A Modern Parable

Harry Jones is a happily married man with two kids and a good job. He is an investment counselor and very good at his job. He is living the American dream and doing very well, so well he has a cabin on a lake and an RV he and his family take to Colorado every Summer. He is putting money away for the kids’ college because he knows the costs are rising and despite the fact that his daughter, at least, is sure to get a scholarship she will get married and want a big wedding. So it is a good idea to be ready for whatever the future might bring. He works hard, loves his job, takes his family to church every Sunday and regards himself as a good Christian. By most standards, he is a happy and successful man.

On a business trip Harry happens to pick up the Gideon’s Bible in the table at his bedside in the Motel and starts to read. He has always half-listened to the sermons at Church and thinks he pretty well knows what his religion demands of him. He regards himself as a good man, certainly better than many he knows. The minister is a good one, though he seems more intent on making his flock feel good about themselves than getting them all riled up. Harry likes him for that. But what he is reading sends chills down his spine. He is reading in St. Matthew and he reads what the Lord said about wealth and the blessedness of the poor. This is not sitting at all well with Harry. He is especially put off by the notion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And especially disturbing is the passage “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” He has never thought much about heaven, or about death in fact. But he isn’t getting any younger and he certainly doesn’t want to go to “that other place.” He is in a quandary. As he reads on he becomes more and more disturbed by the thought that he has been living a lie. He considers himself a good Christian, but he hasn’t been living the life Christ talked about in the New Testament. There it is right in front of him: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” That is precisely what he has been trying to do.

He feels like he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t have it both ways — either he gives away all his wealth and follows Christ, as the New Testament teaches, or he continues to pursue the American dream. He loves his job, loves the challenge of finding the right investment and seeing his clients do well. And he has to admit he likes the commissions that come his way. But the purpose of his life to this point has been to “serve Mammon.”  What is he to do?

Cultural Critics

One of the prevailing convictions in our culture is the notion that ethical and aesthetic values are relative if not to individuals at least to the cultures they are part of. That is, the things we say about other cultures are always traceable back to the values that predominate in our own culture. We are the products of a particular culture and that culture determines the way we look at all other cultures around the world. Thus, if I say the Polyglott males shouldn’t have eight wives that’s because our culture (for the most part) is monogamous, we believe one male for every female. We are a product of our culture and are therefore culture-bound.

There is some truth in this, of course, but again it is a half-truth. We are a product of our culture to an extent, some of us more than others. But our values are not necessarily determined by that culture.  Not only can we judge certain practices in other cultures, we can also turn our critical faculties on the very culture that produced us. And that would not be possible if our values were determined by that culture. There are some notable examples that prove this claim — Edith Wharton comes to mind.

Wharton was a product of “Old New York” in the late nineteenth century, born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She attended private schools, “came out” in high society, and married a wealthy man. She was a prime example of the small-world woman that culture produced, fixed upon the social graces and willing to spend her life making a home for her family, obedient to her husband. But it didn’t happen that way. She turned out to be one of the most astute and eloquent critics of her own narrow cultural upbringing, aware of all its weaknesses as well as its few abiding strengths. She even got a divorce, which simply “wasn’t done” in her social circles. Further, she was a superb writer, one of the very best writers America ever produced, male or female, in my view. But she was nothing if not an independent thinker — certainly not a product of her culture.

How could we explain Wharton’s ability to see the flaws within her own culture if we insisted that she was a product of that culture, simply? If her ideas and values were determined by those around her, she couldn’t have seen through them as clearly as she did. We now consider her one of the sharpest critics of her age. Yet she was a product of that age. The notion that we are all determined by our culture is clearly simplistic. It doesn’t allow us to explain the Edith Whartons — or people like Socrates who also saw the flaws in his own culture and made outrageous claims such as “one who harms another harms himself more than he harms the other.” No one had ever made such a claim before, certainly no one in Athens where it was generally felt that justice is determined by the stronger party and it is not only permissible to harm others but in most cases it is admirable — especially if they weren’t Athenians. Even more remarkable was Socrates’ pupil Plato who insisted that women could be philosopher kings, an idea even more radical in his day than in ours.

In a word, cultural relativism rests on a simplistic notion that all people who emerge from a particular culture are determined in their way of thinking by the values that are prevalent in that culture.  Cultural anthropologists call it “enculturation.” That may be true for a great many people in a particular culture, but it cannot be said for all. And the exceptions to the rule are those who think for themselves, those who are truly free — a group that may be small but is all-important if the culture is to thrive. The world needs critics, gadflies (as Socrates called himself), and malcontents. They keep the blood flowing and keep the culture alive. Even if they can be annoying at times.

Thus, once we agree that it is possible to escape the snares of our cultural upbringing to judge correctly our own culture’s unethical practices, it would seem to follow that we can turn our attention to other cultures as well. If we are not culture-bound, then the things we say about other cultures cannot be said to come from our cultural perspective, simply. That perspective colors our judgments, to be sure, but (again) it does not determine it. We have no firm moral grounds for saying the Polyglott shouldn’t have eight wives, but we have good grounds for saying that they should not attack other people and kill them simply because they live different lives. Those “grounds” are the ethical principles that separate us from the other animals and transcend cultural boundaries.

When Will We Ever Learn?

One of the great protest songs to come out of the Viet Nam war was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger. It has the haunting, repetitive line “When Will They Ever Learn?” that I want to modify slightly and borrow for a quite different purpose. I want to protest our unwillingness to pay attention to an environmental crisis that threatens to dwarf the Viet Nam War altogether. And it is made all the more disturbing by virtue of the fact that those who are in a position to do something are paying no attention whatever.

There are folks in this society, of course,  who care deeply about the fact that in our blind pursuit of filthy lucre we seem hell-bent on our own destruction as an animal species. I have touched on this in previous blogs and mentioned heroes like Danny DeVito who are doing something about it. There are hundreds like him, people who really care and are doing their best to stem the tide. But the tide will not be turned back until the majority of those with large pocketbooks start to pay attention. And right now, they are looking the other way — as are most of us.

Consider the fact that as we enter a presidential election year, there is little or no talk about the environment — from either political party. In polls the environment ranks fairly high in the concerns voters have expressed. But the politicians stay away from the topic as though it were poison. It’s upsetting and not likely to get them elected no matter where they stand on the issue. The reason, of course, is that the issue has been juxtaposed to jobs by the media, and especially by the special interests. The claim is that we cannot take serious steps to save the environment without “costing” the nation hundreds if not thousands of jobs. This is pure bollocks, as the English would say.

The economy will continue to take center stage, as well it should. But the notion that we cannot try to save the environment and create jobs at the same time is nonsense. That fiction may eventually be written on our gravestones. Jobs can be created within the renewable energy industry which at present suffers from lack of adequate funding. Without adequate funding, those who seek to take steps to become energy independent must pay through the nose and few can afford it. Without major tax credits and government subsidies, the small industries that produce wind and solar alternatives, for example, cannot possibly bring the prices of their products down to the levels where they are affordable by more than the very few.

The environment has gotten bad press, and “environmentalism” has become a pejorative term. Together they are seen as the villains in a political game of shuttlecock where there is some talk and even some real concern, but no one really wants to do anything about the problem.  That is, no one who can do something about it. The shuttlecock just keeps getting batted back and forth. Or it is ignored altogether as we turn our attention elsewhere.

There are dozens of things each of us can do, of course, from trying to get those few politicians elected who are willing to take on the tough issues, to turning down our thermostats in the Winter, to recycling, to driving economical cars (or better yet, walking, cycling, car-pooling, or taking public transportation). And we can support “green” companies. Such steps may not take us far enough fast enough, however. Unless there is profit in it for the fat-cat corporations, or until the government (which is largely supported by the fat cats) wakes up and gets seriously involved, or until enough people get pissed off and lean hard on the politicians, little more will be done. And at this point, the fat cats are too preoccupied with short-term profits to see any real potential in earth-saving industries. And the government is too worried about what the fat cats want to do. And the majority of Americans simply don’t care. My guess is that we will sputter along ignoring the problem, and accusing people like me of being nay-sayers and Chicken-Littles, until the problem becomes so big it can no longer be ignored. To quote another environmental hero, Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green, “We can either all rise up or all go down together.”

The Best Years

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire uses on the sit-com “Modern Family” to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of almost continuous partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, unadulterated pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my day, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. I don’t think I ever heard them talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist. They might change slightly, but they will be created in order to lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

In addition to being a place to make new friends and have fun, the young need college to be what it is supposed to be. But it won’t happen as long as the myths prevail and the colleges keep lowering their expectations, giving the young what they have come to expect from a culture that is focused on “wants” rather than “needs.”

State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature to be a condition we were all in before the rise of political states. He described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The basic emotion shared by all in the state of nature is fear. The purpose of political states is to keep us all in awe of the Sovereign and therefore at peace with one another. While other political theorists, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau borrowed the notion of a primitive state of humans prior to the formation of political states, none imagined the condition to be quite as unsettling as Hobbes did. For the most part, Hobbes’ notion was dismissed out of hand.

But what about the relationship among nation-states themselves? Might it not be possible to make a case that nations are in a state of nature such as Hobbes describes with respect to one another, though not quite so bleak? Just consider the current disposition of nuclear weapons among the nations and think what their possession means to the various nations that possess them — and especially to those who do not possess them. Also, consider the fact that concern over the possibility that bellicose nations such as Iran seem on the brink of having such weapons has struck fear in the rest of the world — a fear that has driven other nations to express outrage.

But, when you think about it, it may well be that the possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers is what keeps nations from one another’s throat. At least, that is a possibility, and our hope. But there is also the possibility that as nuclear weapons proliferate the likelihood that a nuclear exchange will take place increases. There are currently eight nations (possibly nine) with nuclear weapons in their possession — the United States leading the pack with 10,300 such weapons at last count (!). It is ironic that the nations that have yelled loudest at the thought that Iran might be in possession of nuclear weapons control the majority of such weapons worldwide. Ignoring the fact that this is the height of hypocrisy, concern is legitimate when a nation that has openly expressed its antipathy toward the rest of the world seems about to possess nuclear weapons.

The defense that Iran, or any other country, is simply developing nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes is irrelevant, since 4 out of 6 countries with nuclear power capacity also have nuclear weapons. One seems to lead to the other. Another way of looking at this is to note that the six countries with the most nuclear power plants control 97% of all nuclear weapons worldwide. But whether or not the fact that a country has nuclear power leads invariably to the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is correct in wanting to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and resist the attempts by any more countries to get them.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers like those in the U.S. is morally indefensible. This is especially true when not long ago an American President was reportedly contemplating the use of “low yield” nuclear weapons as a first strike option in the Iraq war [Hint: Not the sitting President; his predecessor.]. It has generally been assumed that such weapons would only be regarded as deterrents to war, or at worst retaliatory, never as the first option in a war. The mere suggestion is marginally insane, as indeed is the buildup of such weaponry itself.

In any event, it is reasonable to say that nations in our nuclear age exist in a state of nature in relation to one another. Thus, one might well follow Hobbes in suggesting that what the world needs is a Sovereign, a world government with punitive powers to keep the nations at bay. If any single nation ever seriously considers the use of such weapons as a first-strike option, the case for such a world government is all the stronger. Hobbes insisted that bellicose individuals needed a Sovereign they would fear more than they feared one another.  As things now stand, the obvious choice to play this role is the United Nations, but at present, the United Nations is a toothless tiger. If we are to follow Hobbes’ lead, the tiger must be armed and fearsome and probably relocated in a neutral country.  Perhaps this is what the world needs to get along in a nuclear age.

True Heroes

Every age needs its heroes. The Greeks had Achilles the manly warrior who was flawed but able to overcome his deficiencies when the chips were down. We have our football players and professional athletes who also clearly have flaws but are able to prevail on the field — if they aren’t in jail. Oh, and we have our movie stars who live very public lives. The firemen and policemen and women who risk their lives are a better bet, as are those in the armed forces who risk their lives to protect our way of life. But, then, what is being protected for the most part are corporate interests and most of those people were either drafted or are paid to do a job. They are certainly admirable, but I prefer those who quietly and voluntarily make sacrifices to buck the tide and further the general welfare of all of us who share this planet.

One such person who is a hero in my view is Danny DeVito who is interviewed in this month’s Sierra magazine. DeVito plays the voice of The Lorax in the new Dr. Seuss movie. He is also a staunch environmentalist who realizes that (as he says) “we have maybe fifty years to get this right.” He drives an electric car and plans to install solar panels on his house so he is using less electricity generated by nuclear power or coal-burning plants. He owned an electric car before it was “hip,” in the late 1990s “then the powers that be decided it wasn’t good for the oil companies, and they took it away from us.” He knows who the true villains are in this drama we are living through. And he knows what needs to be done.

One would like to think the new Dr. Seuss movie will open the eyes of our children to the fact that as they grow up they will need to do whatever they can to repair some of the damage their parents and grandparents have done to the planet. They will have even less time to do so. This is not to say that there are not more heroes like DeVito who are doing their best right now. There certainly are — just not enough of them.  I have a friend who became the third customer of a company in the Twin Cities to install solar panels on his garage to supplement the electricity he draws from N.S.P. He watches it like a hawk and delights to see the sun taking money out of the pockets of the corporations. We need more people like this, and we need to modify our notion of what makes a person a hero. It certainly doesn’t need to be the football player or the sports star. It doesn’t even need to be a man. In fact, there are a great many women in our culture who are truly heroic in their day-to-day struggle to survive in a man’s world where the cultural role models are totally unlike themselves. Our notion of what makes a person admirable needs to be brought up to date.

In the Dr. Seuss movie, taken from the book, the antagonist Once-ler (a financial titan who sells cans of fresh air) is, according to DeVito, “simply misguided, taken in by his commercial ability to make Thneeds [‘a Fine-Something-That-Everyone-Needs,’ which require cutting down the forests].” There lies the ugly truth about our urge to increase wealth no matter the cost. In the end, the message calls for individual responsibility (there’s a new idea!) by saying “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This is a message we can take to heart, and the man who wrote it — not to mention the man whose voice is that of the main character — is truly heroic.

Politics Left and Right

I once read that the psychological profile of a policeman and an habitual criminal are remarkably similar. This says something important about policemen or about criminals — or about psychological profiling! It may be the latter, but I have always thought there is a  resemblance in so many ways between the types of persons who are attracted to either end of the political extremes — right or left. In reading about those on the far right recently, I was struck once again by their resemblance to those on the far left.

In an article he wrote to distinguish political conservatives from those on the far right of the political spectrum, Mike Lofgren paints a rather frightening picture of right-wing personality types. Those on the far right “lack compassion.” Further, they are single-minded to the point of blindness. As Lofgren notes, “their minds appear to have no more give and take than that of a terrier staring down a rat hole.” That is, their thinking (such as it is) tends toward what logicians call “bifurcation,” all issues are either black or white — and of course their own view is white. This, coincidentally, explains the popularity of such ideologues as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. In this regard, they are anti-intellectual to a fault, suspicious of anyone who uses their mind, and while many call for the dissolution of government in the name of “freedom,” they really want protection and, of course, laws that prohibit things they find distasteful. As Lofgren notes in this regard, “Freedom is his prerogative to rid himself of people who are different, or who unsettle him. [Ironically] freedom is merging into a like-minded herd. Right-wing alchemy transforms freedom into authoritarianism.”

We might tend to think attitude toward authority is one point that separates the anarchist from the right-winger, the former rejecting out of hand anyone who is in a position of authority, the right-winger clinging to those strong leaders who will protect them. But not so. Both exhibit what psychologists characterize as “the Fascist personality.”

The fascist personality was described by Wilhelm Reich in 1933 as one who “craves authority and rebels against it at the same time.” This could describe folks on either extreme of the political spectrum: they follow blindly any ideologue who seems willing to lead them where they want to go — wherever that might happen to be.  Most, if not all, of the personality traits attributed to right-wingers by Lofgren can be applied to those on the far left as well. While we tend to think of those on the far left as “loners,” psychologists such as Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman who have studied the anarchistic personality point out that these people exhibit “an inverted form of authoritarian personality.” They both crave and hate authority. One begins to see indications of the narcissistic personality here.

Most interesting is the consideration that while right-wingers are “joiners” and those on the far left tend to be loners, both are attracted to strong personality types and willingly follow orders unthinkingly. In fact, the word “unthinking” applies equally to both types of personality.

While those on the political left wing seem preoccupied with a single political issue, usually what they call the “right to bear arms,” those on the far right focus on one narrow political issue as well, namely abortion or what they call “the right to life” — while they cheer speeches that promote executions of those on death row or “the prospect of someone dying without health insurance.” Consistency is not a feature of the mindset on either political extreme. Once again, we are back to the fact that neither personality type thinks at all: they just follow their emotions wherever they lead, and attach themselves to the nearest authority figure who pledges to deliver them to the promised land.

Estimates vary as to how many of these types occupy the political stream, but those on the far right could be as high as 40% of those who identify themselves as “Republicans,” though “in some key political contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, the percentage is closer to 60%.” Whatever the percentage, they are very well-organized and have considerable political clout. Those on the far left are anything but organized and tend to withdraw from the political stream altogether and become reclusive, banding together in small, anti-social groups (but note, once again, the inconsistency. In this case the  tendency to reject social groups while becoming a member of a group).

In a word, the people at both ends of the political extremes of this country resemble one another more than they differ. And, despite the fact that we tend to use words like “conservative” and “liberal” without really knowing what they mean, we should not confuse those on the political extremes as belonging to either group. They are a breed apart — or together, if you prefer.

Self-Destruction

History has recorded a number of civilizations that have committed suicide. One of the theories about the collapse of the pre-Columbian Maya, for example, is that they destroyed the forests that surrounded them and also sustained them. When the forests were gone, the people died out or were largely absorbed by other cultures.

Wallace Stegner wrote a most interesting book about his years as a child on the Canada/U.S. border which includes fascinating historical, geological, and geographical information. It also focuses on the plight of the plains Indians who peopled that area for so many years, especially toward the end of the Indian wars when many tribes sought sanctuary in Canada from the avowed American policy of extermination. Despite the fact that the Americans practiced genocide on a grand scale, Stegner makes a good case that the Indians themselves contributed to their own downfall by destroying the environment that sustained them — by killing off the buffalo, for example. Granted, they had considerable assistance in this destruction from buffalo hunters and white “sportsmen.” But native practices such as driving whole herds of buffalo off the edge of cliffs, coupled with such common practices as having each member of a hunting party of the métis killing six or eight buffalo “from which his women would take the tongues and hump ribs and leave the rest, even the hides,” most assuredly helped bring the end to thousands of Indians themselves. As Stegner points out, the men surveying the Canadian/U.S. border witnessed this sort of mindless slaughter and working their way “across the arid cactus plain . . . pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.” In a word, history repeatedly shows us humans bent on self-destruction, destroying the environment that sustains them. Does this sound familiar? Consider some of the things we have done to ourselves just this past year alone, in a year when the planet experienced record-high temperatures and human populations continued to spiral out of control:

At present 4 out of 10 power plants in this country have no advanced emissions controls despite EPA limits on such emissions.

Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to protect its burgeoning tar sands oil developments.

Russian government documents revealed that the country spills 5 million tons of oil a year — equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizon disasters annually. Shell Oil, in the meantime, spilled 13,400 gallons of gasoline and drilling fluid into the Gulf of Mexico  and more than 100 times as much oil off the coast of Nigeria. Despite this, the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9 percent last year, the largest jump in any year since the start of the industrial revolution.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States suffered a record dozen climate disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more each.

Arnold Toynbee, in his remarkable Study of History examined 21 separate civilizations he marked out from the beginnings of recorded history, 16 of which have disappeared. He determined that there are definite rhythms that recur in each of those civilizations and that the disappearance of each followed definite causes — many of them self-inflicted. One of the major causes, according to Toynbee, is the fact that “a challenge arises which the civilization in question fails to meet.”  Toynbee’s own conclusion was that our civilization is showing definite signs of deterioration and it can be saved only by recovering “the use of a spiritual faculty which we have been doing our utmost to sterilize.” Whether or not we agree with Toynbee, it is clear that we currently face innumerable challenges and the failure to meet those challenges can be catastrophic. Meeting them begins with awareness. And this begins by reading history and learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of past civilizations that have come and gone — in many cases as a result of their own fixation on immediate needs with no thought for tomorrow.

Expertise

Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831 and stayed for only nine months. At the end of that time he wrote his Democracy in America which has become a classic. Even today we marvel at the man’s astute and penetrating observations of the customs and behavior of the Americans he watched so carefully. One of the things he was struck by was our love of “equality.” As de Tocqueville says, “I think democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

What this means, I take it, is that we don’t want anyone else to be thought any better than we are ourselves. If anyone dares to presume to be superior to us in any way, we are quick to bring them back down to earth. The notion of moral equality, which is a powerful idea and central to our entire judicial system, has expanded to involve a general leveling down, a sameness of persons that refuses to admit that anyone can be regarded as in any sense whatever superior to any one else. This, of course, is absurd. It is called “egalitarianism,” and it has swept this country and Europe as well. Ortega y Gasset talks about it at some length in his Revolt of the Masses.

One of the notions that has been dismissed in our insistence that no one is any better than anyone else is the notion of expertise. I have touched on this notion in previous blogs, but it deserves a more thorough discussion. An expert is one who is supposed to know something the rest of us don’t know. When, in the spirit of egalitarianism, we insist that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, that my opinion is just as deserving of serious attention as yours — no matter who you are — we may have taken things a step too far. I recall some years ago one of my students balking at something Socrates said in a dialogue we were reading. I wanted him to expand on his notion that Socrates was somehow wrong in what he said, but the student couldn’t get past the notion that “it was just Socrates’ opinion.” The student also had his opinion which he was certain was just as weighty as that of a man who had thought about the matter for more than sixty years. Yet he could give no reasons. He thought none were necessary!

I mentioned in a previous blog the expertise of the physician, which we seldom question — though as our age becomes more and more litigious this profession may be brought down to our level as well. But at this time it remains a cut above the rest of us. Also, the automobile mechanic, though here again, skepticism has led us to question the trustworthiness of our local mechanic, whether or not he is being completely honest with us. But, for the most part, we acknowledge expertise in a few  areas. Very few. I would argue that we must allow it in a great many more.

When Scot Hamilton tells me that the triple toe loop I just witnessed was not up to par, I should listen. He knows whereof he speaks. He sees more than I do (or can, even in slow motion). Troy Aikman tells me something every Sunday during football season I didn’t know, pointing out things going on the field I never saw until he pointed to them. After only nine months, de Tocqueville became an expert on the American political system and the customs of the people of this country. The list goes on. There are people who have much greater experience, more extensive knowledge, and heightened sensitivity and deeper insight that enlarges their world. One of the reasons de Tocqueville’s book is regarded as a classic is because he saw so much so clearly. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but he was right more often than not. To refuse to listen to these people on the grounds that they are “no better” than I am (which is confusing and almost certainly irrelevant) is to close off part of my world and shrink it down to a fraction of what it might be.

Our love of equality, our determination to bring the lofty down to our level, is understandable and certainly warranted in courts of law or moral discourse. But it is misplaced in the real world where there are people more intelligent, more experienced, more sensitive, than ourselves. We really should listen to what they have to say. We might learn something.

Sit-Com Philosophy

My wife and I wait eagerly each week for the newest version of “The Big Bang Theory.” In the interim we watch re-runs that we have stored on the DVR, so much so that we can say the lines with the actors. Very funny stuff! It has some of the cleverest writing I have come across on TV and Jim Parsons is the best comic actor I have ever seen. He makes a humorless, self-absorbed character almost likeable. Almost. And when they bring in Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon Cooper’s mother it makes our day. She is perfectly cast as the spiritually certain Texas mother of the brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper.

The episodes often provide food for thought as well, and Sheldon is a wealth of information, much of which his friends find boring (as do many in the audience, I dare say). But it is remarkably well done. One such episode struck me as worthy of extended comment. It appeared at the beginning of a new season when Sheldon and his three friends return from the North Pole where they have spent three months doing research to substantiate one of Sheldon’s theories.

Sheldon is walking on air as they return to the apartment because he is convinced the data prove him right and he has already announced his triumph to the scientific world  and he now awaits the inevitable Nobel prize which will give his life new meaning. But, as it happens, the data that “proves” his hypothesis was provided by the three friends using the static produced by the electric can opener. When Sheldon finds out, he is humiliated and furious. He is disgraced in the eyes of his peers and must write a detraction which, for him, is a gargantuan task. In a giant pout, he quits his job and returns to Texas and his mother.

During the entire episode, Sheldon’s attempt to put the blame for his humiliation on the shoulders of his three friends raises questions about his willingness to take responsibility for his own actions. It is true that they provided him with flawed date, but he is the one who spread the word about his latest scientific triumph. It never occurs to him that he is in any way responsible for the public humiliation one could say he brought upon himself. He didn’t have to shoot his mouth off! To make matters worse, his friends seem willing to accept the blame, though this is a comic device that makes the episode funny. If they confronted Sheldon with the fact that he is the one responsible for his own humiliation, it wouldn’t get laughs. And I dare say the character would deny it: he’s very good at that. But it would be true. One hears echoes of Todd Blackledge’s attempts to shift blame for Joe Paterno’s recent behavior at Penn State to the media when Paterno refused to take action upon learning that his assistant coach was seen abusing a young boy in the team showers. Only this episode is funny, Blackledge’s rationalization is borderline absurd. But the point is the same: actions have consequences, though we want to deny it.

In the end, we really ought to focus in on the fact that the freedom we prize so highly brings with it a responsibility to accept the consequences of our free choices. You can’t have freedom (even as we understand that term) without responsibility. And vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. In this comic episode, Sheldon has made his bed but he refuses to lie in it. That can be funny when his friends go along with his dementia, but it sends the wrong message. Sheldon is a study in asperger’s syndrome, a condition that renders the subject unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He is so immersed in himself he is barely aware of others at all. As his roommate Leonard says Sheldon is “irony impaired” — a characteristic of this type of personality. (Leonard, by the way, is played by Johnny Galecki who is, unfortunately, talent-impaired in an otherwise gifted cast.) Sheldon must learn “social protocols” constantly just to muddle through a quasi-normal public life. That makes for terrific humor when handled by the likes of Jim Parsons. But it is just possible that we all share Sheldon’s condition to a degree in our self-absorption and our inability to acknowledge responsibility for our actions, not to mention the urge to find someone else to blame for our own mistakes.