Make-Believe

The recent revelations about Milwaukee Brewers baseball star Ryan Braun — that he did, in fact, take performance enhancing drugs — ends the charade surrounding this particular player and shifts attention elsewhere. But ESPN loves to drag the saga on as long as possible and they are fond of showing interviews with Braun from earlier this season in which he faces the camera squarely and with a sincere expression on his face swears “on my life” that “this substance never entered my body at any point.” It is superb acting in light of his subsequent admission and his suspension from baseball until next year. And apparently he had many people fooled, including his pal Aaron Rogers who bet a year’s salary before Braun’s admission that Braun was innocent of the charges. Someone apparently stands to come out $4.5 million dollars richer — if Rogers pays up.

In any event, the stench that surrounds professional sports, reeking of narcissism,  pretense, and dishonesty amid the drugs and performance-enhancers, has been written about and talked to death. What interests me more is the apparent fact that the men who face the cameras (and Congress) and swear on their lives they have never taken performance enhancing drugs actually seem to believe it when they are saying it. In a word, they seem to be living in a postmodern world in which narratives have replaced the truth. Say something often enough and it actually becomes the truth. What is the case is what we want to be the case in such a world. There is no objective truth — until the evidence becomes so heavy that even the most inveterate liar can no longer shift it aside. This is, indeed, a sign of our times and it may have started with Nixon leaving office to the tune of “I am NOT a crook!” I dare say he believed it.

Much of postmodern literary criticism hovers around the notion that literature — and history for that matter — is simply whatever we want it to be. Critics look for hidden messages and insist that all interpretations of the written word are possible and nothing is as it seems, and, as far as history in concerned, as the postmodernists would have it, “events always have to be reinterpreted to allow for current prejudices.” In the fog that surrounds much of this criticism, the notion that there are printed words on the page, that  there is an objective world “out there” and there are stubborn “facts” that simply will not go away, disappears. That is, it is forgotten or ignored. It seems to be a game academics play in order to keep their well-paying positions in prestigious universities while their students, who go deep into debt to pay for their classes, scratch their heads wondering what all the fuss is about — and plan the next party.

But when we leave the world of fiction, and even history (which many now insist is simply another form of fiction) and return to the real world we discover people who have fallen for the notion that reality is a construct and fiction is truth. If we say something often enough we come to believe it, if we hear it often enough it becomes a “fact,” and if we want something hard enough we will get it. One is reminded of the episode of Jerry Seinfeld in which Jerry wants to date a police woman who believes he watches “Melrose Place.” In order to persuade her he does not (though he does, in fact) he agrees to a lie-detector test. In order to figure out how to “beat” the lie-detector he asks his friend George how it can be done and George says, “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.” That line of thought seems to have become gospel among the worldly-wise these days.

It’s all about will-power, and the subject’s perception of his or her world.  Morality has been lost in this world, reduced to mere feelings, and the world itself has been reduced to a kaleidoscope of personal perspectives none of which is to be preferred –until we run headlong into the brick wall of an objective reality that simply does not allow of reconstruction or revision. This finally happened to Ryan Braun. And it will happen to a number of other baseball players as well, as a row of dominoes is about to fall in order, we are told. Hopefully, it will also happen to athletes in other sports. And in the end, perhaps, we will all come to realize that truth is not a fiction, we cannot just make the world into what we want it to be, and there are things that really matter, and other people and serious problems that deserve our love and attention.

Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.

No More Road Kill

Today is Bill’s funeral. He died a few days ago only a brief few weeks after being committed to a nursing home for Alzheimer’s. It is a sad day: Bill was one of the sweet ones, and there seem to be fewer of them each day. No more “coach.” No more road kill. Sad.

Something Rotten

Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, noted that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. He may have been right, but he obviously never checked out Florida where the stink is so offensive it provokes nausea. The recent juxtaposition of two stories coming out of that state are testimony of that condition. On the one hand, George Zimmerman, who shot a 17 years old boy to death on a Florida street because he “looked suspicious” was found not guilty of murder — or even of manslaughter. Apparently the jury was in denial. That is, they denied that a young man had been shot to death. At the very least, this was a clear case of manslaughter. One might have determined that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, given the insane “stand your ground” law in Florida that allows anyone to shoot anyone else if they suspect possible foul play. But that tells us a great deal about the law and very little about Zimmerman’s culpability.

But wait a minute. Apparently some Floridians can’t shoot anyone they like, or even shoot at them.  At least not Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to twenty years for firing warning shots at an abusive husband because he was about to attack her and she feared for her life. She had already gone to the police about the man’s aggressive behavior, but a jury in its wisdom decided that even though she killed no one she should be locked up for our safety. Apparently she was not to be allowed to “stand her ground.”

Now, despite the fact that this is a clear case of a double standard, since we are talking about the same law in the same state we might simply note the hypocrisy and pass on. But when we think of the family of Trayvon Martin who will have to live with the injustice of the verdict, or we think about Marissa Alexander who faces 20 years in prison for defending herself against an abusive husband we must pause and reflect.

The country’s love of guns and violence has been noted often and written about until it no longer registers on those who might actually give a damn. But the new spate of laws around the country — especially in the South — that not only allow but (in a town in Texas) actually require that people carry guns to protect themselves are marginally insane. It is one thing to defend the possession of hand guns and automatic weapons on the grounds of a complete misreading of the Second Amendment, but it is quite another to insist that people must carry guns and when something moves, pull the trigger. But there is a connection, of course. Those who insist that we all have a “right” to carry a gun are scared to death that the wrong people (i.e., people other than themselves) will get a hold of them. So they insist that their legislators pass laws allowing them to defend themselves against the “crazies” who might want to shoot them down in the street. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this leads.

Is it too obvious to point out that the solution to this entire insane scenario is to take the guns away from everyone? That, of course, will never happen. But it is none the less so obvious a three year-old could figure it out. In the meantime, we will have more cases like the George Zimmerman case and more applications of the double standard as in the Marissa Alexander case and we might as well get used to it. The fact that both victims in these cases were black enters the equation, of course, but we now live in an age of terrorism where fear rules, reason is stunted by the passions, and the stink you smell will simply get stronger as people continue to commit stupid acts and juries demonstrate their blindness to simple facts.

Easy Peasy

A couple of my recent posts have stemmed from reading Jesse Norman’s most interesting book about the life and thought of Edmund Burke. After reading it I was inspired to return to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I had not read for many years. It is filled with many of the wise and thought-provoking words that set Burke apart as one of the great minds of his age. But it also has the occasional passage that marks the man as a creature of his time and makes one realize why he is not favored by readers who like to think of themselves as “liberal.” There is, indeed, a stubborn strain of conservatism at the core of Burke’s thinking that can be at times a bit unsettling. He believes that if political change comes at all it should come slowly and he is sometimes annoyingly sympathetic with the wealthy and aristocratic whom he tends to paint with brighter colors than most historians would like. But we make a mistake to simply dismiss the whole of his book  as conservative bias and can find important lessons even in the most unsettling passages.

One thing that is disturbing to many is Burke’s insistence that the notion of “equality,” which was embraced by the French during their revolution, needs to be carefully qualified. In discussing the concept Burke sounds a bit like a reactionary who wants desperately to hold on to the notion that some people are simply better than others. This did not sit well with the Jacobins in France — or many of Burke’s contemporaries. And it does not sit well these days in the minds of those among us who have been conditioned to think that equality is a natural right of all human persons and no one should ever be regarded as in any sense better than any one else. For example, we hold to the conviction in our schools that “no child should be left behind” — well, some of us do. And we question expertise and the notion that some people may actually know more or be better than others, at least as far as their ability to do some things the rest of us cannot do — like walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, for example. Indeed, we have embraced the loose notion of equality to the point that we regard all opinions as somehow on a level and suspect anyone who claims to know something we cannot know. As one of my students said in being asked to comment on a passage in Plato’s Republic, “that’s just his opinion.” Yes, but there are mere opinions and there are reasonable opinions. Burke questioned this egalitarianism — especially in the case of the French experiment with leveling down and raising those who held menial positions in French society prior to the revolution to lofty perches among those who held the new reins of power. Burke worried that the cobbler might not make a very good lawmaker. As he notes:

“Every thing ought to be open, but not indifferently to every man. No rotation, no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortation or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. . . . If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honour ought to be seated on an eminence. If it is to be through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.”

It would seem that Burke champions opening up opportunities to all but suspects that some may fall short in ability. This is a notion most of us reject since we have come to realize that many who appear unfit for heavy duty prove themselves quite able when given the opportunity. The cobbler may, in fact, make a very good lawmaker — certainly better than the clowns who pretend to be doing that these days for huge salaries in the halls of our government. Burke might not agree; there is the suspicion on his part that some roles in society and government are unfit “by nature” for a great many people. In a word, there is an elitist strain in Burke that many find disturbing, though I must say while I may be willing to let the cobbler have a go at lawmaking, I would prefer that he not be enlisted to remove my appendix when the time comes. There are some things that a great many people simply cannot do. We may have carried this egalitarian thing a bit too far. The problem is Burke seems to want to determine this before the fact, whereas we are willing to let everyone have a try and see what happens.

But the sentence that jumps out at me in the above quotation is the one that talks about the “difficulty” and the “struggle” that prove “virtue.” This notion has been completely lost in a society that stresses “self-esteem” and is turning out young people who believe that struggle and difficulty are to be avoided at all cost — after all, we remove these things if we possibly can in order to grease the skids and make things easier for them than they were for us. How often have you heard parents say they didn’t want their kids to have to struggle the way they did when, in fact, it may have been that very struggle that brought about their success? Dostoevsky, for one, thought struggle and even suffering made us more human, deepened our sensibilities. As Burke suggests, “virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, some struggle.” One must wonder whether this explains why there we encounter so few virtuous people: so many now tread the path of least resistance.

Hannah Arendt Redux

A film recently released in New York deals with the life of Hannah Arendt and has once again stirred up much of the controversy that surrounded her study of the mind of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s during his trial in Jerusalem. Readers of these blogs will recognize Arendt’s name as I have referred to her many times. She is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century and one I never tire of revisiting. But it is precisely the depth of her thinking that has caused her detractors so much trouble: they simply don’t understand what she writes — or they are not careful readers. And this misunderstanding has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the release of this film by German director Margarethe von Trotta.

In his discussion in the New York Times of the controversy surrounding this film, author Roger Berkowitz evidences a careful reading of Arendt’s works and a thorough understanding of her position on Eichmann. He shows himself unwilling to side with those who thought Arendt had dismissed Eichmann as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” He was anything but those things, according to Arendt. But many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us. It is easier and more comforting to think the man a crazed psychopath. But this was also, in Arendt’s view, decidedly not the case. As Berkowitz notes in his excellent article:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Arendt had a very definite notion of what thought requires: it is a dialogue within the person himself or herself in which an honest attempt is made to see both sides of an issue and think one’s way carefully to imagined consequences of possible actions. Eichmann, like an increasing number of us, was unable to do that. He was not a “clerk” or a “robot.” Nor was he a psychopath. He was a relatively normal man who simply wasn’t able to engage his mind fully to think his way around a problem and see the implications of his actions. As a result, he became zealous, readily identifying with causes and blindly following a movement that he too quickly embraced. He could not think of Nazism without at the same time thinking of anti-Semitism. In his mind they were one and the same, and he embraced both ideas and willingly did what he was told had to be done. Evil is, in this case at least, banal.

A careful reader will note Roger Berkowitz’s oblique reference to America’s drone policy in the final sentence of the above quote, referring to those who are “willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.” Those who defend the use of these silent killers that take so many innocent civilian lives on the grounds that they are the “lesser of two evils” need to recall Arendt’s point that the lesser of evils is still evil.

Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.

Snowden’s Retreat

Despite the fact that I defended Edward Snowden for his risky revelations about NSA, the apparent fact that he joined the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to have access to privileged information so he could then reveal that information to the American people is disturbing. It raises questions about his motives, suggesting that he contrived to perform an act which seems on its face to have been one of courage and evidence of deep convictions. Further, it is equally disturbing to read that he is now “hiding out” in the former Soviet Union where he appears to be safe from extradition.

Henry David Thoreau Courtesy of Wikipedia

Henry David Thoreau
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In classic cases of civil disobedience, which this seems to be on the surface, the person involved willingly faces punishment for his disobedience to a particular law. It is a specific law, or in Snowden’s case, a specific series of violations of the First Amendment, that is found objectionable — not law (or the system of laws) itself. The classic cases are those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were willing to face the consequences of their acts of disobedience — King’s to the laws supporting segregation and Thoreau protesting fugitive slave laws. In any event, the phrase “civil disobedience” implies clearly that the disobedient person recognized the legitimacy of law as such but has serious moral qualms about specific laws that seem to be a violation of “higher” laws of morality.  Hence the term civil disobedience. As Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” The appeal is almost always to a higher, moral law with the recognition that civil law as such is essential to the preservation of society.  As King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:

One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

Simple disobedience to laws with no intent to suffer consequences is anarchy or, possibly in the case of Snowden, treason. Unless there are mitigating circumstances about which we have yet to be informed, it would appear that Snowden is on rather weak moral grounds. This is not to say that I condone what NSA is doing. Quite the contrary. I regard it as a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, if we contrast Snowden’s actions with those of Pfc. Bradley Manning who “blew the whistle” on the U.S. Army and faces a military tribunal and a possible twenty-year prison sentence we can see the difference in sharp relief. Manning felt strongly that what was going on in Iraq was a violation of what we might call the laws of morality and he chose not only to reveal what he regarded as evil, but he also chose to face the consequences. His act was truly courageous; based on the information we are able to get from the public media, Snowden now appears to have had questionable motives in the first place and his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his act suggests that he is deserving of censure. We might want to exercise caution in determining who deserves to be placed on a pedestal.