Frederich H BorschA Morality Play for You

Morality plays were popular in fifteenth and sixteenth century England. Townsfolk gathered to watch allegorical dramas that brought home moral truths. The right was not always victorious, but, in the face of always impending death, good deeds were more reliable than trusting in wealth or yielding to other worldly temptations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is more familiar morality tale nearer to our time. We shed a tear and then smile as Scrooge is given a second chance to get his life right. In such plays and stories people were reminded that, despite all life’s relativities, a kind of poetic justice will ultimately prevail. It was, if you will, their version of reality television—pointing to deeper realities.

A surprising number of people want to act in reality TV productions today, and many a viewer seems eager to make judgments about their values. Although it will be more obvious to reviewers fifty years from now, we should come to understand that we are all now participants in one of the world’s longer running and all too real morality plays. As in many a good drama, the watchers realize that people just like themselves are actors in the play. They are given, too, some sense ahead of time about where their behavior will lead them if they do not change. In one way or another, they have been warned.

In our morality play a whole nation has been warned that dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a dangerous form of addiction. We know that an indiscriminate use of this fossil fuel contributes heavily to pollution and global warming. Still more frighteningly, for more than thirty years we have seen how it forces us to support elite and authoritarian regimes in a part of the world of which we have little understanding. Other countries there are called evil or we even go to war with them. We see ourselves grow hypocritical (hypocrisy is a staple in morality plays) as we are afraid to encourage our own best values with autocratic regimes lest some new form of government be more antagonistic to our interests, even if they might then evolve into governments more popular if not democratic. More recently, we have learned how our projected economic, political and military muscle humiliates and angers extremists and even the general populace of that region. We grow more fearful and talk of another war to make the Middle East safe and ourselves secure.

In our play we have been warned repeatedly that, while relatively cheap foreign oil fuels our freedoms to live and travel as we please, there was and is many a price to pay. Were we to add in the cost of war and fighting terrorism, the price of gasoline would, shall we say, explode. Yet getting serious about conservation and alternative fuels and means of transportation has seemed so hard. This has been especially true for our politicians who are, in turn, afraid that we will grow rebellious at any talk of sacrifice of our liberties to drive what, where and when we please. Had we heeded the gas lines of some thirty years ago (soon followed by our adventures with Iran), we might already have a certain independence and no longer need to war for oil. Instead, unable to help ourselves, we have become yet more dependent.

The most dramatic scene in our play so far was Operation Desert Storm when we told ourselves that the evil Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis had to be taught a moral lesson, while we and everyone else knew why we were mainly at war. We were then glad to return to our ways.

The fascination, it is said, of watching a morality play or reality TV, is the awareness that matters will get worse if people do not change. We see them try to distract themselves and obscure reality with other versions of their motivations. Some scientists, we hear, are not sure about global warming. Another war, we hope, can bring security and freedom to the Middle East. But we know where it all is leading, unless, even at the last minutes, the actors in their show can heed those ghosts from Christmas past and present.


Frederick Borsch March 2002

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