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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Berhard Gunther's moral neutrality and what that means for us today

Part of the MO of heroes of noir detective/mystery fiction is that the protagonist is morally neutral - they don't hold political views, they have a moral code but it's their own, not imposed from outside by a faith or an organization or even a system of beliefs, they are indiscriminate in whom they work with, work for, befriend, or love - and perhaps because they have to work with thugs and crooks they make no judgments about people based on their race, class, or trade - in fact, they often believe that there's more honor among thieves, or that "to live outside the law you must be honest." This moral neutrality principle is tested to the extreme in Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir series, in that the neutral protagonist, Bernhard Gunther, is a private detective working in Berlin in 1935, on the eve of the Berlin Olympiad, with Nazi troops goose-stepping and saluting everywhere, the race and anti-semitic laws in effect, crowds of drunken thugs singing "patriotic" songs and saluting Hitler, and many more atrocities and more to come. We want, we expect a hero to take a stand against the Nazis, but Gunther never does so - though he clearly loathes their stupidity and the fake patriotism, and he even has some sympathy for the Jews of Berlin - but he's not a resister (read Every Man Dies Alone if that's what you want), and he is acutely aware of the fate in store for resisters, Communists especially. Nor is he a sympathizer or collaborator - though he often feels compelled to give the salute, and in fact the complex plot has him working for Prime Minister Goering - though I suspect he may double-cross that bastard later in the novel - but watching how even this generally good man must take on the gestures and even trappings of Nazism just to get along with his life and his profession does make us think: How many others giving the salute were torn up inside, were doing so just to get along? That makes it no more right - and it's easy for today's vantage to say they should have resisted - and risked being beaten and thrown into the river - but his reluctant compliance feels more honest and more likely than a fatalistic heroism - and makes us think what we'd do ourselves if faced with a crowd of thugs enthralled to a hate-mongering, ego-maniacal, power-crazed bully and orator - though that could never happen today, could it?

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