Monday, July 31, 2017

“Whom The Finger Of Allah Hath Touched”

     Excuse me? Why yes, my quote key has been getting a lot of exercise lately. But then, I’ve always liked quotes. They’re a way to express your sentiments through the mouths of others better known and (hopefully) better respected. Of course, they can be overdone. For example, we have this famous statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.” Legend has it that Socrates replied to the hyper-opinionated Transcendentalist that “A man with two ears and one mouth should speak half as much as he listens,” but I’m inclined to distrust that. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “There’s an awful lot of made-up shit on the Internet.”

     The title phrase was at one time used by Middle Eastern Muslims to describe the mentally disturbed. Such unfortunates were accorded a semi-sacred status in medieval Muslim societies. They were protected against predation by social custom, and were often treated as holy mendicants, fed and clothed by the charity of the sane. Some even achieved the status of oracles or prophets. That should tell you a lot about Islam, if you think about it.

     I have no idea how many such persons could be found in a typical ninth or tenth century Arabian village, but it couldn’t have been a great many, else an informal “thinning of the numbers” would surely have taken place. It was probably a bit like the more recent phenomenon of the “village idiot.” One such would lend a town a charitable aspect and a certain quaint appeal. The other villagers would see to it that he was cared for and came to no harm. However, a town besieged by persons desirous of the post would quickly adopt defensive measures.

     If you’re wondering where this is going, Gentle Reader, I’m sure you’re not alone. The overarching subject has been much on my mind for months. It’s only now coming into acceptably clear focus.


     The defining conceptual shift of our most recent decades is the blurring of the boundary between tolerable and intolerable. I could present examples of phenomena that have “crossed the border” in either direction, but it hardly seems necessary. Suffice it to say that many behaviors – verbal behaviors included – that were once regarded as entirely tolerable are now deemed heinous enough to make one a pariah: unemployable, shunned by “decent folks,” and generally relegated to the alleys where the bums and drunkards sleep. Conversely, behaviors once widely regarded as intolerable now proclaim their “pride” and hold regular parades, notably in San Francisco. This has been the cause of a lot of social discord.

     When I paused to assess the words tolerable and intolerable in a sober frame of mind, and I measured them against the behaviors to which they’ve been applied, I came to a conclusion I didn’t expect. It’s striking enough to be only tentatively held, but it’s worth extensive consideration even so:

In the preponderance of cases, tolerable is about percentages.

     Percentages meaning:

  1. Frequency of occurrence in the general population;
  2. Fraction of the involved persons’ behavior;
  3. Imposition of disruptive, offensive, or dangerous characteristics or behavior upon unwilling others.

     Let’s return to the “village idiot” of the opening segment. Call him Smith. (Surprise, surprise.) If the village numbers some hundreds of persons, and Smith is its only idiot, he’ll probably be regarded as tolerable by criterion 1. If Smith’s idiocy manifests solely in sitting on a fence and dribbling nonsensically on good-weather days, he’ll probably be regarded as tolerable by criterion 2. Finally, if Smith doesn’t demand a village-idiots’ representative on the village council, doesn’t randomly lie down in front of traffic or run naked through restaurants and retail establishments, and doesn’t assault passers-by, he’ll probably be regarded as tolerable by criterion 3. The other villagers won’t insist on confining or killing him. They might even look upon him with a certain affection.

     Smith becomes a problem for the village if he violates any one of those criteria. He’ll probably be confined to some pleasant institution with padded walls, to be cared for (and kept out of others’ hair) by the “professionally kind:” well-compensated persons in white uniforms who are unlikely to have a shred of genuine kindness – to say nothing of the spirit of Christian charity – in their bodies. But then, when they “whom the finger of Allah hath touched” seriously disrupt the lives of the decent and self-supporting, that’s the only reaction imaginable, regardless of how it might look to an uninformed outsider. Life must go on.

     The borderlands around tolerable are like that: gray, murky, and dangerous to explore.


     That quaint old phrase “village idiot” is immensely useful. The second of its words should be regarded as a wildcard, to be replaced by any of a wide range of other deviancies from normal deportment and / or self-support. I have no doubt that my Gentle Readers can come up with a number of socially significant replacements all by themselves.

     These past forty years have seen an explosion in the varieties and populations of “village idiots.” It’s been accompanied by their dismissal of the bounds on acceptable idiocies and their adoption of increasingly disruptive and predatory tactics to get what they want. They’ve received substantial help from the Main Stream Media, which are always eager to assist an aberration along if it will provide them with “news” – or even better, a cause to which other aberrants and professional promoters of discord can attach themselves, and thus create even more “news.”

     My point is this: There have always been “village idiots.” However, before our time they “whom the finger of Allah hath touched” were far fewer in number. They lived quietly, without disturbing normal persons or the prevailing public order. They didn’t demand special accommodations to their particular brand of idiocy or deem themselves above the laws that bind the rest of us. Before the social dislocations of the Sixties they were, by the percentages criteria, tolerable. That is not the case today.

     Remember the wildcard character of the word “idiot.” And ponder just what might happen should the normal persons of these United States decide they’ve had enough.

     (For the curious: This essay was, in part, stimulated by the reactions to President Trump’s announcement that the transgendered shall no longer be permitted to serve in the U.S. military...but only in part.)

1 comment:

Gallifreakin said...

It's the same in medicine. We can afford a percentage of no pay/Medicaid and Medicare patients.
Get too many, go bankrupt. There's a limit to how far you can cut overhead. Employees, EMR, computer and infrastructure.
A move to Medicaid for all is a road to bankruptcy.
Having too many progressives leads to the same thing.
It's all percentages and probability.