Senator Gone Amuck?

I have always kind of liked John McCain. I respected him as a man of principle though I thought him a bit too hawkish. I have never doubted his sincerity, but sincerity is not enough: Eichmann was sincere after all. One must also be aware of moral and, in this case, international implications. McCain’s trip to Syria raises serious questions about his sanity — and it may also raise constitutional questions about the role of Senators in international politics. A recent story tells us a disturbing fact about his current trip:

BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. Senator John McCain was photographed during a trip to Syria with a man implicated in the kidnapping by Syrian rebels of 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims a year ago, a Lebanese newspaper said on Thursday.

McCain, a Republican, has been an outspoken advocate for U.S. military aid to the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and made a short, highly publicised trip to meet rebel commanders in Syria three days ago.

He has insisted that the United States could locate the “right people” to help among rebel ranks infiltrated with radicalized Islamists.

One must wonder who the “right people” are that McCain is speaking about. And what possible grounds could he have for talking about those “people” — despite official government statements to the contrary? McCain would apparently have the rebels believe that they may get official sanction and considerable monetary support from this country. It is not the place of Senators to play this kind of role in foreign policy. One is reminded of Dennis Rodman and his clown diplomacy with North Korea. Is McCain going to ask the rebels to do him a “solid” and take out the recognized government of Syria, which is currently supported by Russia — presumably our ally? Surely this borders on the comical, if not the bizarre.

In a word, even if his convictions about whom the United States should support are on firm grounds, McCain has no business whatever consorting with the rebels on behalf of the United States. Though he can tell them he has no official endorsement, he will surely be regarded by those rebels who desperately want U.S. aid as an official of the United States government.  One can assume that these rebels will now expect to get the aid the man has virtually promised. Though current policy might well change any day,  one must wonder what sort of situation will be created by “the right people” flying in the face of official government policy to aid rebels in a cause that their government has failed to fully embrace.

Barack Obama has been a disappointment as President of late and his policy toward Syria is complex if not incoherent. And the Congress becomes a bigger laughing-stock each day. They seem to play no role whatever except that of obstructionists who are determined to cripple the country if necessary in order to make the President look bad. But for a U.S. Senator who has run for President to take it upon himself to go to a foreign country and consort with known international criminals in the name of the United States is a new sort of low, even for American politicians. I cannot help but recall Henry Adams’ concern that the U.S. Senate was given too much power by the Constitution. He hoped that when Grant was elected President he would straighten things out. But Grant got caught up in a scandal of his own and showed himself to be an incompetent President. So the changes Adams hoped for never materialized. But even in his worst dreams, Adams wouldn’t have predicted that a U.S. Senator would take it upon himself to visit a foreign country and make overtures to a group that has yet to receive any official recognition from the government that the Senator presumably represents. This must be a diplomatic nightmare that Obama and John Kerry must somehow extricate themselves from.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to make excuses for these people. They really do appear to be as stupid and inept as we all thought in our worst nightmares. I’m with Adams here: there ought to be major changes in the Constitution to limit the power of the Senate and allow us to remove those in government who have shown themselves incapable of governing. Indeed, if such were possible there would be very few remaining after the house-cleaning.

Teaching The Kids

One of my fellow bloggers who calls himself “Mindful Stew” has been involved in a most interesting discussion of academic discipline — teaching the kids the right way. Most of the comments on his blog have come from teachers, or former teachers, and they have some very interesting things to say about how best to teach the young. The hard nut to crack that lies at the center of the discussion is the question of discipline. As I read these comments I admire the teachers who have a very tough row to hoe with little pay and no thanks. But it also occurs to me that there are two sorts of discipline and we don’t always keep them separate.

To begin with there is what we might call “behavioral discipline” which focuses on keeping order in the classroom so that teaching can take place. As parents increasingly shunt their spoiled kids off to the schools, this is becoming an increasingly difficult problem. It is no longer acceptable to use corporal punishment and, in fact, if a teacher so much as lays a hand on the child there will be serious repercussions — as perhaps (allowing for over-reaction on the part of parents and authorities) there should be. One of Stew’s contributors, Chris Corrie, had a lengthy comment on the subject and he is clearly attempting to find a middle ground between harsh, sit up straight and shut your mouth discipline, and fawning, raise their self-esteem entitlement where the child is told that nothing he does could possibly be wrong. Indeed, “wrong” is a word that we simply don’t use any more. In any event, a portion of Chris’ comment is worth pondering:

Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

I cannot quarrel with Chris except to point out that we all had problems growing up and it is not clear that today’s youth have any more than we did — especially given the fact that they have so many ways to divert their attention from the serious problems that their parents and elders all face daily. It is not clear, from what I have read and seen first hand, that these kids are deeply troubled about the state of the economy or the future of the planet, for example. We may simply assume that since there are so many problems the kids must be aware of them. This is a highly debatable assumption. But in any event, there is another sort of discipline that gets overlooked in this discussion and I attribute that to the shift in the thirties of the last century from subject-oriented teaching to child-oriented teaching, the birth of “progressive education.” That sort of discipline is mental discipline and I found a very nice statement of just what that is in a Japanese novel (of all places) entitled Naomi by Junicherio Tanizaki. In that novel the hero a 26-year-old man who is attempting to teach a young girl English is having troubles and finally decides it is not worth his time. In reflecting on the problem, he has the following suggestion:

“Why do boys study geometry and algebra in middle school? The objective is not so much to provide them with a practical tool, as it is to cultivate their ability to use their minds with precision.”

Indeed, this is the heart of the situation: in our preoccupation with behavioral discipline we have lost sight of mental discipline which, I would argue, is what education is all about. Education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds, enabling them to use their minds to think and speak coherently, to “use their minds with precision.” But, as Chris and others remind us, we must never forget that these kids are children and bring emotional baggage to school with them and in order to help train their young minds we must first get their attention. There’s the challenge!

Let It All Hang Out

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can find anyone to listen that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a situation that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

 “I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible — the redirecting of creative energy outward. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also struck by the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Road Rage

Since we live in a very small town with very little in the way of grocery stores, my wife and I almost always drive to the larger (small) town of Marshall nearby. It normally takes us about 20 minutes because we like to take a county road that runs in a small river valley through which the Redwood River flows (more nearly the “Redwood Brook,” but folks in the Midwest don’t know about brooks). On our trips we are always alert for wildlife. A pair of eagles nests in the region year-round and we often see them and their offspring. We have also seen a great many deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, raccoons, box turtles on the pond (when it’s not dry), and the occasional snapping turtle. In addition, there is always a host of bird life. The trip, as I say, is supposed to take about 20 minutes but it can often take twice that long, depending on what’s going on in the river valley. We always come armed with binoculars and drive slowly through that area.

Not long ago we had stopped on the road to watch a group of wild turkeys. I must admit I had been driving very slowly and had failed to check my rear-view mirror because the turkeys were putting on a show and the road hardly ever has anyone else on it so traffic is seldom a problem — which is one of the reasons we take the road. But this time I was alarmed by loud shouting, including profanity, coming from a red pickup behind me that drove into the oncoming lane where the driver put down his cell phone and stopped to open his window and read me the riot act. Now bear in mind that this road is so seldom traveled that this man could sit there in the oncoming lane for 30 seconds or so to chew me out. He could have stayed longer.  But chew me out he did, to my everlasting humiliation and chagrin. I smiled and pulled out my AK-47 and shot him apologized, feeling sheepish and angry at one and the same time.

The point of this brief anecdote is to suggest that if I had an automatic weapon in my vehicle I can imagine myself sorely tempted to pull it out and at least threaten the man with it, which in retrospect would have been very stupid indeed.  He was being boorish and bellicose and my instinct was to respond in kind — and I am not a violent person. I don’t like confrontation and I wouldn’t ordinarily think about shooting a pheasant or a wild turkey, much less another human being. But he was way out of line, given the situation, and at that moment I could imagine doing just that. In fact, I can see why people who carry weapons use them and it makes me more concerned than ever that our gun laws are so lax and that so many people are not only able but eager to carry a loaded weapon with them wherever they go.  It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of gun deaths in this country will continue to escalate, to the dismay of those survivors who have to attend the funerals of their loved ones killed by a hand gun — and to the delight of the gun manufacturers who are reaping such huge profits from our collective stupidity, anger, and fear.

Good Books

There is an ongoing quarrel in academia about whether or not a book can be called “great.” The postmodern critics who have taken control of the academy and now edit the journals and determine the curricula insist that so-called “great” books are simply books written by dead, white, European, males and as evidence of pervasive male hegemony the same books are continually selected to be read by captive college audiences of young people who don’t know any better, thereby assuring that they will think like those who went before them.  Since there is clearly a political agenda involved, it is said, let the agenda be one that is approved by the postmodernists themselves. So it goes. I have argued in print against this point of view and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn any more. I think it is tiresome, academic exercise and the result is that young people no longer read the classics.  In any event, perhaps we can at least agree that there are “good” books.

One such book is part of the “masterful tetralogy” The Sea of Fertility written by Yukio Mishima. In the second of these books, the hero, young Isao Iinuma, is an idealistic ultra-conservative in Japan prior to the Second World War at a time when Japan is in a depression and the hero is convinced the nation — and especially the Emperor — can only be saved by people like himself from the “barbarians” from the West who are busily imposing their materialism on Japan. He forms a group of like-minded young men and they target a number of leading figures who, Isao is convinced, are determined to bring Japan to ruin in the name of industrial capitalism and higher profits for themselves. As I read this bells were going off all over the place, and especially when I read Isao’s assessment of the man he regarded as enemy #1, Kurahara, an immensely wealthy capitalist who is described by the narrator as “”the unmistakable incarnation of a capitalism devoid of national allegiance. If one wanted to portray the frightening image of a man who loved nothing, there was no better model than Kurahara.”

I pondered the descriptive phrase “capitalism devoid of national interest” and thought of the many wealthy Americans who think only of themselves and not of their fellow citizens. Their attitude works its insidious way through society by way of those wealthy few who have bought themselves politicians who answer to their every whim. I have had a problem with capitalism ever since I read R.H. Tawney’s classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in college. I was struck by Tawney’s conviction that there is an inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity, and have for years wondered how on earth this country, which insists that it has its roots in Christianity could embrace free-market capitalism — an economic system that stresses selfishness finding a home in the bosom of a religion that stresses selflessness. But Mishima’s point does not focus on capitalism, per se, it focuses on “capitalism devoid of national interest.” That is, Isao’s target is a man who “loves nothing,” who embodies the ideal of capitalist selfishness, who has no interest whatever in the well-being of his country or the people who live there.

Is it only me, or does this ring bells with you as well?

Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers (like the Koch brothers) to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

Cheap And Mean

I have remarked in previous posts about a pet peeve of mine, to wit, the tendency of wealthy athletes to keep a tight grip on their money and rarely give any of it away to worthy causes.  I  noted exceptions to the rule. But I also made mention of Phil Mickelson’s outrage when confronted by the fact that the state in which he lives — California — had the audacity to pass a law requiring the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. He even threatened to move. Heaven forbid that the money should go to things like education, health care, and police and fire protection! That would be a dangerous precedent indeed.

There are exceptions, as I have noted, though they do tend to target causes that are close to the athlete’s heart — such as Ernie Els’ devotion to the cause of autistic children because he has one of his own. There are also those who seem to be able to see beyond their own noses, such as young Rickie Fowler, the golfer who looks like a cartoon character with flat-brimmed golf caps color-coordinated with his entire outfit, which is almost always in a garish colors, such as bright orange. The young man does seem to want to call attention to himself. But he also wants to do good with his money as he did recently at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Ft. Worth, Texas when he pledged $100,000 of his own money for tornado relief in Oklahoma. At the time the announcement was made we were also told that a group of five golfers (who will remain nameless out of a sense of decency) pledged $100.00 for every birdie and $200.00 for every eagle they collectively scored at the tournament.

Two things bother me about this latter “pledge.” To begin with, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Birdies are extremely rare and eagles are as well. This pledge is not unlike a person promising $1,000.00 to a charity predicated on his winning the lottery. These five golfers are playing the odds. The chances are very good this “pledge” will cost them nothing. But even if it did, the dollars they have pledged amount to petty cash. For men in their income bracket this is small change, something they could easily reach into their pockets and peel off without blinking an eye. Why would anyone make such a hollow pledge in the face of genuine human suffering? When there are people in real need so many of those who could help seem to turn the other way and check their bank accounts to make sure it hasn’t been diminished in any way by some foolish gesture they might have made after a couple of martinis. It does give one pause, since one might argue that those who are in a position to help others in need have a responsibility to do so. Indeed, I would argue this, which is why this sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine — as you may have guessed.

Alongside the generous, caring athletes like Fowler there are those who seem to have no conscience whatever and who even seem to be mocking those who genuinely care — in a world where and at a time when we need those who care for others more than ever.

Racism and Fried Chicken

You may (of may not) have heard about the brew-ha-ha between the professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods. They don’t like each other. That much is clear. After Tiger recently won the Players Championship Garcia complained that Woods had made noise drawing a club from his bag during Sergio’s back-swing — as he was about to hit his drive. Woods later said the Marshalls had told him Garcia had finished his stroke, though the Marshalls later denied having said anything (indeed, why should they say anything?). In any event, Woods complained that Garcia was “whining,” and when later asked if he had given any thought to picking up the phone and suggesting to Sergio that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot and they should have done with petty quarrels. Woods simply said, “No.” Soon after, Garcia was asked if he was going to have dinner with Woods and the following exchange took place that is now causing a bit of a storm:

COMMENTARY | Sergio Garcia crossed a line Monday he never should have toed.

At the European Tour’s annual gala dinner ahead of its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship in England, Garcia responded to a question asking if he would have dinner with Tiger Woods at next month’s U.S. Open at Merion.

His reply, according to The Guardian: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

The comment about “fried chicken” is universally regarded as racist, since it alludes to the preference for fried chicken that is stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Fuzzy Zoeller, a lesser player than Garcia, had made a similar comment in 1997 following the Masters Tournament and is still apologizing for it. It is hard to live such a thing down, and Sergio is now busy attempting to back-track, though one suspects we have not heard the last of it. The media will keep it alive as long as possible — perhaps even longer!

But it is hard to like Tiger Woods, despite the fact that he is perhaps the greatest golfer who has ever played the game. His life is an embarrassment, given his sexual preference for a variety of women other than the one he happened to be married to — who also happens to be the mother of his children. All signs suggest that he is a typical self-absorbed American athlete who cares about nothing but himself. He lives the grand life-style so many Americans identify with success and would love to emulate; this may explain his immense popularity, though, here again, we must wonder how people are able to separate the man’s wealth and athletic ability from his character and adulate a man whose every action suggests a dwarfed consciousness limited to self with little or no awareness, much less concern, for his fellow humans. His psychic makeup may be explained, I suppose, by his doting father and mother while an only child growing up and the attention that has been heaped on him subsequently — not to mention the millions of dollars he rakes in each year with his putter and his winning smile. But, again, America’s fascination with this man, who appears almost daily on sports shows even when he is playing badly, defies adequate explanation. In fact, America’s ability to separate an athlete’s on-field behavior from his off-field shenanigans and indiscretions does give one pause. Here again we come back to what makes a person worth admiring: do we really forgive a man or a woman anything if he or she happens to be good at hitting a ball, skiing downhill at breakneck speeds, or dodging would-be tacklers? It appears we do.

In any event, I’m not black, but I like fried chicken and would be happy to join Sergio for a meal. However, I have no desire whatever to sit down to a meal or even a casual chat with Tiger Woods. I don’t like what the man is even though I admire what he can do with a golf club. And it has nothing whatever to do with his race: it’s because of something Martin Luther King spoke about long ago; namely, “the content of his character.”

Adulating The Military

I have written a number of blogs about what does and what does not make a “hero.” We use the term a great deal these days, usually attaching it willy-nilly to those in the armed forces. But I would apply it to those, in and out of uniform, who choose to do difficult tasks quietly, often daily, and in the face of criticism from others. In fact, I would regard as heroic those few in uniform who risk court-martial by daring to question what they were asked to do as members of the armed forces supposedly in the line of what they are told is their “duty.” I do not choose to apply the word “hero” across the board to those in uniform. Many of those folks, especially those in combat, are indeed brave and risk their lives in the face of fierce opposition. But it is not clear that the cause they fight for is worth their risking their lives or, worse yet, dying for. Cynics might say that the “freedom” they protect is the freedom of corporations to make huge profits and that freedom never actually filters down to the rest of us who seem to wander about in confusion at the bottom of the pyramid of power.

Our tendency to adulate the soldier, to label those in camouflage who seem to be everywhere these days and who are touted as brave risk-takers, is disturbing and a bit stupid. We find them conspicuously present at nearly every professional sporting event; we are surrounded by countless yellow ribbons as part of the “Support Our Troops” campaign; we note the military’s sponsorship of high school sporting events such as the all-star football game every year; and we cannot avoid the countless references to our “heroes” on television in commercials for the armed forces and even for insurance! One might say we are inundated by messages depicting armed servicemen and women as central characters in a global melodrama in which they play a pivotal role in a war that has never been declared. As noted, there are those among the folks in uniform who do in fact take risks and with whom I would not choose to change places. But the vast majority of them do the mundane, everyday tasks of just muddling through and following orders for enough money to get by so they can complete their commitment and learn the skills required to get a paying job when they are back “outside.” Many have simply joined up because they didn’t know what else to do, or because they were sold a bill of goods by the recruiting sergeant (I know a couple of these myself), or because they simply wanted the enlistment bonus so they could buy a new truck (I also know a couple of those). In any event, while it is impossible to question the motivation of every individual who “joins up,” it is possible to attempt to keep a balanced perspective and realize that those in uniform are pretty much like those who are not in uniform — some are heroes, some are not; they are just doing their job and, like the rest of us, they may even hate it. We know, for example, that the suicide rate among those in the armed forces is unusually high and this is cause for alarm. But, then, the suicide rate among college students is also quite high and we cannot draw much in the way of a conclusion from either of these facts, except to find them disturbing. Perhaps it is simply the case that being young and having to face an uncertain future is becoming too great a burden for many in this crowded culture of ours.

But in the end, we would be well advised to remember that those in uniform are not necessarily any more “heroic” than the rest of us — in many cases less so than, say, the unmarried mother of three who has to take care of the house and raise her kids on starvation wages. We bandy about words like “heroic” at the risk of draining the word of all meaning and ignoring the fact that there are those who are truly heroic while others simply wear camouflage and go about in groups while we bow and scrape and sing their praises, assuming that they are all exceptional young men and women. In a word, the mindless adulation of a group who happens to wear a uniform is jingoistic and takes us part of the way toward a militaristic culture that simply assumes that those in uniform know what they are doing and that what they are doing should never be questioned by those “civilians” who must judge their actions from outside the group. It might be wise to remind ourselves from time to time that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (even George Washington) opposed the idea of a standing army on this continent, and with good reason.

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . .  Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.