Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?

 

Advertisements

Out Of Control

The story in the Washington Post reads (in part) as follows:

MASON, Ohio — Nick Kyrgios was fined $113,000 by the ATP for expletive-filled outbursts in which he smashed rackets, insulted a chair umpire and refused to get ready to return serve during a second-round match at the Western & Southern Open.

The tour announced the penalties Thursday, a day after Kyrgios berated chair umpire Fergus Murphy and left the court to break two rackets during a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Karen Khachanov.

The ATP listed a breakdown of eight fines ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 each for violations such as unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal abuse and audible obscenity.

The tour also said it is “looking further into what happened during and immediately after the match” to determine whether additional fines or a suspension is warranted.

Kyrgios is a 24-year-old Australian who is ranked 27th this week. He is a volatile sort who repeatedly has gotten in trouble for on-court actions. He was kicked out of the Italian Open in May after throwing a chair and being suspended by the ATP in 2016 for not trying to win and insulted fans during the Shanghai Masters.

You may not have heard about this if you are not a sports fan, or if you have been preoccupied with current world events, but this is an event worth noting because it is a symptom of a deep malaise; I suspect it is not restricted to Nick Kyrgios. It is a sign of the complete freedom that many liberal-minded folks prize as the virtue worth having above all others. It is freedom without restraint. As I have noted on numerous occasions, freedom without restraint is not freedom; it is chaos. And Kyrgios’ behavior — in this instance and in numerous others — may be a sign of the times.

Without sounding like a preacher looking for work, I would remind readers that in a world that does not prize restraint but which instead applauds behavior such as that of Nick Kyrgios there is a real danger of watching the threads that hold us together tearing apart. Ours is a culture, including Australia apparently, in which parents for years now have been told by the “experts” not to restrain the young because it inhibits their potential. Never say “No!” The result is a world in which the behavior of out-or control athletes and celebrities, not to mention ordinary folks like you and me, is not only tolerated but frequently met with applause. This athlete, in particular, is immensely popular and when he plays on television it is “must see TV.” The crowds wait breathlessly for an outburst which they label “honesty” and regard as worthy of emulation. And we must, really we must, ask what’s wrong with this picture?

Nick Kyrgios is slowly becoming the rule, not the exception. He has a huge following and openly admits that he doesn’t really like tennis where he makes a small fortune showing signs of his undeniable brilliance and occasionally winning — while always being on the brink of a meltdown. He is much more interested, it would seem, in drawing attention to himself than in winning tennis matches. He is a showman in an age of entertainment when those who behave erratically are the main attraction. After all, ordinary people going about their business, no matter how successful they might be, are not much fun to watch. It’s the out-of-control athletes and public figures generally who make a stir that interest those who present television pictures to large audiences. The more erratic the behavior the more likely the audience will be large and appreciative — and buy the sponsor’s products, needless to say.

Thus we do eschew restraint as boring and prize the Nick Kyrgioses of the world (who will pay this fine with the small change out of his tennis shorts) because they make life interesting. We flavor our infatuation with the sensational by calling such behavior honest. But if we are honest we will admit it  is extreme and not worthy of respect and certainly not admiration.  It is freedom gone amuck and self-indulgence of a sort, when adopted by more and more people, that ultimately strains the thin threads that hold civilization together. Entertainment is not the most important thing. Not in the end. And honesty does not equate with outrageous behavior.

The Brits

Spoiler alert: I am an Anglophile. My father was born and raised in England until he was seventeen — born in a suburb of Oxford and raised near Worcester. His family, going back generations, was British through and through. And his mother who married an English gentleman had roots going way back in Scotland. Ironically, her great-grandfather came to this country and fought against the British to assure American Independence from England.

I visited England twice, once on a Fellowship which allowed me to visit Oxford University and travel a bit and later I visited with a friend during which we traveled for a week in the Cotswolds — and visited Oxford once again. My friend is a former student and an attorney and while we were in Oxford we decided to visit as many Pubs as possible (doing sociological research, of course). We learned a great deal, as you can imagine. I don’t remember much.

I love England and most of the English people I have met. Moreover, my wife and I are addicted to British television shows, especially the mysteries in which detectives solve crimes with their brains rather than with their fists and guns. My favorites are such shows as: “Vera,” “Inspector Gently,” “Endeavour,” and “New Tricks.”  And I must add two brilliant British comedies: “Mum” and  “Detectorists.” Beautifully done.

But, let’s face it, some of the things the Brits say are a bit bewildering. They put in syllables where they don’t belong — as in aluminium. And they pronounce lieutenant “leftennant.” Of course, it might be said they invented the language and they can bloody well do with it as they choose. And speaking of “bloody” note how often this word gets a workout in British parlance — as in a “bloody big boat” sitting in the Thames. But there are other expressions that are equally endearing. I list a few here and would welcome additions from other anglophiles (or even British readers themselves).

For the British “Worcester” becomes “Wooster.”

The family of Beauchamp is referred to as “Beechum.”

“Telling porkies” means telling lies.

They “chat to” others while we “chat with” others.

Things are “different to” for the British while they are “different from” for us.

They speak of “maths” while we say “math” or, when we feel a bit full of ourselves, “mathematics.”

The British live in “flats” while we live in apartments.

They play football while we play soccer. (Their word makes much more sense since the game is played with the feet for the most part while our game requires that three hundred pound men run at one another as fast as possible and try to smash each other to pieces. Their game requires finesse, ours requires steroids).

They try to avoid “Yobs” while we try to avoid thugs and delinquents.

They line up in queues  (or queue up) while we wait in line.

Their “bobbies” are our policemen.

When they know someone has misspoken they shout “bollocks” while we shout “Bullshit” or “Horsepucky.” (Their word seems so much more refined!)

The Brits whinge while we just complain.

We think of an exceptional student as bright the Brits think of her as clever.

When the Brits want to know they ask “What’s that in aid of?” On the other hand, we ask: “What’s that for?”

In Great Britain when your car breaks down (from driving on the “wrong” side, perhaps) you open the boot and get the spanner after which you raise the bonnet to check out the engine. In this country we open the trunk, take out a wrench, and open the hood to check the engine.

And if it’s dark you will need your torch, which we call a flashlight.

Great fun! There are many more and any you can think of please pass along. (And if you would like to you may copy this and take it along with you on your next trip to Great Britain. No charge!)

 

 

 

 

White Mountain Bread

For five summers during my undergraduate and graduate school years I worked in a boys’ camp in Wayne, Maine. It was a beautiful spot on Lake Androscoggin and the summers were memorable. Bright sunny days with the clearest of skies followed upon one another like geese flying South. Together with another counsellor who became one of my closest friends, my job was to teach young boys the game of tennis and I was also in charge of a bunk with five precocious boys aged nine. During those summers I had many of the most pleasant moments of my life and in order to maintain my sanity in an insane world, I shall share a couple of the those moments with you. This post has no point, really, it’s just anecdotal.

Each summer the boys from the camp, aged seven through eleven took trips around Maine and even into New Hampshire. One of the trips was to Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We rode to the top of the mountain in the cog railroad, slowly inching up precarious angles, chugging away as the boys took turns standing up at ridiculous angles seeking to defy gravity. At the top we explored the region around the headquarters and souvenir shop and later after a good meal we spent the night high atop Mount Washington where, it is said, one can see several different states on a clear day and the wind blows at record speeds.

We went back another time to New Hampshire and camped out in a public camping area which the boys cleared for themselves. It was primitive, which is to say it had no running water and no bathroom. The boys and counsellors visited the front office or found a tree when necessary, otherwise they spent the afternoon clearing the area and playing games. At night we were preparing for the evening meal when the leader of the expedition, an older and more experienced man by the name of Phil Traub who ran a boy’s club in New York during the year, pulled me aside and said we had forgotten to bring the bread. Since we were planning to have sandwiches, this was a problem. He told me to go into the closest town and buy several loaves of white bread — as the campers, being young boys, preferred white bread to all other kinds. The store had no white bread so I bought several loaves of whole wheat bread and handed them to Phil with fear and trepidation. He was an imposing  man, a former marine who did not suffer fools. But he said not to worry he would think of something.

As the meal was being prepared and the boys gathered around Phil told them they were in for a treat. “Tonight,” he said, “we are going to have White Mountain Bread!” The boys had no idea what he was talking about, nor did I, but they cheered nonetheless and ate their sandwiches with great glee. Needless to say, I learned many a practical lesson in child-rearing from Phil and also from the man who owned and ran the camp who was in many ways a very wise man. His name was Pat Wack and he was not only wise but also had a delightful sense of humor and ran a terrific operation. The camp was spotless, the meals were always excellent, and the counsellors were among the best men I have ever been around.

The eleven-year-olds took a canoe trip each summer and the counsellors, as was the case on all the trips, were chosen on a rotating basis. When I went in my final year I learned how to handle the canoe and we took off one bright morning headed for Canada — or at least that’s what the boys were told. Bear in mind that the camp was in the Southeast of the state of Maine and Canada was, as they say, a fir piece! But off we went, portaging after we reached the shore of our lake and settling into the canoes in the nearest lake North of the camp. We went several miles on that lake (and on that lake alone) until we reached a spot owned by the boys’ camp that was set up and ready for the boys who would swim, explore, eat, prepare their beds for the night, sleep and then return to home base the way they came — all the way back from Canada! The arrangement for bathroom needs was primitive, to say the least: a rope hanging over a deep hole. The boys (and counsellors) swung on the rope over the hole and “bombs away!” One only hoped that his aim was good. Otherwise it was great fun and relieved many of the young boys of their fear of pooping in the wilds.

As I say, I learned a great many practical lessons in raising boys which came in very handy when I had two of my own. And that was not long after as my wife joined me in the fifth summer by way of a honeymoon. Pat arranged a room for us to sleep in on alternate nights (when I didn’t have to be in the cabin) and found some work for her to do in the office with his wife and daughter with whom she got along famously. As I say, those were the best summers of my life and, as I also said, this post has no point to make whatever. It’s an exercise in pure, unmitigated self-indulgence.

Dilemma

I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.

When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.

How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.

Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.

But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word?  I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.

But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.

 

Memories

As an old fart I spend a good deal of time reflecting on fond moments of the past– and the many regrets I have for not having done more or better than I did. But as a college professor I taught in a college and a couple of universities for 41 years and I am lucky to have had some very fine moments. I want to share a couple of them with my readers because I am at present doing whatever I can to keep my mind off you-know-what and you-know-who.

My first job right out of Northwestern University was at the University of Rhode Island where I taught for two years. My advisor at Northwestern had helped me get the job because in those days mentors sought to find good jobs for their students as it reflected well on them. I made less money teaching as an Instructor for nine months than I did during the remaining three months as a tennis pro at a private club outside of Chicago! More to the point, as a member of a 7 man department (there were no women in those days) I was being forced into a niche that made me feel cramped. So when I saw a chance to take a position in a new small college in Iowa where I could spread my wings, begin a new program and, more importantly, teach the Great Books I had fallen in love with in college, I grabbed it. It also paid well enough that I was able to quit the job as a tennis pro and teach the Summer term instead, which I did with delight. Tennis has always been one of my great loves, but teaching philosophy and what they called “The Humanities” was what I was cut out for.

After a couple of years it was apparent that the small college was not going to survive so I took a job at a brand new state college in Marshall, Minnesota. I was able to establish a philosophy department and lead a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” where, I thought, I could continue to teach the great Books. Not so. The dean thought the books too sophisticated for the Freshmen at that college (not true) and he insisted that the reading list be watered down. I was in no position to do much more than complain. But I started an Honors Program for the brighter students and found my refuge there teaching (wait for it) the Great Books. We had a required Senior Seminar that focused on those books and I was able to have my students read some of them in my Humanities courses and in my course on Philosophy In Literature as well. I had some terrific students. Some of them have remained life-long friends. But what about those moments I mentioned?

In one of the Senior Seminars I came in a bit late and found the students already discussing the day’s reading! In another case I was able to ask a few questions and then simply make an occasional remark as the discussion was lively and involved all or most of the students. Those were some of the best classes I ever taught, and they were always the classes I most looked forward to teaching. I said little and the students really got into it. That’s the way they learn best! My role: provoke thought and guide discussion.

But I complained one day in class that the new college had very few traditions. At Northwestern we applauded the professor at the end of the term and even at the private school where I taught before going to Northwestern the boys led a cheer for the “master” at the end of the term. At this new college on the Prairie students simply left the class after it was over and that was it. The following day in class the entire class showed up dressed to the nines (one student even borrowing a suit for the purpose) with champaign and glasses in hand! I was struck dumb! We drank the champaign and had a good laugh and I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. (It bears mentioning that two of the instigators of that event were campus leaders in an effort to cut down the growing use of liquor on campus!)

One of the greatest moments came after my retirement when one of my former students, who is now a close personal friend and also teaches at the university, convinced the university to name the honors lounge at the university after me. The event was largely ignored by the university community, but the generosity and consideration of that former student is unsurpassed in my experience. How does one say “thanks”?

One last item: I was asked to coach the fledgling women’s tennis team when a new Conference was formed a few years after my arrival. And, given my love of the game I threw myself into it heart and soul. I did that for nearly fifteen years, along with chairing a department, teaching a full load of classes, and writing book reviews, articles, and a few books of my own. Even though the busy schedule took we away from my family — which is at the top of the list of those regrets I mentioned above — I loved it and still have a great many fond memories of the remarkable students and athletes who came to that small college on the Great Plains to play tennis and get a good education.  It is fun to hear from them from time to time and see what remarkable people they have turned out to be.

 

 

 

Greta Thunberg — Simply Amazing

A truly remarkable young woman!

Filosofa's Word

I have written before about the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, and in fact she was one of my ‘good people’ one Wednesday last December.  Sometimes an activist will start like gangbusters, and then after a few months you hear nothing more about them, but not so Ms. Thunberg.  I see her name in the news at least once a week, and she has been inspirational to many young climate-conscious groups around the world.

Today, she is back in the news, and in a big way! A couple of big ways, actually.

Greta-Thunberg Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and The 1975’s Matty Healy pose for a photo. (Photo: Jordan Hughes)

The first is that she is featured on the first track of the forthcoming album of British pop-rock band The 1975.  In the track, Greta delivers a speech about the global climate emergency, against an instrumental background…

View original post 1,168 more words

Guaranteed!

Years ago we bought a pre-owned Chevrolet station wagon and paid extra for the extended warranty that would guarantee the car for another 20,000 miles. Shortly thereafter the engine went belly-up and the company paid to have the engine replaced. Not long after that, and still within the period covered by the warranty, that engine also went belly-up. At that point the company said, in effect, we won’t give you another one because we already did that! So we have not been big fans of Chevrolet since that  time, needless to say, though our personal boycott doesn’t seem to have hurt the company a bit!

Then a few years ago we bought a storm door with a “lifetime guarantee.” Not long thereafter the door showed design flaws and we sought a replacement only to be told “we don’t do that any more.” So it goes. We can’t believe anyone any more, it would appear. Not only do the lies come at us in battalions from on high in the Oval Office, but the notion of truth is questioned on every side; we are told that the truth is what we want it to be. No one seems to remember that truth, trust, and honesty are virtues that were prized possessions not long ago. Take professional sports.

Or, more specifically, take the National Football League. At this writing there are four professional football players under contract who have not shown up for the first day of practice because they want more money. Please note they are already under contract for huge amounts of money — one of them the highest paid player at his position in the league! But they all want more. They want “what they are worth.” In my view they are not worth much — not as human beings at any rate. What happened to giving your word and signing a contract in good faith — and holding to the terms of that contract? These sorts of things seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The breaking of a contract in professional sports — and semi-professional sports, such as the NCAA — has become a matter of course. We read and hear about players and coaches who simply break their contracts and sign with another team or university — as though signing a new contract would mean anything more these days than signing the old one did. It’s all about honor, an old-fashioned word that has also gone the way of the dinosaurs. It used to be the case that when a man or a woman gave his or her word that was it. A shake of the hands, that’s all it took. One knew that it meant something. In small towns there is still a semblance of that sort of assurance, though one does hear about the occasional exception. There are always exceptions, I suppose.

Honesty, truth, trust, and honor are things that define us as civilized people who need and want to live with one another. Civilization, as Ortega y Gasset said long ago, is above all else the desire to live with one another. But we cannot live together with peace of mind and assurance of our fellows if we cannot take them at their word, if they are not to be trusted.

The fact that the president of this country holds the trophy for the most lies and prevarications in a single hour and still has millions of devoted followers simply points to the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter any more to a great many folks in this country. It has become commonplace as our civilized society struggles to keep its collective head above water. Everyone else does it, why shouldn’t I? One of the oldest rationalizations in the book.

But, it will be said, here we have another old fart complaining about how things just aren’t the same as they once were. Sour grapes. Chicken Little warning us about the falling sky. There may be a smidgen of that in what I say. I am, after all, an old fart, and the sky does look very dark at times. But at the same time, in order to hold this society together at some point we must be able to believe one another, we must be able to know for certain that there are guarantees, that a man’s or a woman’s word is to be trusted. Or what? Or things fall apart.

The Trump Phenomenon

Apparently we live in a “Momism” culture. I was not aware of this, but John Carroll notes that respected sociologists and anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Gorer, Erik Erikson, K. Keniston, Herbert Hendin in the late 1960s and early 1970s

“all wrote on the theme, stressing the dominant power of the mother. . . . The psychiatric literature of the period tended to point in the same direction . . . The overall impact of the psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and sociological literature of this period is to suggest that mother dominance has become pervasive.”

What it means is that we have moved from the age of the patriarch, the father with absolute authority in the home during, say, the Victorian period. The image is that of the father with rod in hand whipping his son into shape, taming him like a wild animal, breaking his will. Ours is an age in which we have become softer, gentler, more compassionate — an age in which the rod has been replaced with a fishing rod and the father urged to take his son out in the canoe for some “quality time.”

This certainly makes sense in that we know ours is a permissive age, an age in which we reason with children rather than “whip them into shape.’ In fact, any whipping would quickly bring the sheriff and the child would be taken away from his abusive parents. This is a good thing in so many ways, but it also brings with it certain rather sobering consequences — such as our age of entitlement where spoiled children run wild and parents are warned at every turn not to damage their potential and to be their friends rather than the authority figures they require.

In fact, ever since Freud we have known that despite the image sketched above, that authoritarian father with his firm hand did, in fact, help the child become a mature, responsible adult. It turned the aggressive impulses that every child has inward building a Super Ego, or conscience, in the process. The result is what we call “character” and the sublimation of those impulses brought about creative and constructive results — what we call “civilization.” Greater permissiveness, as I have noted in the past, results in the turning outward of these impulses, a lack of character, and even violence. This is all well documented and we must live with the consequences. It’s a “trade-off” I suppose.

But let’s also suppose that what we might call the “Trump Phenomenon,” which we struggle to understand, could also be the result of this excessive permissiveness. Let’s suppose that for a great many people in this country Donald Trump represents the father figure, the firm, decisive, rod-in-hand figure of authority that they crave on an unconscious level. For all his faults, and there are many, the man is quick to make a decision — for many of us those decisions are invariably the wrong ones, but nevertheless he does make decisions. He “cuts to the chase.” Quickly. In a democratic system where decisions seem to come at a snail’s pace, if at all, when the powers that be seem involved in endless bickering and nothing seems to get done, the notion of a decisive leader, one who takes charge, might be very appealing to a great many people — especially if those people have been handed the dirty end of the stick for most of their lives, convinced that the power elite, those with more money and a better education, have always made the decisions that affect their lives.

In any event, folks like Christopher Lasch and John Carroll, who have read their Freud and take seriously the notion that we all need a firm hand, seem convinced that our age suffers from a lack of authority, that “Momism” is not necessarily a good thing because it creates more problems than it solves. To be sure, it takes the rod from the hand of the snarling father, but it leaves the child with no guidance and a lack of character. Thus do we stumble about and wonder where we are going, noting the increase of violence, the loss of manners and restraint, the glorification of the quick fix, and the election of fools to positions of power.

Social Science?

The social sciences began as an attempt to apply the procedures of the hard sciences — in particular the use of empirical evidence coupled with mathematics — to a study of human behavior. Today it includes such academic disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, at times, even history — though the latter sits on the fence between social science and the humanities, depending on how heavily historians lean on mathematics. The mathematics of choice is statistics and probability theory and the technique usually involves studies of individuals or groups and their behaviors, though behavioral psychologists have shown a remarkable affection for the study of rats. I have left many holes in this brief overview and my hope is that my friend Jerry Stark will fill some of them in as I am once again venturing outside my area of expertise.

But in venturing outside I resemble in important respects the work of the Australian sociologist John Carroll, to whom I have referred a number of times. Carroll seems to be venturing outside his area of expertise to the point that his brothers and sisters within the walls of sociology may well refuse to accept his credentials. I say this despite the fact that he holds two positions at present: at La Trobe University in Melbourne and as a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. The reason I suspect that his credentials might be rejected (despite his lofty positions) is because he relies less on the methods of sociology as traditionally understood and more on the careful reading of the great works of the Western World. This is why I like him and find myself nodding in agreement as I read him, I suppose. We share the belief that we can turn to the novelists, poets, and philosophers to find out important things about our fellow human beings.

Carroll especially prefers such thinkers as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, and Rilke. He refers to them time and again in his book Guilt, to which I have referred in previous blog posts. He is particularly enamored of Kafka — especially in that author’s take on the current human condition, rife with guilt and unable to find peace. Carroll has developed a notion of what he calls “dispositional guilt” that he is convinced we are all born with — like original sin, if you will. It differs from moral guilt which can be eleviated by confession and remission in the form of good works and genuine remorse. Dispositional guilt, on the other hand, is something we are born with and which we simply cannot shake off. It’s with us always — in different degrees.

His book is an attempt to trace the history of guilt from very early times to the present — which would be 1985 when he wrote the book. And while I marvel at his observations and careful readings of the authors he takes up (even including a brief story by Kafka about a mouse who sings to her fellow mice to keep them calm) I cannot accept his conclusions about dispositional guilt. Outside the readings Carroll refers to I simply do not see a people wallowing in a sense of guilt they cannot shake off. I see, rather, folks filled with feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, occasional joy, and even tendencies toward violence — as I have noted in previous posts. A lively conscience is rare, especially a guilty conscience.

In saying this, I tend to agree when Carroll turns to contemporary times, times of “Matricidal Guilt,” as he sees it. Of these times, we are told that

“There are any least six main strands in modern culture that appeal directly to the value of oral remission [characteristic of matricidal guilt].”

These six strands include Consumerism; the Welfare State; Indulgent parenting and schooling; Nature, Community, Creativity, and Feeling; image and celebrity; and fear of poisoning. I shan’t take you through each of these, you will be happy to know, but I must mention that under the topic of consumerism he notes that “Consumerism operates on one very simple principle: if you feel bad, eat!”  What can one say? One must bear with Carroll, because, despite the fact that his reasoning at times seems off the mark, he strikes chords of brilliance and much of his analysis — be it in accordance with standard sociological procedures or not — is spot on. Take, for example, his analysis of “indulgent parenting and schooling,” a topic near to my heart:

“The dominant reformist strain in modern child-rearing and educational theory has been that of pure indulgence. Do away with punishment and repression; let the child’s innate goodness and creativity flourish. The ideology’s founding father was Rousseau [whose mother died soon after he was born], and it is consistent with his own need to restore the lost maternal paradise. In effect weaning is to be abolished. Parents are not to say No: in reality what they do is take to bribing their children to keep peace, offering a constant supply of biscuits and sweets. Here is the basic lesson for the child in being educated into the consumer society. Advertising psychology is followed: to offer the right product will get you anything — the consumer version of everyone having his price. And of course children have their price, but they do not get what they need, love that constrains as it encourages. Similarly teachers are not to say No, but rather worship at the feet of the child’s potentiality.”

Now, whether or not one agrees with everything Carroll says — or whether one wants to take him to task for leaning more on classics of literature and philosophy than he does the latest study in a professional journal — he is interesting, insightful, and provocative. And what he says almost always has the ring of truth, as when he says that what children need is “love that constrains as it encourages.” The constraint is missing because of the replacement of patricidal and what he calls “civilized” guilt with a matricidal guilt. In a word, authority is not a bad thing — in moderation — and our culture has erred in the direction of far too much permissiveness.