Righteousness scares me

We saw the Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ last night. It’s a superb production, but what struck me most forcibly was how good the play is. I’m hard to please in the theatre, and usually emerge muttering, ‘I didn’t believe any of it.’ This is written in a semi-Biblical 17th century English that should have set my teeth on edge, but I believed every word and every moment. The dramatic structure that Miller has built around the Salem witch trials is masterly. He simply never puts a foot wrong. The greatest tribute I can offer is that it chilled and horrified me, not about Massachusetts two hundred years ago, but about the world today. As the play ground towards its grim climax I wanted to punch the chief prosecutor Danforth in the face until he could no longer speak.

For some reason I dread the power of groups to enforce an ideology on individuals almost more than anything else. This isn’t just about religious orthodoxies, or cults; it’s about any form of pressure that tries to prescribe how I dress or speak or hold opinions. I’m not a rebel at all, so I don’t quite know where this violent reaction comes from. Perhaps from a sense of my own weakness, my own tendency to conform and want to please. Perhaps all too aware of how I, if placed under pressure, would name names, I despise McCarthy’s show trials and I despise Soviet show trials. I reject utterly those intellectuals who argue that we must collude with a lie in order to serve a greater good. This is what leads British judges to condemn innocent men rather than bring the law into disrepute, and what leads the police to close ranks and lie, and what leads the members of any institution to silence whistleblowers, saying, ‘Hide the lesser crime for the greater good.’ There is no greater good.

Righteousness scares me. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the fighters of the Islamic State have all been convinced of their own righteousness, that they do what they do for the greater good. In this new century, even we, the tolerant West, torture for the greater good. Arthur Miller understood that there is no greater good, only what is good.