The New Cruelty


Illustration for “Lycidas” by Samuel Palmer

“Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth,” wrote John Milton in what was once, I am assured, a poem every schoolboy knew by heart. The poem, of course, is “Lycidas,” Milton’s glorious memorial to a young friend who has drowned.  The line’s first three words became the title of a 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe, less read now than it once was.

But it’s those last three words – melt with ruth – that might stop you. The sense of that phrase – may the angel, softened with compassion, care for the poor dead fellow – gives us a chance to recognize ruth in ruthlessness, the only common survival of ruth in modern speech.

Which brings me to the extraordinary events of the past week, a global demonstration led by the women of the world on behalf of not only women’s rights but the rights of all persons, giving a lie to what, like it or not, has been called the post-truth era.

As my Lingua Franca colleague Lucy Ferriss noted, the term post-truth was selected by the Oxford Dictionaries as 2016’s word of the year. It’s already a tricky term. Do words mean what we want them to mean? (Cue Orwell or Carroll’s Wonderland.)  Or is it a caveat auditor – the rulebook has been thrown out, so trust no one? (Cue The X-Files.)

Readers of Lingua Franca will recall that since the 1980s, the harshest critics of literary theory have pointed to deconstruction as the end of the rulebook, as if the intense, and not infrequently hyperattentive reading practices of the era meant that anything could mean anything, and that’s why no one believes in God, country, the canon, or the news.

As of yet, no one is pointing to the wake of deconstruction as the reason a White House press secretary contradicts what photographic evidence makes abundantly and repeatedly clear, or why the new administration’s counselor admonishes us that there are “alternate facts” when what she means is “alternatives to facts.”

There’s much to say about truth, post-truth, falsehoods, and lies. We will be saying much of it, to one another and out loud, as we move deeper into what I’m calling the era of the New Cruelty.

For the post-truth era seems to be the happy place for those who want to punish and deprive. Health insurance? Reproductive rights? Access to polls? LGBT rights? Funding for the arts and education? The right to education of those brought to America as young children? No one can seriously believe these are gifts to be bestowed by one party, now to be withdrawn by the other. The New Cruelty revels in its punishments.

Someone on my social-media feed recently posted that the one thing she couldn’t figure out how to do is to convince the punishers, and those who voted them in, that you (meaning each of us) should in fact care about other people. This is a question of compassion, or if you’re feeling Miltonic, of ruth.

So let me go back to this week’s protests, an extraordinary demonstration of strength and belief in rights and compassion, and invoke the figure of Ruth, that Biblical matriarch, great-grandmother of David, and through her faithfulness to Naomi, a symbol to many people of many things, including  compassion.

We can’t give in to a post-truth era.  But we can’t give in to a post-ruth era either. They sound a lot alike, and though it only works in English, ruth and truth are visually and, in these dark times, conceptually bound to one another. Milton might have said they were cleaving together.

The  apostles of the New Cruelty see the absence of compassion as the new order of business. Their words and actions are ruthless in exactly the sense that Milton had in mind.

This week’s events tell us what we’ve always known, that compassion and truth are our rights and our obligations.

And that women, especially in large and generous groups, are powerful.

I suspect they have a better sense of ruth than men do, too.


Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano



Return to Top