Dire Prediction?

The following characterization of the demise of autocratic political societies was written by the Japanese political satirist Nakae Chomin in1887 attacking a stubbornly despotic government in his country.  As our country becomes increasingly autocratic, run by the wealthy few who are gradually and with fixed purpose disenfranchizing the voting population, who couldn’t care less, I was struck by the sober truths in this passage.

“Even in this case another and even more dreadful source of disease arises. What is it? People support themselves by their labor, submit part of their income to the government, and consequently feel their duties to the state are completely fulfilled. They grow indifferent. Scholars think only of perfecting their writings. Artists think only of polishing their skills. Those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce think only of high profits and become indifferent to everything else. Under these circumstances, the function of the brain gradually shrinks, and the complete human being is reduced to a mere digester of food. In other words, the scholar’s writings, the artist’s skills, the works of those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce eventually become sediments at the bottom of a barrel, without vitality or change. The entire nation becomes a mere lump of slimy, jelly like flesh.”

He wasn’t thinking of the United States in 2013, of course, but the prediction is a bit chilling none the less.

Parental Paralysis

[This is a continuation of the topic begun previously.]

In a most interesting chapter of that most provocative book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch has a careful analysis of the cultural phenomenon I call the “parental paralysis. ” I speak of the apparent inability of so many parents in this country to simply rely on their own intuitions in raising their children because a host of so-called “experts” have convinced them that they (the experts) know so much more about raising children than do their parents. For some reason parents have bought into this nonsense. The experts, whom Lasch calls the “helping professions” consist of social workers, teachers of “domestic science,” academic experts on “marriage and the family,” marriage counselors, family therapists, psychologists, and other social scientists of their ilk.

(It is curious that we tend to ignore the legitimate expertise of bona fide scientists who continue to warn us about the warming of the planet, but we will buy into a bunch of malarkey put out there by a host of social scientists with questionable credentials pursuing doubtful procedures.)

In any event, Lasch traces the development of parental paralysis back to the 1920s and calls the first stage of the take-over of the family by these experts the “behavioral” stage, when behaviorism was the prevailing arm of psychology and popular books written by such folks as John Watson and Arnold Gesell began to undermine the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their children and persuaded them that the kids were so much better off if their parents simply listened to the authors and raised the kids “by the book.” Of course, there were a great many books by Watson and Gesell and people like Ernest and Gladys Grove who promised kids “freedom from emotional bondage to their parents.” I kid you not.

The second stage came in the late thirties and forties. The growth of the progressive movement in education (which was “child-centered” rather than “subject-centered”) coupled with “debased versions of Freudian theory, [resulted in] excessive ‘permissiveness.'” During this stage, the child and his or her “rights” became the center of the home and parents were warned not to thwart their child’s development by punishment and discipline — words that began to take on pejorative meanings in the social sciences and among parents and teachers as well. Coincidentally, the role of the state began to expand as the courts asserted their right to take children away from their parents if there was evidence of abuse — evidence that was at times questionable at best. During this stage the man at the center was Dr. Benjamin Spock who has been widely mistaken for the chief proponent of permissive child-raising because of his warning to readers of the damage parents could do to their offspring by an excess of strictness. However, the good doctor also attempted to warn against excessive permissiveness, but his message was somewhat cloudy and confusing to many parents. In any event, during this stage, the parents were increasingly targeted as the main element in the deterioration of the family unit. In the view that had become orthodox among so-called “experts,” parents were the “problem” that required solution if the children were to be saved.

This brought about, in the 1950s, what Lasch calls “the cult of authenticity” in which parents were told to “let it all hang out” and be honest with their children whom they were told should be treated like adults. Children were not to be restrained in their various modes of self-expression, since all feelings were legitimate and parents were admonished to befriend and discuss problems with their kids rather than attempt to correct them. Punishment, especially corporal punishment, was definitely taboo. Whatever authority the parents might have once had over their children was by this time a thing of the past: the child was still the center of the family and the parents were still supposed to be incapable of raising them on their own. After all, parents were regarded as unable to distinguish right from wrong, as were all folks in what was becoming an increasingly relativistic age — except the “experts, of course, who were still regarded as those who knew best.  Note, please, that parental love never seemed to enter into the equation at any stage, even the final one. Perhaps this is because love is not quantifiable or reducible to behavioral terms.

The fourth stage, which is the one we have reached at present, resulted from “rising crime rates, juvenile delinquency, suicide, and mental breakdowns [which] finally convinced many experts, even many social workers, that welfare agencies furnish a poor substitute for the family.” Unfortunately, the damage had been done; a great many parents remain convinced to this day that the books written by the experts map a clear road to successful child-rearing and the courts remain able and all-too-willing to take kids away from parents who are regarded as unfit for many reasons — not all of which are legitimate. As Lasch points out, “The state can now segregate deviants [i.e., children] for no other reason than that they or their parents have refused to cooperate with the courts, especially when refusal to cooperate appears as prima facie evidence of a bad home environment.”

In a word, as the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their own children has waned, the power of the state has grown exponentially in its ability to remove children from what may well be loving homes, based on the testimony of the ‘helping professionals” who may or may not have children of their own and who almost certainly have learned what they know about appropriate child-rearing techniques from books written years ago that are still erroneously regarded by many as the last word in sound parenting.

If Lasch is to be believed, “the deterioration of child care has been at work for a long time and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible.” Parents have been listening for so long to those who claim to be experts, they have forgotten that love of their children, coupled with consistent and coherent discipline, are paramount (and natural)  and, while they will assuredly make mistakes, parents should trust their instincts — which for so many centuries seemed to be a fairly safe path to follow.

Cool Colleges

I turn the pages of each month’s Sierra Magazine with some trepidation, since the editors seem determined to scare the hell out of their readers by cataloging all of the dire consequences of human inattention to the health of our planet. On the other hand, I look forward once a year to reading their list of the “Green Colleges” that are helping to turn young minds toward a more responsible future. Sad to say, I have never noted either of my two alma maters listed on the pages of the magazine — which rates the top 100 colleges in the country. But the list is impressive, as are the steps that are being taken at some of the top schools in helping students learn about their responsibility to the planet. There is hope.

As the magazine notes,

“With each “Cool Schools” issue sent to press, we are reminded that LEED-certified buildings equipped with low-flow toilets and stocked with recycling bins push carbon dioxide levels lower and keep reservoirs fuller, landfills emptier, and trees standing longer.

But what of the students? The most powerful renewable energy resource these campuses generate is freshly educated young people. And colleges crow that instilling eco-literacy — teaching youths about the state of the planet — will put us on the right path. Will it, though?. . .The answer is yes.

The magazine features the top ten colleges, headed by the University of Connecticut where “nearly 600 sustainability classes are taught by some of the greenest minds anywhere — more than 40 percent of UConn’s research faculty does original academic work that benefits the environment.”  And the students are very much involved. UConn is followed closely by Dickinson College, University of California at Davis, University of California at Irvine, Cornell University, Green Mountain College, Stanford University, Georgia Tech, American University, and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The careful reader will note the presence on this list of a disproportionate number of California schools, where it seems students and faculties take their earthly responsibilities very seriously. The presence of only one Ivy League School — and only a couple more on the list of 100 schools at the end of the article — is sobering. Many of the allegedly prestigious colleges are conspicuous by their absence, including (as I say) Northwestern University where I received my advanced degrees. That is disheartening. One would think that being “Green” and being “Clean” are the sorts of things the schools that pride themselves on their academic reputations would aspire to. But apparently not. At least not yet.

But the things that many of these schools are doing are quite remarkable, from producing their own electricity with solar and wind generators, planting their own gardens to provide food on campus, collecting grease from local restaurants to produce biodiesel fuel to power the campus’ vehicle fleet, lowering greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 percent, committing millions of dollars to energy-conservation projects, and the like. At Dickinson College, for example, “the school will achieve zero net emissions by 2020, if all goes according to plan.”

These are serious steps taken by serious-minded folks who know the importance of helping to save a planet under siege by the oil and gas companies while the Congress looks the other way. Let’s hope these efforts will make effective inroads against further damage to the planet by those who simply do not care.

Parental Authority

One of the most difficult concepts for our society to come to grips with has been that of authority, especially parental authority. The authority of the policeman is fairly simple to deal with: if we see a badge or a flashing light most people listen and respond appropriately. But the authority of experts and especially the authority of parents and teachers has been questioned for a number of years now in what is an increasingly egalitarian and permissive society in which a leveling-down process has given birth to a sense of entitlement on the part of a vast majority of the spoiled young people in this country. No one has wrestled more successfully with the concept of authority than Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to in previous blogs and who has brought his grasp of basic Freudian principles to bear on the subject and helped clarify what is decidedly a very misunderstood concept. “Authority” is not a nasty word, as some would have us believe.

We need to start by distinguishing between spurious authority and legitimate authority, rooting out, for example, the bogus authority of “experts” such as Merriam Van Waters, author of Parents On Probation, who as early as the 1920s started the rumor that in an increasing number of cases parental authority was “warped” and children should be raised by the “helping professions” rather than parents.  One must question the credentials of these supposed “authorities” in child rearing. Such bogus authority is simply power in another guise, leading to the rejection of the legitimacy of the parental role in the family in the name of  the state’s “social responsibility” for the children. I hope to explore this theme more fully in a subsequent blog.

The recognition of the legitimate authority of acknowledged experts with bona fide credentials is something we all benefit from and our society desperately needs. This is the case with regard to the authority of those who have a thorough understanding of their field of expertise, as recognized by their peers, and it is most assuredly the case with regard to the legitimate authority of parents and teachers. While we have solid grounds for rejecting the supposed authority of many in the “helping professions,” not only must we recognize the authority of the physician and the auto mechanic, we must also recognize the authority of the scientist who tells us that the globe is warming and that human existence as we know it is facing radical change while the planet itself is in jeopardy. And we must allow for the legitimacy of the authority of the parents over their own children and the teachers to teach the young.

But ours is an egalitarian age in which we have begun with a misunderstanding of the notion of moral equality in which all are entitled to fair treatment under the law and expanded the notion to the absurd conclusion that there are no differences between men and women, or between the gifted and the obtuse, or between a spurious opinion and a reasoned opinion. This is the “leveling-down” process I mentioned above. In insisting, wrongly as it happens, that there are no differences that make any difference between opinions or people  we have tossed out the notion that there are some who know more than others, that some things are true while others are false, and that some people are capable of remarkable deeds while others simply are not. While we are all equal before the law and from a moral perspective differences are less important than similarities, some people are simply more able than others to do specific things: some differences do make a difference. And there are those whose legitimate authority we should all admit, though we seem reluctant to do so.

Now, whether or not one agrees that the general abandonment of the notion of legitimate authority is a serious problem, one must agree that the attack on the legitimate authority of the parents most assuredly is. As Lasch has noted, quoting  anthropologist Jules Henry,

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline. . . The parent’s abdication of authority intensifies rather than softens the child’s fear of punishment, while identifying thoughts of punishment more firmly than ever with the exercise of arbitrary, overwhelming violence.”

In a word, by denying the legitimate role of the parents as authorities in the raising of their own children, and/or the abdication of that role by parents who are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with making a living (as we say), we have brought about a permissive society in which the child has become the center of the family; “discipline” has become a pejorative term; “reform” has replaced punishment; an increasingly coercive state has intruded itself into the private arena of the family which should ideally be off-limits; and the young are convinced they are entitled to what they perceive as “the good life,” and are increasingly inclined to resort to violence in order to make sure that this comes about. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

In Search Of Soul

I have made passing references to Carl Gustav Jung’s remarkable collection of essays titled Modern Man In Search of a Soul. The book is exceptional in so many ways, but in particular it provides a great many insights into our current cultural malaise and takes us closer to an understanding of its causes. For example, it is a sobering thought to consider that despite our considerable scientific progress and the immense gains in material well-being and health care, we might in fact be poorer than our predecessors. Our blind conviction that the passage of time necessarily entails “progress,” that the latest is the best, may well be a fiction. In one of the later essays in the above book, Jung contrasts our modern age with the medieval period which we tend to equate with blind superstition, brief and painful life spans, and widespread human suffering. Jung suggests otherwise:

How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of the sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely world to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when our own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness. . . . And while man, hesitant and questioning, contemplates a world that is distracted with treaties of peace and pacts of friendship, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Bolshevism, his spirit yearns for an answer that will allay the turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.

It is hard to accept the notion that our world may have regressed rather than progressed, hidden as we are behind our piles of material goods, expecting relatively long and painless lives, and diverted by all our electronic toys. But it is worth pondering. The possibility that those who lived in more austere times might be happier than we are was suggested about thirty years before Jung by Henry Adams who visited Chartres and Mount St. Michel in France and came away with the conviction that medieval men and women found peace of mind in a coherent, unified world contemplating eternal verities and devoted to the Virgin Mary. This, according to Adams, rendered their seemingly miserable lives spiritually rich and rewarding, and allowed them to pursue the immensely difficult challenge of building impossibly tall cathedrals, which took generations to complete but always kept their attention directed toward a better world.

One must wonder if our world-view, focused as it is on the present and built around the notion of linear progress and material success, might not be poverty-stricken. Perhaps, after all, we are all worse off for having bought into the notion that this frenzied, incoherent world of ours has brought us closer to the ideal of human happiness. One reads blog posts like those of my friend “Z” in Ecuador and one wonders whether those simple people in “third world” countries are not indeed much happier than we in spite of their poverty and lack of material goods. It’s just possible that those folks know something we don’t.

Acting Our Age

Having finished reading Edmund Burke’s reflections as a break from reading Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, I returned to the final novel in that group and was immediately struck by a remarkable paragraph. The hero of the series of novels, Shigekuni Honda, is now an old man and the author reflects on aging and the complications that go along with it. The series of four novels is a careful and critical examination of the deterioration of Japanese civilization due to the powerful influence of Western values (especially capitalism) and — obviously — the devastation of the Second World War. In the fourth novel, after Honda’s wife died, the author paired the old man with an equally old woman who has become his close friend. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy telling one another anecdotes about their early years — neither one listening to the other, of course. But they have discovered in their friendship something very precious. In one brief aside, the narrator has this stunning reflection on the relationship between Honda and his friend Keiko:

“If old age was the reality most unpleasant to have to accept and most continuously to be lived with, then Honda and Keiko had each made the other a refuge from the reality. Their intimacy was not juxtaposition but a brushing past in the rush for a refuge. They exchanged empty houses and hurried to lock the doors behind them. Alone inside the other, each of them could breathe easily.”

There is so much in these few sentences to learn from, regardless of our age, that one hardly knows where to start. It is certainly the case that we could all benefit from the narrator’s wise advice to find solace and true happiness not within the self that closes itself off from others, but “inside the other.” This is especially the case in a culture like ours where the self has become the focal point of one’s entire existence. Honda’s and Keiko’s “intimacy” is not sexual, given their ages and the fact that Keiko is homosexual; it is spiritual and allows each of them to find in the other a “refuge from reality.”

But as an old fart myself who “lives continuously” with old age, waking each day with new aches and pains and no longer able to do the things he took for granted only a few years ago, like playing the game of tennis he enjoyed for more than 50 years, or simply running or kneeling down (and struggling to get up again!), and one who resents deeply the sentiments evoked by public pronouncements about aging that have brought about the cultural urge to turn back the clock, color the hair, eliminate wrinkles, look and act like a foolish teen-ager, I find Mishima’s words profound and profoundly true. Our culture does not teach us to age gracefully — or to do much of anything gracefully, for that matter. It resents old age, unlike those cultures that not only respect, but revere old age, as the Japanese culture did once upon a time — though not recently, as we are told by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who noted in his Praise of Shadows that in increasingly Westernized Japan “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth. . .the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people.”

We turn away from the elderly, put them away in homes, and dismiss their words based on years of experience as the muttering of old fools. It is a part of our cultural malaise that we cannot act our age, that we prolong adolescence as long as possible and regard maturity as something to be avoided at all costs. We have certainly done a good job of that as middle-aged men still act like frat brothers, telling crude jokes and slapping one another on the butt; and middle-aged women get their faces lifted or their tummies tucked, always checking the mirror. But, in the process we have become lost within ourselves, not sure who we are, and unable to find our way — which, as Mishima reminds us, can only be discovered by forgetting ourselves and becoming intimate with another. It begins with a look at the world outside ourselves and the realization that our own happiness is predicated on “finding refuge” in others.