Obligations of the Wealthy

It is always instructive and even at times interesting (or even painful) to take a look at ourselves through the eyes of those who live on the other side of the pond. These days one can only shudder to think what the impression must be, but I shall avoid that in order to retain some semblance of my sanity — what is left of it.

In any event, in 1877 British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone took a careful look at what was going on in America — an America that Alexis de Tocqueville had previously examined under the microscope. He did not like what he saw. Considering the fact at the time that Cornelius Vanderbilt had just left his son $100 million Gladstone worried that

“Wealth on so grand a scale ought not to exist accompanied by no ‘obligation to society.'”

Gladstone thought that the government should take great wealth away from the wealthy and redistribute it if the wealthy did not take part in governing the country. That, of course, has not happened. In fact in the nineteenth century we have examples of such worthies as John D. Rockerfeller, Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie who amassed huge wealth and yet never participated in any way in the political arena. It appeared as though the wealthy worried more about their wealth than they did the fate of their nation. That seems to have set the tone for the country in the years that have followed.

What makes this of particular interest, of course, is that as the nation was aborning the Federalists, led by such men as Alexander Hamilton, sought to establish the wealthy at the head of the nation in positions of great power and influence. Some of the Founders, such as Hamilton and even Washington to a degree, regarded the wealthy as the closest thing we had to an aristocracy. The Senate would be peopled by the wealthy as a faint echo of the English House of Lords. They were convinced (as was Plato after seeing what a jury did to his beloved Socrates) that ordinary men and women would run the ship of state aground. The wealthy and the “well born” as Hamilton saw it were in a better position to know what was best for the “general good,” while the rest of the common folk were busy trying to make ends meet. Strange to say, a great many people agreed with Hamilton and the other Federalists — enough at any rate to ratify the Constitution which was written is such a way as to make sure that ordinary folks would be separated as far as possible from the seat of government.

Gladstone’s concern is especially interesting not because his observation flew directly into the face of what the founders had intended — namely, that the wealthy and well educated would rule the nation — but that it proved to be prescient. As things stand today, the very wealthy avoid public office — with a few notable exceptions — while they and their companies maintain a tight grip behind the scenes on the power that politics promises them, the financial avenues those they have chosen to rule open for them. I speak of the corporations which, thanks to the abortive Supreme Court decision regarding “Citizens United,” have considerable influence on who it is who runs the country and which direction it will take.

In a way my concern here dovetails with a more general concern I have voiced from time to time on these pages about the “obligation” the wealthy have to those around them. Some notable exceptions can be allowed, but by and large wealthy individuals tend to worry more about their portfolios than they do about the plight of those around them who, in many cases, do not have enough food to eat or a place to call their home.

But the general point that John Murrin makes in his book Rethinking America — from which my references to Gladstone arise — cannot be ignored and does make us pause:

“In a capitalist society that generates huge extremes of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk. . . .The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupts individuals. It threatens to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Indeed so. Those who have are obliged to concern themselves with those who have not: the more they have the greater the obligation. And the very wealthy have an obligation to others and to the nation that extends beyond simply promoting those laws that enhance their opportunity to become even more wealthy. Gladstone was right to be concerned.

Doubt Leads to Thought

I went all the way back to 2011 to find this post which only garnered one comment at the time. I still think it worth reading and even worth pondering as we seem to have entered a world in which Google has replaced history and the population on the whole seems to be increasingly disinclined to think about things that truly matter.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it,

“I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.”

Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and the schools at all levels are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts and job promotions.

We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Words That Frighten

I wrote this years ago and reblog it here because no one seems to have read it and the ideas I tried to clarify appear to be as relevant today as they were years ago — if not more so!

In every generation there are numerous words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to progressive educators who ignore the fact that discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music, for example, from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person who was regarded as discriminating.

In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest scare term is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term became out of fashion when the Soviet Union broke up and conciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Christ. Further,  the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing influence on the part of the government into economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further such things as anti-trust laws do interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system, by the way, that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans. But even if President Obama has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes

“but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,”

as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed.

“All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,”

In Finland teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students.  Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs.

Am I advocating socialism? No. But I am in total support of the Wall Street protesters who want a  system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; I support this President’s attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten rather than to advance understanding.

Arguments

One of my favorite shows is “Get Up” on ESPN. I watch it pretty much every day because I like the main man and he has some interesting former athletes each day who provide us with pithy comments and even some provocative insights into the inner-workings of sports. Not all the guests are equally adept at such things as speaking, of course, but they all have opinions and are ready to share those with us — whether we want to hear them or not.

The problem is that the “discussions” among the guests (several of whom are regular and thus familiar to those who watch even a few times) frequently degenerate into shouting matches which we mistake for genuine arguments — complete with interruptions, or course. In fact, television seems to have gone in that direction because (I assume) that’s what viewers want to watch. Not this viewer. I tire of it quickly.

Recently, after the Super Bowl, three of the guests went after one another on the topic of whether it was the San Fransisco coach who lost the game or the quarterback. On the one side were two guests who insisted that the coach was at fault because the strength of San Fransisco’s football team all year has been its running game and they abandoned it late in the game when they could have run out the clock and kept the “magic man” Patrick Mahomes off the field. Not an unreasonable position since the “magic man” won the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. But the third guest — who tends to get louder as he becomes more frustrated when others do not agree with him — insisted that the coach called excellent plays but the quarterback failed to execute the plays. He called a number of passing plays late in the game and they failed to connect. If they had the coach would have been seen as a genius.

I may not be doing either of those positions justice, but you get the picture. These people were not arguing, they were bickering. The two are not the same. An argument has evidence which we call the “premises,” and that evidence supports the conclusion. The conclusion is only as strong as the evidence that supports it. The way to attack an argument is to attack the evidence — not the conclusion. But these folks were simply stating their opinions (again and again) without any attempt to support those opinions with evidence.

And, given the nature of their claims, evidence would probably not be forthcoming. This is because the claims themselves (the opinions) were of a counter-factual nature. IF certain things had happened THEN other things would inevitably happen. There is no way to support such an argument because the antecedent is counter to fact. The San Fransisco coach did not call running pays so we have no idea what would have happened if he did. And the San Fransisco quarterback did not complete his passes and we can only speculate what would have happened if he had. So the “argument” simply goes around in circles with no outcome possible.

The best we can hope for in such cases is that the claim is “plausible” based on previous experience. In this instance the case for the coach losing the game is more compelling because it is true that the strength of the San Fransisco team was its running game. But we have no idea how they would have done against the Kansas City defense at the end of the game.

The only way to settle such disagreements, heated as they were, would be for one person to reach across the table and throttle this opponent. And one of the guests was a former lineman of considerable size and my money would be on him to win that “argument.” But I speculate because the man did not reach across the table — even though he mentioned that his opponent was starting to “piss him off.” And we can only guess what might have happened he had actually done so.

And viewers like this?? The point is that we are subjected to such displays every day and the result is that we have no idea what a sound argument is and what might make it weak. To begin with there must be an argument. It must have a conclusion and there must be an attempt to support that conclusion with evidence. The conclusion is often (though not always) preceded by words such as “therefore,” or “thus.” Or followed by such words as “because.” These are called “indicator terms” and they may or may not be there. But if there is an argument present we can determine what the conclusion and the support are by providing the indicator terms ourselves. We can say “there will be much celebration in Kansas City this week: their team won the Super Bowl.” It is easy to see that the latter statement supports the former and we could simply provide an indicator term “There will be celebrating because their team won.” And in this case the evidence, or premise, in indisputable.

The point of all this is that with an argument it is possible to attack or defend it by considering the support. Without support (or premises) there is no argument. There is just disagreement — sometimes heated, but always pointless.

Ethics Officer?

Many years ago when I was chair of the philosophy department we were gifted $25,000 as a result of a court case involving bid-rigging. The trial was held in a nearby county and as a result of the defendants being caught pretty much red-handed, they were fined $100,000.00. They settled out of court for $50,000.00 and the proviso was that the money should be split between two local colleges who were then directed to set up courses in business ethics. My department was one beneficiary.

Well, as it happens, we already had several courses in business ethics, including one in the Masters program in Business. I always enjoyed teaching that class because the students were older — often folks who had returned for their M.B.A. after deciding it would advance their careers a bit. They brought a fund of information and experience with them and we had some great discussions. And the business arena is a gold mine for those of us looking for ethical issues.

The problem was what to do with all that money when we already had those courses. I decided to set up a lecture series to supplement the business ethics courses and we brought to campus some very interesting people — including the founder of the Parnassus Fund in California which promised to invest only in ethical companies — companies that treated their employees well, didn’t produce cigarettes or liquor, etc. He was most interesting and gave an excellent talk and then went to a couple of business classes and interacted with the students.

We also brought to campus the “Ethics Officer” at Honeywell — a corporation in Minneapolis that bragged about the fact that they were ethically oriented as witnessed by the fact that they donated free computers to the schools and engaged in other charitable acts. In any event, the ethics officer was a lawyer(!) whose job it was to make sure the corporation didn’t take steps that would get them in a legal tangle and to help them out of those tangles if they slipped up. Hardly ethics! (As a footnote, I would add that when the company later ran into financial difficulties the first things they cut were their charitable works!). In any event, it was instructive to get a first-hand look at one corporation’s notion of what ethics is all about.

The problems, of course, is that the law is not always ethical and that, in fact, ethics and legality often conflict in the “real world.” I spent a good deal of time after the lawyer’s visit trying to make that point clear to my students. Something can be perfectly legal and yet replete with ethical conundrums. This would be the case, for example, in those companies that promote dishonest advertising in order to increase sales. The ads may stay within the perimeters of legal strictures and yet violate the principle of honesty. And it is not at all clear that major companies treat their employees with the respect that all persons deserve.

But in those years of teaching business ethics I learned that the publicly owned corporations care not a whit about ethics and focus almost exclusively on the bottom line. Honeywell we simply one of a host of companies that was dedicated to profits and regarded ethics as a bit of a pain in the ass.

This is not to say that all companies were unethical, though most of the publicly-owned companies have terrible track records. There are a number or quite remarkable stories about privately owned companies, however, that go out of their way to do the right thing by their employees and their customers. Malden Mills, a family-owned company in Massachusetts is a case in point. As a news story reported at the time,

[Aaron] Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew whose grandfather had started Malden Mills in 1906, not only to decided to rebuild. He also resolved to continue paying the 1,400 workers left idle during the construction works their salaries for the next three months, and to cover their health insurance for 180 days.

Asked to explain his decision, he attributed it to the ethics he had learned from studying the Talmud.

“I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar,” he told Parade magazine. “It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets and deliver a deathblow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuen. Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it’s worth more.”

There are more such stories, but not as many as the horror stories about companies such as Johns Manville that know they were producing such things as cancer-causing asbestos long before they were forced to change their product by the government. Or the tobacco companies that knew many years before their customers that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Which is why we need governmental controls — contrary to what we hear abroad these days. They act as watch-dogs to try to keep the unethical companies in line.

It’s not a perfect system. But while the law is not always ethical, at times it’s all we have.

America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

As a retired college professor who has thought about education all of my adult life  (and even written a book about it!), I have posted a number of blogs on the topic. This is one of my favorites from 2014.

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” or teaches them job skills, and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been commonplace  in our culture since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has turned many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled and the practical along with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  not to mention a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

Persons

Antonio Brown, an outstanding football player who just can’t seem to get his act together, is much in the news of late — for all the wrong reasons. A warrant for his arrest has been issued lately because allegedly he beat up the driver of a moving van outside his house. Details are sketchy.

Last Fall it appeared he would play football for the Oakland Raiders but his odd behavior resulted in his dismissal from the team. He was later picked up by the New England Patriots and then let go for, again, behavior unacceptable in an adult human. He apparently has a court case ongoing involving possible aggressive behavior toward a former girl friend. And the list goes on.

The talking heads are all in a dither and it seems to be the consensus that this man is a loose canon and needs help — and fast. They all agree, to be sure, that aggravated assault against another human is not acceptable behavior. The same conclusion surfaced when Kansas State and Kansas basketball players got into a brawl at the end of their game recently and one of the players was suspended twelve games for raising a chair apparently in order to hit another player before it was taken away by one of the coaches. In all cases, most reasonable people would agree that this sort of behavior is simply not acceptable.

But why not?

We go along insisting that people should let it all hang out, do their thing, and generally be completely honest with their emotions — if not their actions. If this is so and the basketball player and Antonio Brown enjoy hitting other people why do we now say this cannot be allowed? On the face of it we seem to be inconsistent if not contradictory in our likes and dislikes, not to mention our ethical claims. Either we should allow people to do whatever they want or we should agree that they should not do whatever they want.

Many would say we draw the line at hurting other people. Folks should be allowed to let it all hang out and express their feelings until or unless their behavior involves harm to another person.

But what is “harm”? Physical harm seems straightforward, though there are masochists out there that love to be punished — the harder the better. But generally speaking physical harm is where we draw the line. What about emotional harm — such as bullying, for example? Surely we don’t condone that even though the bully is simply letting it all hang out: he enjoys making other people feel bad. But he is not physically harming anyone. Still, there is damage being done to another person and any sort of damage, whether it be physical or emotional is simply not to be allowed.

If this is then the place where the line is drawn then we can say that we have an ethical principle: one should not harm other people. Persons ought to be respected to the extent that they are persons and as such capable of feeling pain, both physical and emotional. Kant would argue, further, that they as persons they are capable of making moral judgments (whether or not they ever do); thus they ought to be respected by other persons. But in any case, whether  or not we agree with cumbersome Kant, we seem to have arrived at what might be said to be the cornerstone of an ethical system.

And I suggest that we have done just that and in staying this I would add that this lends the lie to the claim that ethics is simply a matter of opinion and feeling: what is good is what we want to do and what is bad are those things we find repulsive. This sort of emotional guide gets us nowhere, whereas the ethical cornerstone we have uncovered — persons are valuable in themselves — allows us to build an ethical system that leads to important conclusions — such as: slavery is wrong; women have the same rights as men; women are entitled to the same rewards in the workplace as their male cohorts who perform the same jobs. And so on. There is a plethora of legitimate ethical claims that stem from our one principle.

And in the process of uncovering those ethical claims we find ourselves thinking about ethics and not simply emoting. Any idiot can emote just as any idiot can take a swing at another person. But it takes a reasonable person to think his or her way through conflict and arrive at a conclusion that can stand up to criticism. That’s what ethics is all about.

A Stupid Species

I return, once again, to a favorite topic of mine. It was first posted in 2012 and garnered a single online comment. True or not, not is worth a moment’s reflection. I have expanded it a bit.

A former student and good friend of mine some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that had passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art; but we must remember that art creates culture: where the artist goes culture follows.

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

Think of the remarkable works of music, art, sculpture, poetry and even literature that were inspired by a writer, artist, or composer seeking something outside the self through which he or she could find meaning in a meaningless world. Is there any music composed today that can compare with Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B. Minor Mass? or Verdi’s (or Brahms’ or Mozart’s) Requiem? The composers who sought inspiration based on a deep feeling for something besides the self were too numerous to mention. Now there are none — except, perhaps, Leonard Bernstein whose MASS, composed in 1971, stands virtually alone. And the visual works created during the medieval period and the Renaissance were breathtaking, leading the attention of the spectators beyond himself or herself to something worth respecting and even loving — much like the Cathedrals themselves. In literature we need only mention Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novel The Brothers Karamazov or Goethe’s Faust.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with a world dominated by technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore as we stare mindlessly down at the latest electronic devise designed to capture our minds. We are capable of love but feel only antipathy toward all but a few — if we are aware of others at all. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned in Japan not long ago — and the urge to discover the newest and latest has become a compulsion .

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, the deer leaping gracefully over the fence, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

Stealing Signals

In the midst of national news about the impeachment of a corrupt president we hear about corruption in the heart of “America’s favorite pastime” — baseball. I am sure you have heard about it and may even have given it some thought. We like to think that we can turn to the sports pages to read the good news while the main pages are filled with the rest of the dreck that we label “politics” and “things as usual.”

But not so.

It appears that the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Well, actually, in 2017 when they won the World Series, they were caught stealing signals the catcher sends to the pitcher and were thus able to let the batter know what pitch was coming before the pitcher even wound up! This sort of thing has been going on for many years, of course, but apparently Alex Cora of the Houston team raised the ante: he suggested that the team use the latest technical devices to their advantage. With a very sensitive camera set up in the center field bleachers pictures of the catcher’s signals were sent to a receiver in the club house just behind the dugout. Signals were then sent to the batter by means of a player banging on a can (!) and he was able to anticipate the exact pitch he was about to see.

So the proverbial shit hit the fan and the baseball world is in a dither. And the main concern is not that signals were stolen — since, as mentioned, that has always been the case — but that the theft was done by means of such clinical and expert (except for the can) technical devices. Think about this for a moment: The problem, as perceived by the sports world, is not that signals were stolen but that it was done in such a careful and precise manner. Apparently it has always been done and that seems to be the reasoning so many use to excuse a wrong-doing: everyone else does it, why can’t I?

This, as we all should know, is faulty ethical reasoning. If stealing signals by means to technical gadgetry is wrong it is wrong because it is stealing — not because the manner in which it was done was so clever. Stealing signals is wrong because it is cheating and it breaks the rules of baseball. This is the fundamental fact (if there are any in such cases). The fact that Alex Cora raised stealing to new heights is beside the point — even though the media and most in the baseball community would make it the center of the discussion.

Once the door is open and stealing is condoned — as it has been for so many years — the fact that someone found a way to do it more efficiently and effectively is beside the point. But Cora, who later became a successful (?) manager for the Boston Red Sox, was fired as were two of the higher-ups at the Houston Astros. The players themselves who went along with the cheating readily so far as we know — and accepted the World Series trophy and all that cash —  will not be punished, apparently. This remains to be seen as baseball is “investigating” the matter as I write this. But given what we know about sports scandals it appears reasonable to assume that the players will get off scott free.

If the baseball world wanted to deal with this issue honestly and try to guarantee that it will not happen again they should strip Houston of the World Series Crown and fine all of the players who played in the game. Big Time! They were as guilty as their leaders.

But, in any case, it would be good to remind ourselves of what really happened here: stealing is not considered the problem; using high-tech equipment to do so effectively is considered the problem. This is nonsense.

Wonder

Children are filled with wonder. Why does this happen, Mommy? Why did that happen Daddy? Their world is filed with wonderful things and experiences. As we grow older, however, the wonder diminishes. This is especially true in our age of Google. If we have a question we take out the iPhone and Google it. The things we used to marvel at are no longer worth a moment’s thought. We presume to know so much and we laugh at those who can’t keep up.

I recently finished a novel by a former student, Bart Sutter, who won the Minnesota Book Award in fiction with this collection of short stories (My Father’s War). I was struck, as I read, how this man is still a young boy, how he is able to capture those fleeting moments when the things around him make him wonder. I do not disparage here; I admire.

In one of his stories Bart describes a blizzard going on outside the house where he and his brothers have been trapped after visiting their Mom and Dad at Christmas. He describes for us the beauty of the snow as it is softly and gently falling and, later, the beautiful sculptures the wind makes with the fallen snow. While walking outside with his brother the hero of the story is stunned by the complete silence that surrounds him in the deep snow at night. I share with Bart my love of the Winter snow and shake my head as my friends head South to escape the Minnesota Winters. I especially love the snow that sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the moonlight or even the light cast be a nearby street light.

In all his stories Bart is looking around and seeing the wonders that surround him. And he listens as well and shares with us the sounds of the forest and the angry lake as it laps fiercely against the shore in a storm. This is a true gift and one that I wish I had. But nevertheless I can appreciate the world this author, and a few others like him, are able to create and put into writing. They help all of us to cling to the remnants of that wonder that filled us when we were young — at least those of us who still read.

Some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen have come during a Minnesota Winter and while reading Bart’s book I shared with him the wonder that the world presents to us each and every moment — if only we take a moment and look around. But we don’t. We are in a hurry and we have in hand the magic tool that allows us to look up the answer to any questions we might have. We have lost our sense of wonder. This is truly sad.

A good friend and fellow blogger recently said that she has no interest in turning back the clock to a world in which so many of the things we take for granted were not yet even thought of. In a way I agree with her. I would have been dead several times over with various ailments if it were not for modern medicine. And I am the first to take an aspirin when my head aches — rather than to lie down with a cold rag on my forehead and wait for the pounding to stop. But at the same time, those simpler times were superior to ours in that things moved so much slower and the temptation to hurry was not everywhere present. We were not victims of the desire for immediate gratification. We miss so much when we scurry along like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, watch in hand a late for something or other. Only we don’t hold a watch, we hold a mobile phone where we can check up on what’s going on around without even looking around.

I don’t advocate that we remain children all our lives — though emotionally a great many of us do so uninvited. But the wonder that the child has is worth preserving and should be carried with us in a locked box well into old age. It is one of those things — like love and beauty — that makes life worth living.