Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Chinaman Button

In 1974, CBS Radio Mystery Theater ran an episode called "The Chinaman Button".  If you want to listen to it before my SPOILERS, a link is provided below.

The drama involve a pair of corrupt businessmen whose fun has been interrupted by a colleague with actual morals.  They do not really feel guilty -- in fact, they assume everyone is, deep down, just like themselves, and their colleague is just a big phony -- but his honesty has interrupted a few lucrative swindles they had going.  They want to neutralize him, not just by killing him or by getting him fired, but by proving to him that he is as bad as they are, maybe even worse.  Their plan is to have one of them, whom their colleague has never met, pose as a party who could bring about the untraceable death of a distant relative in South Africa, if only the colleague gives his consent.  This would result in them sharing a fortune, and it turns out their co-worker is in even more desperate need of money than they think.  At last, he surrenders his morality and agrees.  His corrupt friends look forward to using this to blackmail their formerly unimpeachable co-worker, but before they can do that, he re-visits the man who tempted him and proves that he has learned his lesson all too well -- after all, there will be more money for him if he does not have to split it.  Having already crossed the Rubicon by (he thinks) murdering once, he has little hesitation in murdering this stranger, whom he still does not know works for the same firm.

The thing to notice is that the formerly honest employee does not take it upon himself to "punish" his tempter in a state of high dudgeon; instead, the punishment that falls on the tempter is the natural consequence of his action, just as getting fat would be the natural "punishment" for eating a gallon of ice cream every day.  It is an example of poetic justice, but not of justice intended as such by any human being.  It is, if you like, the Tao or Mother Nature getting her revenge, or the effect of bad karma, or "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."  The general idea has been known to every culture.

We are witnessing today the systematic destruction of religion, of the family, of history -- of everything, really, that suggests that "right" and "wrong" have any fixed meaning that cannot be infinitely redefined by politicians or corporations.  Like the two scoundrels in the radio drama, they do this because a public that has a backbone stands in the way of their fun, or their profit, or their power.  As in the radio drama, they stand every chance of succeeding, at least in their short-term goals.  However, also as in the radio drama, their "success" will be limited by its own consequences.  The society they would create has no real basis for cohesion, no mandate for sacrifice, no way to avoid complacency and stagnation.  It would be like an organism with no immune system -- destined to die shortly due to external infection or internal cancer -- and its death would be a kind of poetic justice that, sadly, would be to no one's praise or profit.

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