“I think it should be harder to get a license,” I was saying. “There are too many bad drivers on the road. Driving is a privilege, not a right.”
“That is the legal theory under which our licensing system operates,” Mr. Magundi responded, “but as a moral principle it is completely wrong. You and I are among the fortunate few who live within an easy stroll of public transit. If everyone had that choice, your principle would be sound. But in fact most Americans live in places where it is simply impossible to get to work without a car. As long as our economic system demands that everyone must be gainfully employed; as long as we build suburbs with zoning laws that actually prohibit businesses within walking distance of residences; as long as we refuse to provide transportation for those who cannot or will not drive—while these things are true, driving is a necessary prerequisite to making a living. And making a living is a necessary prerequisite to living at all. If one cannot live without driving, then, morally speaking, driving is a right, not a privilege, and no legal theory can supersede that moral truth.”
“So she asked me to ask you,” I explained, “because she thought you might have an interesting opinion on the difference between strategy and tactics.”
“It’s very simple,” Mr. Magundi said. “‘Strategy’ is the business of deciding how many people must die to reach our objective. ‘Tactics’ is the business of figuring out exactly how to kill them.”
“Well,” I said, “I have to agree that she said and did some pretty disgusting things.”
“Yes,” Mr. Magundi agreed, “and we can all be thankful that the entertainment industry has succeeded in ostracizing its one racist member. Now everyone can go back to making movies and TV shows where the white hero treats his comical jive-talking sidekick with deep respect.”
“It makes him hard to get along with,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “But I suppose it’s more important to be good than to be nice.”
“I strongly disagree,” Mr. Magundi interrupted. “Anyone who believes that being nice is the most important thing will exercise every Christian virtue in trying to make things pleasant for the people around him. Anyone who believes that being good trumps being nice is capable of any iniquity for the sake of his own inflexible idea of what’s good. ‘It’s more important to be good than to be nice’ neatly summarizes the beliefs of Pol Pot, of Robespierre, of nearly every terrorist there ever was; and I’m sure that, translated into Latin, it was the official motto of the Spanish Inquisition. All the misery in the world is caused by people hell-bent on being good at all costs.”
“But I don’t hold with the idea that man is just a higher animal,” I was saying.
“I think you’re right,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “Maybe instead of seeing humans as higher animals, we’d be better off thinking of animals as lesser humans. Or maybe ‘lesser’ is the wrong word.”
“But they can’t possibly really believe that,” I said. “I know they’re not that stupid. So I think we have to ask, What are their real motives?”
Mr. Magundi shook his head a little sadly. “That’s the thing we always tell ourselves when we’re faced with the unaccountable obtuseness of the other side. We know for a fact that we are right and they are wrong, because we are sure the truth is blindingly obvious. So either they must be so stupid that they can’t think straight, or they must be only pretending to believe what they say they believe for the sake of some hidden motivation. We have hope for the stupid ones, because we may be able to explain the truth to them; but we can only conclude that the intelligent ones are actively evil.
“The existence of God is perfectly obvious to a Christian; the absence of God is perfectly obvious to an atheist. The inferiority of the female is so transparently clear to a fundamentalist Muslim that he knows no intelligent man can deny it; the wickedness of sequestering women is equally clear to an ordinary American. If anyone does deny these obvious truths, therefore, it must be from wicked and selfish motives. And that ought not to be allowed. People who preach falsehood ought to be stopped; they ought to be punished for allowing their wicked selfishness to prevail over truth.
“We get very angry about that kind of deliberate falsehood. And we can never admit to ourselves that it is not deliberate, because the alternative is simply too dreadful to think about: that intelligent people, having examined the very ideas we know to be correct, can come to different conclusions; and that it is possible, however remotely, that some of the very ideas we hold as most fundamentally important and immutably true are false.”
“But I don’t think our president should worry about what they want,” Mr. Bates was saying. “His job is to serve our country, not theirs. America first, that’s what I say.”
“I agree,” Mr. Magundi said. “In fact, I apply the same patriotic principle to my own everyday life. Whenever there’s a long line over at the IGA store, I always push my way to the front, shouting ‘Magundi first!’ all the way. Other people don’t like it much, but I don’t think I should worry about what they want.”