Thursday, January 21, 2016

MORALISTS

Torgny Segerstedt (1876-1945) 

I viewed a biographical film (available on Netflix) last evening about a famous Swedish moralist, Torgny Segerstedt. The film is entitled The Last Sentence in English and The Reputation of a Dead Man in Swedish.  This difference in titling is in itself fascinating. The English title refers to the dying Segerstedt's last words, which related to his portrayed personal rivalry with Adolf Hitler. The Swedish title refers to a quotation from a Norse saga. The full quote, as I recall, is "The reputation of a dead man never dies."

As represented in the film, Segerstedt is a dour moralist, a professor of comparative religion and philosophy, who was chief editor for a Swedish newspaper during Hitler's rise to power and subsequent ravaging of three continents. The prolific columnist was in his sixties during the period. He had a failed marriage with two grown children, a neurotic wife, and a married mistress, who also happened to own the newspaper which he ran. 

The film depicts the hypocrisy of this moralist beautifully. The cold, heartless man in his personal life, who can be suspected of railing against Hitler as part of his ongoing affair with his Jewish mistress as much as for ethical reasons. Segerstedt denounced the  Nazis over and over again in the face of Swedish politicians who advised caution in order to maintain the country's neutrality. His personality is presented as more stubborn than rational, more moralistic than compassionate, more antisocial than socially conscious. 

Meanwhile, in his personal life, Segerstedt appears to have psychologically abused his wife and the supportive co-owner of the newspaper, the husband of his mistress. The mistress publicly humiliated and dominated her husband and Segerstedt's wife. The mistress was also presented as an IV drug user, a nasty habit which both husband and moralistic paramour enabled. Segerstedt was repeatedly accused of preferring his three omnipresent and pampered dogs over the human beings in his life. 

My mind turned to the current outcry by some moralists against Donald Trump. While Trump displays genuine personality flaws, he is certainly not as evil as many who wear vestments and Roman collars, purveyors of a Christianity which allows for child abuse and misogyny. He is certainly not as evil as  those who call themselves disciples of Allah in organizations like ISIS. He certainly is not as evil as imams and rabbis who pervert young minds to violence against women and others in the name of righteousness. And Trump is most certainly not the same as Adolf Hitler, despite the repeated comparison by nitwits who do not understand the difference between free speech about ideas, no matter how outlandish, and acting on those ideas. 

Morality in these times is a tricky thing. Fundamentalist Christians would make it moral to condemn LGBT people to lives which are unequal in the law. Fundamentalist Muslims feel it is moral to decapitate, stone and crucify anyone who refuses to submit to their morality. Saudi Arabia, as a state, sees public decapitation and stoning as moral. Iran feels it is moral to hang gay men from cranes in public squares, and anyone else, who strays from its moral code under Islamic theocracy. 

Perhaps cruelty is the signature of the moralist as well as some of those whom the moralist condemns. Perhaps moralistic crusading is just another way of shutting up discussion or debate. Perhaps moralistic behavior is simply the sign of a compulsion to be right, as Segerstedt was indeed about Hitler, over a considered decision to be practical, ethical and compassionate in all things.

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