optimal experience. . . . In a state of flow, maintaining focused attention on these absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed at the task at hand.

Flow is fun. But it’s an unusual kind of fun: it requires an initial outlay of effort and discipline to break free of the conscious need for self control. By why would we have to control ourselves to achieve an “optimal experience?” Don’t we naturally desire what is best? Not really. Look around you. In our natural state, we are consumerist losers. We would rather acquire stuff and show it off to others than do almost anything else, especially things that require effort and don’t promise a flashy payoff.

In a clip on Youtube, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes the  unlikely-looking claim that we should not seek to be happy. Instead, we should try for something harder. Zizek’s proposition is prima facie a staw-man, because he appears to define happiness as a sort of tawdry, slackminded state of sensory satisfaction. Then again, we are steeply descending toward tawdry slackmindedness as our default setting, so it’s worth hearing Zizek out on this point. What he says is that it is much better to be caught in the grip of creative toil than to slip into a warm bath of unreflective pleasures. Buy less stuff, stare at fewer screens, and get your ass in gear instead. Don’t settle for porcine “happiness.”

Richard Dawkins hits on, or perhaps glances off, the same idea when he reflects on the “importance of doing useless things.” A biologist, Dawkins is ever attuned to the adaptive value of animal characteristics. In the case of doing “useless” stuff (like gardening or writing poetry) he espies a paradox. Anyone who can take the time and effort to excel at something hard–i.e., something that does not clearly contribute to mere survival–signals a surplus of survival resources. He stands out as someone who has transcended the struggle for mere means of staying alive.

In what is perhaps my favorite political essay of all time, “Political Ideals,” Bertrand Russel divides our broad options for pursuing the best life thus:

There are two kinds of impulses, corresponding to the two kinds of goods. There
are possessive impulses, which aim at acquiring or retaining private goods that cannot be shared; these center in the impulse of property. And there are creative or constructive impulses, which aim at bringing into the world or making available for use the kind of goods in which there is no privacy and no possession. The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest.

Russell, of course, went through his socialist phase, and you can see its main principle of collectivism on full display here. But Russell is not saying the headlong abandonment of private property is the shortest route to a socialist paradise. He’s actually saying something much closer to what I have noted in Csikszentmilhayi, Kahnemann, Zizek and Dawkins: that engaging one’s mind is more fulfilling and points to a more dignified fate for individuals than chasing down dollars to buy the next gadget, buffet meal, or other material diversion.

The style is a little peremptory, but here is Russell’s worthy and memorable peroration on the critical importance of creativity:

What we shall desire for individuals is now clear: strong creative impulses, overpowering and absorbing the instinct of possession; reverence for others; respect for the fundamental creative impulse in ourselves. A certain kind of self-respect or native pride is necessary to a good life; a man must not have a sense of utter inward defeat if he is to remain whole, but must feel the courage and the hope and the will to live by the best that is in him, whatever outward or inward obstacles it may encounter. So far as it lies in a man’s own power, his life will realize its best possibilities if it has three things: creative rather than possessive impulses, reverence for others, and respect for the fundamental impulse in himself.

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

I suppose Russell is giving a precis here of the main reasons why I bother to write the book reviews and other scraps that end up in this blog. They are mentally absorbing, they often produce a feeling of flow, and–although I wish there were a less purple way of putting this–they are a way of staving off inner moral defeat and of feeling the courage and hope to live by the best that is in me.

Well, since it’s a Sunday, and I’ve sort of worked myself into a holy lather, I guess I might as well end with an amen.

The Mansplainer

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

G.K. Chesterton does his readers the service of being wrong at top volume. Whatever he says, he says loudly.

He despises the Japanese, for example, for the wiliness of judo. To wit: “I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not of suddenly pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is the very worst spirit of the East.”

Of course, Chesterton is often not wrong, and he is occasionally subtle, but when a writer’s only voice is declamatory, his offenses will have a way of standing out and being remembered.

Our ideas today are all wrong, Chesterton believes, because they are forward looking. Yes, he really says this. He even puts a good literary metaphor at its service: “The modern man no longer presents the memoirs of his great grandfather; but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great grandson. Instead of trembling before the specters of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn.”

Now, you may or may not like trembling before the dead–to each his own–but what on Earth could be wrong with bearing our future generations in mind as we evaluate ideas, think up policies, and vote for our lawmakers and so forth? (A friend and former professor of mine wrote a very good book arguing that data-driven, forward-looking policies are in fact excellent for our well being.)

In his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World? Chesterton sets out to do the same thing he always seems to be doing–arguing that Europeans and their descendents hunger for a return to the values, concepts and social patterns of the Middle Ages.

We get a clear idea what Chesterton will be up to in What’s Wrong when he opens by asserting with no argument at all that old, discredited ideas are often the very ones we need. Furthermore, rather than calling on practical “experts” to analyze our politics in the here and now, he asserts, we need zany theorists willing to go back and re-examine the lost causes of our past to find the ideas worth reviving. Like some old, unreconstructed communists, Chesterton seems to believe, mutatis mutandis, there’s nothing wrong in principle with being illiterate Catholic peasants; we just didn’t do it right the first time around.

Or, as Chetserton puts the case, “The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice.” Cultural confidence is what Chesterton hankers after. “A doctrine,” he goes on, “is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction.”

Chesterton dislikes mere directions because, one gets the feeling, there is no telling where they will lead. Some of us like mere directions precisely for their unanticipated payoffs. No one knew in the 1950s USA, for example, that the budding civil rights movement would lead to better insitutional protection of the rights of animals, gays, women, children, and the disabled. Recognizing their dignity, indeed the dignity of anyone who happened not to be a healthy, white male human, just seemed like a good direction to push. (It still does.)

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton, on the other hand, believes healthy white males are just the people to be deciding who has dignity and who doesn’t, because, well, haven’t they always run the show?  In a chain of assertions that must be read in full to be appreciated, Chesterton “argues” that the male’s taste for loud, drunken talk about politics with one’s cigar-waving fellows  is not just a good source of law and policy; it is actually one of the pillars of Western civilization. The little wifey’s nagging insistence that the capers not go on too long is the other pillar, by the way, and it is Chesterton’s special genius to describe this duty more exalted than the man’s. I will come back to that.

Despite appearing in 1910, What’s Wrong with the World is a surprisingly engaging book even today. Small wonder, though, as it turns out. It is basically a disputation about political ethos: whether our policy ideas should be otherworldly and reverent toward the past or secular and in search of reform. Although Chesterton was enormously intelligent (distinguishing himself from the Simian bookeaters of today’s reactionary right) he took an attitude toward science that matches much of the right’s outlook today. Science, he says, is shallow and confused because it leaves out theology. It just makes us mean and spins us around in God-knows-what direction. Better the religious certainties of yore, which were beautiful, Chesterton thinks, even when homicidal:

“The atmospheric ugliness that surrounds our scientific war is an emanation from that evil panic which is at the heart of it. The charge of the Crusades was a charge; it was charging towards God, the wild consolation of the braver. The charge of the modern armaments is not a charge at all. It is a rout, a retreat, a flight from the devil, who will catch the hindmost.”

As I said, Chesterton does not lower his voice even when he’s about to say something outrageously wrong. Half the (perverse) fun of reading What’s Wrong with the World is having this sort of nonsense blared directly in one’s face. It’s bracing, in its own way.

Still, anyone who defends the doctrines Chesterton likes, such as transubstantiation and original sin, must be capable of great literary inventiveness if he is to make any headway at all, or if he is to be remembered a hundred years after his books, as Chesterton is. This is why Chesterton remains worth reading. In the midst of his most abhorent efforts to turn back the clock, he often poses a problem in a surprisingly fresh or appealing way.

Take the suffrage, for example. Chesterton was against it. He did not want women to vote. Now without delving into Freud, I think Chesterton probably had deeply conventional reasons for wanting to keep women out of politics, but the pretext he fashioned for his position was surprisingly nuanced and, up to a point, persuasive.

Briefly, his argument runs like this: government is, at its foundation, an agreed-on authority for meting out coercion, including death. The punishment or killing of humans by the state is a humiliation for all involved. In a democracy, all voters are involved. (I’m with Chesterton so far. This is an unflinching analysis of the moral tradeoff we make when we set up a rule-of-law system based on popular consent. See Hobbes, who originally made this point.)

Men, Chesterton goes on, are naturally disposed to this tragically necessary humiliation. It’s what we face down and reason out in those loud, smoke-filled rooms. Women, to their immense credit, are not. Thus, denying women the vote protects their elevated moral status. QED.

There are several objections to be made to the latter inferences in this argument. One is that, as free agents, women deserve the determing say in whether they should be protected from the shared moral humiliation of state coercion. Chesterton is clearly right that killing prisoners or even locking them away for life is an act of incalculable brutality, but he is wrong to deny women their share of responsibility for it without consulting them.

Which leads to my next objection. It is not the vote that makes a citizen a stakeholder in state violence; it is the enjoyment of the law-bound protections the state provides. If you can reasonably expect the cops to come arrest your robber or the courts to try him, you are already in the troubled moral waters that Chesterton tries to portray as being walled off by the vote.

One of Chesterton’s implicit assertions, which I will not attack directly, is that the feminine character makes women a poor fit for political life.  It is not just that women have, after millennia of child rearing and homemaking, ended up as angelic, nurturing types; they are made that way. It is women’s angelic nature, the second, and sturdier pillar of Western civilization by Chersterton’s account, that obligates them to come round and call a halt to man parties or fetch us out of the pub. I will not go near this silly assertion.

I would, however, like to mention the surprisingly winning way Chesterton describes the power and vitality of homemaking. The man, vivacious and politically minded as he is, is at the end of the day a narrow specialist, doomed to see his most cherished goals die a death of a thousand compromises with other specialists out abroad in the world. Subtracting the grubbier parts of what we all know go on in politics, this is actually a fair description of political debate and lawmaking. Moreover, for Chesterton, it may seem like the man is going out and having all the fun while the wife stays home with the kids, but the man is actually (once again) bowing to the woman’s superior nature, which finds expression in the scope of her work at home. Unlike the man, the woman is an all-powerful generalist, making decisions that go unchecked, creating real, existing humans. Far from a drudge, she is actually monarchical:

“To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?”

My own feelings about home life both validate and repudiate what Chesterton says here. Minus the uniquely English references, I feel all the thrills and deep contentments of homemaking he alludes to here. And he is right to recognize the significant power of the home life, not just its quiet gratifications. I am indeed Aristotle to my children; I do explain the universe to them. Even when my efforts at child rearing are cheap or rushed, I feel like they are the most important things I do on any given day.

Indeed Chesterton hits upon something so vital with this insight, it is a monstrous disappointment to discover he is really just using it as a premise in a deeply perverse argument to advance the social control of women. Women who wish to vote, work, or even just go to the bar and yammer about politics, he says, are in fact not gaining liberties but surrendering their high, immaculate place in society. Why would they want to leave their natural province and join men in running the grubby affairs of the wider world, which is really not nearly as fun as it looks?

Despite the flaws in Chesterton’s argument, it is one every homemaker should consider, and put into better logical order. There is indeed a tradeoff to be made between going to work and being the same thing to everyone and staying home and being everything to someone. The choice is a poignant one. But it is not one to be made for ever and all time on your behalf by a fat, rambling Englishman who reeks of cigar smoke and papacy. Luckily, most of the developed world avoids backbreaking work these days, and men and women may choose rationally–at least as far as circumstances allow–between work life and home life. It is a hard choice but not one determined by our sex, still less one we should base on a philosophical argument.

My recommendation is, read Chesterton. He is much more full of surprises than I’ve suggested here, and it is a fascinating experience to occasionally be bewitched by his arguments that prove to be all wrong.

 

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First Thoughts on Thomas Pynchon

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

To hear critics talk, you’d think novelists always have a purpose in mind before they start writing. Dickens wrote to expose the injustices of the Industrial Revolution; Camus probed whether we could take ourselves morally seriously after the collective death wish of World War Two; Solzhenitsyn undermined the hypocrisies of Soviet communism, that sort of thing.

Indeed Orwell said a novelist always had a message, and it was unmistakable. I’m not so sure, though.

What if the novelist’s job is to let the imagination run free and see what it discovers about the human condition on its own, without following a plan? This is basically what Milan Kundera thinks the novel is for: it is a “meditation on existence” using “experimental selves.” The novelist exists, Kundera says, to produce works, plain and simple, just as a painter exists to put paint on canvas. The works should be emotionally and intellectually honest, and they should say something new, but they should not be written to spec.

Of course, Kundera would be the first to say not many novelists achieve this vision. Most of them know what their message is ahead of time and stick to it.

I recently read my first two novels by Thomas Pynchon, Vineland and Against the Day. Truth be told, I was looking for a message before I started. I knew from a passage in Richard Rorty, my favorite political philosopher, that Vineland was a dystopian novel about the creeping threat of populist authoritarianism in America. And I had a vague idea that Against the Day, a massive, 1,100-page story about a group of boys traveling in an airship watching humanity spiral toward World War One, was going to say something about the possibility of innocence in the face of moral disaster. But when it came to actually reading the books, I was immediately overawed by Pynchon’s raw, shocking creativity. His use of language, plot, voice, perspective and other features of the novel I don’t yet have words for are enough to send the reader staggering down from the mountain, hair singed nutty-professor style, asking themselves just how many tablets of sacred genius there might be back up there on the summit.

pynchon
Thomas Pynchon, born in 1935, rarely photographed

I won’t undertake a review of either book here; I’m not yet up to it. But having had my first encounter with Pynchon, especially in Against the Day, which matches Tolstoy at his best, I feel unable to keep my mouth from moving; the nerves are unloosed. One’s first shocked impressions of Pynchon produce gibberish, then pass to inchoate phrases and on to something like an idea of what is happening. That’s about where I am.

So why do I mention Pynchon in the context of Kundera’s idea of the novel as a free-floating meditation? Because there certainly seems to be a message in Pynchon, but I think  it is honestly gained, even by Kundera’s demanding standards. Despite stretching out a massive canvas wide enough to catch the human experience in full, Pynchon pretty obviously homes in on a single principle: that organized money is the enemy of moral seriousness. The sprawling canvases of the two novels I’ve read are crowded with characters who divide along one line, between those who relate to fellow humans and those who use them. It is a wonderful confection of ideas undreamt of in the philsophies of my youth: the morals of Kant turned out in the gonzo fantasies of magical realism. (In Against the Day, dogs read, the sun is occasionally pierced by time travelers, sexual congress is kept up at an improbable rate and variety, and so forth.)

I may or may not have the opportunity to review Vineland or Against the Day properly. Today’s notes can be compared to the first reflections of someone who believes he’s been abducted by aliens. I’m not ready to write a book about it, but I feel I should start making sense of the experience.

I’ll close with the words of one of Pynhon’s minor characters in Against the Day, an anarchist preacher who, sizing the world up in the following terms, sets the stage for the novel’s main characters, three Telluride cowboys, to up and seek adventures, Quixote style:

But when you reach a point in your life where you understand who is fucking who—beg pardon, Lord—who’s taking it and who’s not, that’s when you’re obliged to choose how much you’ll go along with. If you are not devoting every breath of every day waking and sleeping to destroying those who slaughter the innocent as easy as signing a check, then how innocent are you willing to call yourself?