Reading Time: 4 minutes

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… “
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

My favorite image of my least favorite story.
Dad’s blank expression says it all.
AandI

I’m already on record recoiling from the Worst Story Ever Loved — Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command that he kill his son.

Lot (he of the condiment wife) establishes himself as the most jaw-dropping of moral menaces in Genesis 19, a story that once again exalts the willingness to sacrifice one’s child without hesitation. But within pages, Abraham steals the crown, proving there’s no crime he would not commit, no act too vile or unjustified, so long as God ordered him to commit it. And we applaud.

That the founder of Judaism is the first on record to make use of the Nuremberg Defense is an irony too painful to contemplate. That this is then celebrated as the ultimate founding moment of three world religions is a fact that has held me in its grip for decades.

But then the anthropologist in me pops his wee head out, blinking like a mole, and asks why we love these stories, why we recast and retell them, over and over, and clutch them to our hearts, and find them inspiring.

Not all of religious stories are sickening. One of my favorite gospel scenes is Jesus’s very human cup-shunning moment in Gethsemane, praying to God and his favorite Swedish pop group to change the plan (“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me”). I’m guessing those who love unquestioning obedience can forgive him (!) for this because he followed so quickly with an assurance that, yes yes, he knows after all that orders are orders. “I want your will to be done, not mine,” he says.

A weird sentence for a trinitarian to make sense of, but then again etc.

garciaI started with a passage from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.