Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

CAN A BOOK BE “RACIST”?
(2/21/13)
I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Grantchester

My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”

Good People Doing Good Things – Bunches Of ‘Em

We need to remind ourselves that there are good people in this world doing remarkably good things! Thanks to my friend Jill for this post!

Filosofa's Word

The last few weeks I have reported on some extraordinary people doing good things for others – Mohamed Bzeek who fostered children with terminal illnesses, Michael and Camille Geraldi who adopted 88 special needs children, the Habitat for Humanity building homes for low income families, and last week, the Pollination Project providing small seed grants to others to do good works.  Those, my friends, are tough acts to follow.  So today, I decided to pick a few of the many, many people who are out there doing small acts of kindness.

helping-hands


A Boy and His Best Friend …

This first story is about an 8-year-old kid whose heart is in the right place.  His name is Paul Burnett, and his best friend since kindergarten is Kamden Houshan.  Kamden was born with a tumour on his T2 and T3 vertebras and he is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair.  The problem…

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Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Big Brother IS Watching …

A very important and deeply disturbing piece.

Filosofa's Word

Big Brother is watching us all … and his name, at least one of his names, is Google.  Let me tell you a little story.

eyesJane Doe wanted a new pair of shoes.  She had in mind a pair of Reebok sneakers in white with light blue trim.  Jane goes on line and puts a few key words into a search engine, probably Google.  A number of options are listed including on-line sites such as Amazon, and also listed are stores near Jane’s home.  Wanting to try on the shoes for a good fit, Jane decides against the on-line sites and chooses a store or two near home.  On Saturday, Jane picks up her wallet and cell phone and heads to the first store.  They do not have the colour she wants, so she goes to the second store, finds exactly what she wants on sale, so she happily pays…

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Population Control

I recently returned from a brief sojourn to the North Shore of Minnesota where the sun is always shining and the temperatures are pleasant. It is truly beautiful. We met my wife’s brother in St. Cloud and drove up together to spend a few days hiking and visiting. It was delightful — though the return to home base with the temperatures in the 90s, the humidity off the charts, and the lawn burned out from the prolonged drought was a bit of a shock.

In any event, on the return trip we had to wait a while in St. Cloud for the train to arrive to take my brother-in-law back to hot and steamy Montana and we turned on the television in the motel room and watched a National Geographic special that touched on a timely topic: world population.

Now I have blogged on this in the past and have made my position clear: exploding human population is in my view the major problem facing the future of this planet — especially if, as expected, food production is adversely affected by global warming. But this program revealed an apparent truth I was unaware of, and that is that population in “developed nations” has dropped and is predicted to drop even further. The program focused on Japan where the country has taken it upon itself an effort to induce young Japanese couples to marry and procreate. It was mentioned that in Russia a young couple is given a refrigerator by the State if they have a child! In any event, there is concern among a number of those countries that their populations are dropping off and that this is a trend that will continue.

One would think this is very good news indeed — declining human populations are a good thing, surely! But it raises a provocative question: why would the countries by worried and making various attempts to provide incentives to young people to have more children? The answer is glaringly obvious once you think about the problem a bit: it’s all about the economy. These countries want bodies that will work, earn money, pay taxes, and buy things they don’t need. Fewer people endanger an economy that requires people to earn and spend.

Joseph Schumpeter, whom I have referenced in earlier blogs, predicted in the 1940s that capitalism would fail not because of the rise of the Proletariat as Marx predicted, but from its own successes. In a word, as young people become more affluent and more self-absorbed they would become more and more calculating (“rationalizing” was his word) in their approach to life and would decide that children would only be a deterrent to the satisfaction of their desires and they would wait to get married and have fewer and fewer children — if they had any at all.

As Schumpeter himself put it, young people

 “. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.” Moreover, they would think, “why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

As a result, Schimpeter predicted, population in those countries that depended on capitalism would see a decline in population and this would eventually cripple the economy. This, of course, explains why the “developed” countries are worried about the decline in human populations in their countries. It’s all about the money.

In sum, it would appear that reduced human populations would be a blessing as far as the preservation of the planet and the reduction of a great many of the global problems humans face at present, but if it hurts the pocketbook then it must be discouraged.

 

Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

LEARNING FROM GREAT POETS
I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

TRUE FREEDOM
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.