Choose Wisely

Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Walter Donovan, a man who has been alternately Indy’s benefactor and betrayer, decides to drink from a chalice that has been duplicitously chosen for him. The chalice is not the Holy Grail, which means that Donovan, instead of winning immortality, very rapidly ages into dust and ash. At the end of this little special effects showcase, a supernatural wind blows across the pile of rubble that was once Donovan, polishing the Nazi pin previously adorning his lapel. The camera sits on that gleaming pin for a moment. The body is gone, but the swastika remains.

I’ve always interpreted the moment thus: loyalties will be remembered. Because Donovan chose to associate himself with Nazis, that choice — in the direction of evil — outlasts him. It outlasts any mortal life.

In the next shot, a Grail-guarding knight says, “He chose…poorly.”

I think about this scene frequently. Much more frequently in the past eighteen months. I’m not going to compare the situation in America in 2018 to the situation in Germany in 1938; that is insulting to the loss of life which occurred in that place and time, and it’s unnecessarily alarmist. But I do think, often, about what an immortal wind, blowing away our mortal justifications, would reveal about each of us. The internet is written in ink, and we are all eminently searchable. What I wrote in 2006 about my abortion is still available to anyone who wants to read it. The stupid things I said in my LiveJournal in the late 1990s are probably still out there somewhere, too (although if they are, please don’t tell me about it).

The film paints Donovan’s choice to be a Nazi as all-consuming and irrevocable — the only thing left of him once he is gone, the only aspect of him that matters. That he has made this choice in order to locate something supremely holy is irrelevant. Of course it is: Nazism is the extreme, the nth degree of evil, the worst possible horse to back. He might as well have been wearing a HAIL SATAN pin on his lapel. I continue to wonder, as I sit here in 2018, whether Donovan should have known this. It’s not really material, because he’s a fictional character, and the choice reads as obviously, purposely evil; applying to Donovan hindsight, and asking of him questions about how much could be known in 1938 about the camps and the Final Solution, is pointless.

The point is: in light of this scene, I think carefully about my choices. I think about what I want on the internet about me, and I consider what my choices will look like in a hundred years. In a hundred years, as a Thai tree adjures us, all new people. I am not in a movie, and I’m not an important person to the sweep of history, so I doubt anyone will care one way or another what horses I backed. I’d like to know that I was on the right side, but the longer I live, the less sure I am that there is a right side we can see from our seats.

On a podcast, I heard a funny loophole in the absurdity of flat-earthers: phenomenologically, the earth is flat. It’s flat in the majority of human experiences of the earth. There are almost no situations in which human beings can personally observe (or need personally worry about) the earth’s spherical shape. Unless we are high-level engineers or astronauts, we experience the earth as flat, even though it is not. This is not an argument for discounting science, pictures taken from space, etc., but instead for appreciating the human perspective.

From the human perspective, this is an ugly, combative time in American politics. From the human perspective, panicking is easy, and looking at the hundred-year view, the true curvature of our home, is difficult. But the immortal wind will blow us all away, leaving behind only our convictions. I know that I want to be kind and honest. What else remains?