Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.

Holistic Education

I have written several blogs that refer to the rise of anti-intellectualism in this country. If the attitude, which is now widespread, did not start with the religious enthusiasts in the colonies, then it certainly did with Andrew Jackson and pals like Davy Crockett, the sporadically schooled men of action who regarded intellect as “effeminate” and distrusted experts. But, as I have noted, the movement was more recently given a powerful thrust  forward by Senator Joseph McCarthy whose hearings in the early 1950s centered on artists, poets, writers, college professors. and even the President of the United States as the source of Communism and everything that was evil in this country. Bashing anyone who seemed the lest bit thoughtful became the fashion.

The movement had gone underground briefly during the Progressive era and the days of FDR’s “brain trust,” as it did again, despite the effects of the McCarthy hearings, during the post-Sputnik era in the early 1960s when America in a panic wanted more scientists, and during the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy who loved to have intellectuals around him and in his cabinet. But after Kennedy’s death the movement recovered its strength and gained momentum and is now a powerful force in this country — as attested to by the fact that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are today taking center stage and being applauded left and right (mostly right). The scum also rises.

Ironically, anti-intellectualism is especially prevalent in the schools where the battle has taken the form of an attack by many teachers themselves against traditional (“aristocratic”) education with its emphasis on developing the mind of young people and a (“democratic”) defense of an education directed at developing the “whole” child. Nowhere was this fight more pronounced than in San Francisco in the early 1960s where a committee was formed to determine how the school system could improve in light of Russia’s apparent superiority in sending a rocket successfully into space. The committee came back with a report that the schools should return to a more traditional approach to education and seek to set higher standards in the classrooms, emphasizing science and mathematics, especially. The reaction to this report by six educational organizations [!] is especially noteworthy: they came together with a printed rebuttal of the report and defended the child-centered, “life adjustment” educational system that was by then taking the country by storm (and which is now firmly entrenched in our schools in the form of the “self-esteem” movement). As  Richard Hofstadter notes in his study of anti-intellectualism in this country:

The groups attacked the San Francisco report for “academic pettiness and snobbery” and for going beyond their competence in limiting the purposes of education to “informing the mind and developing the intelligence,” and reasserted the value of “other goals of education, such as preparation for citizenship, occupational competence, successful family life, self-realization in ethical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions, and the enjoyment of physical health.”

Now one must wonder why developing the child’s mind does not lead to “preparation for citizenship,” since we would certainly want informed and thoughtful citizens in this democracy. It is certainly what the Founders envisioned. Further, a person who can think will be a much more valuable employee than one who cannot, one would think. Despite the bogus arguments of the advocates of “life adjustment” for the kids during the early part of the last century, numerous psychological studies have shown that liberal learning has a good deal of  “transfer” value: studies of great literature, properly pursued, can pay off in the business world, for example. Job preparation should therefore not be viewed in a narrow focus, but in a focus broad enough to allow that the minds of those who work need also to be developed and nurtured along with specific job skills.  But to take the rest of the goals the group put forward as the proper object of education, one hastens to ask why the schools, specifically, should concern themselves with such things as ethics and morality and the development of “spiritual dimensions”? One would have thought such things were the purview of the family and the church.

Indeed, this has always been one of my main quarrels with progressive education: the concern for the “whole child” and the attack on those (like me) who think the goal of education should be on developing the child’s mind ignore the fact that the schools cannot possibly be expected to do everything at once. It is enough to ask the schools to focus their attention on developing the minds of the children placed in their charge. Developing character and establishing ethical and moral principles in the hearts and souls of the children are extremely important goals, but they should not be part of the objective of the schools. The schools have enough to do if they simply focus on what they are able to do and seek to do it more effectively.

I suspect that a large part of the fact that the schools in this country have fallen behind other developed nations is precisely this — that since the 1930s, at least, we have sought to make the schools responsible for raising the children and not simply educating them. Far too much has been heaped on the plates of this nation’s teachers — and then we add insult to injury by refusing to pay them what they are worth. To be sure, part of this goes back to this nation’s distrust of those who use their minds and the notion that such people are somehow twisted and deformed because the rest of their personality has been undeveloped while their minds have been allowed to take over their lives. But this is a caricature and as such ought to be accorded the ridicule it deserves. The schools should not and indeed they cannot develop the “whole child.” That is the job of families and the churches, in conjunction with the schools — a point that has been too long ignored.

Boring

In a recent post I mentioned that one of the sports journalists on ESPN referred to Russell Wilson, the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, as “boring.” He is a quiet, unpretentious young man who has pretty much kept his mouth shut and stayed out of trouble. That’s the problem. The talking head on ESPN preferred players like Richard Sherman who give the journalists something to write about. Writing about folks like Wilson might put the reader to sleep. Or something.

There is a certain element of truth in this comment, of course. But much of that is a result of the fact that the journalists seek out the sensational stories and leave the others alone. And that’s what we have become used to: it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. We prefer the “exciting” stories and find anything that isn’t about violence, sex, and general mayhem “boring.” As the special effects people take over the making of movies, the movies themselves are excessively violent and horrifying, dulling our sensibilities and requiring no imagination whatever. In order not to be bored many of us now require smash-mouth images — on the TV and movie screen and in our books and papers. Sensationalism sells.

I have always thought that the word “boring” describes the mental state of the person using the word. One usually hears it from the mouths of those who have run out of diversions. It’s not so much that the situation, the book, or the person being discussed is boring; it’s more a matter of the person making the judgment. They can’t think of anything to do and have nothing going on between their ears. A person who is alive to what is going on around him or her will not be bored no matter where they happen to be or who or what they are reading about.

But I will grant that writing about the Russell Wilsons of the world might be less than scintillating to the one who worries only about selling his stories to a jaded audience.  After all, Dante whizzed through his Inferno and found writing about Paradise very taxing. And if Dante found Paradise hard to write about one can perhaps pardon the journalist who doesn’t want to write about Russell Wilson. Perhaps. On the other hand, it would appear that the real test of a good writer is his or her ability to make the boring exciting. After all, Dante did finish writing about Paradise and it was a stunning achievement.

Along these lines, Daniel Defoe explains the difficulties of writing about the “reformed” and “penitent” Moll Flanders, as contrasted with the “wicked” woman of the first parts of the novel by that name:

“It is suggested that there cannot be the same life, the same brightness and beauty, in relating the penitent part as in the criminal part. If there is any truth in that suggestion, I must be allowed to say, ’tis because there is not the same taste and relish in the reading; and indeed it is too true that the difference lies not in the real worth of the subject so much as in the gust and palate of the reader.”

Defoe almost certainly has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in this Author’s Preface to his novel. But he makes a good point. We are hoist by our own petard. Wouldn’t it be better for us all if the writers occasionally wrote about the “boring” folks who do remarkable things, even heroic things, in a quiet and unassuming way? Should we insist, like the journalists themselves, that life’s only interesting when awful things happen? As Defoe suggests, that says more about us than it does about our world which is full of beauty and goodness if we only know where to look. Or are we, in fact, too busy looking for the sensational and the exciting because our sensibilities have become deadened by the journalists, movies, and games that keep pushing our faces into the pages or images of the scum of the earth?

The Race Card

You have doubtless heard about the outrageous behavior of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, after virtually saving the N.F.C. title game for Seattle on Sunday. He not only blew his own horn so loud it drowned out the record crowd, but he also “dissed” his opponent and called Michael Crabtree — the intended receiver on the play in question — a mediocre player, giving the choke sign in the process. He is apparently a fairly bright guy and he has apologized for his behavior, after a fashion: “It’s who I am.” But he has been fined by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct and the talking heads have waded in, so we will doubtless be hearing about this behavior ad nauseam in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

The marketing people are hovering around Sherman like vultures circling a dead corpse, their mouths positively watering at the thought of the money to be made from this incident. And comments from various Monday morning quarterbacks have ranged from “bush league” to “refreshing,” as everyone and his dog enters into the discussion. But what I found most interesting was the virtual unanimity on “Around The Horn” — ESPN’s showcase for talking heads — in saying that Sherman’s behavior was not “over the top,” that since football is entertainment one would have to give Sherman high marks for the great entertainment value he has provided to spice up our drab, wretched lives. The talking  heads are all sports journalists and doubtless they see only grist for the journalistic mills. They are not known to give high praise for self-restraint and decorum; they prefer their emotions raw and juicy. They called the Seattle quarterback “boring.” I have blogged about this before, so I won’t go there, except to say that this is yet another example the entertainment industry is setting for our kids.

Where I will go is to Sherman’s comment in response to the reaction to his behavior, referring to those who find it offensive as “racist.” This raises a most interesting point. Are we not to judge a person’s behavior as offensive if that person happens to be a member of a minority? Isn’t it possible that Richard Sherman behaved like a jerk and, regardless of his race, that sort of behavior should not be tolerated? If we would be quick to condemn this action of a white player, wouldn’t it be racist NOT to mention it in this case because Sherman is African-American? I would have thought the idea is to treat everyone alike. In a word, are we to look the other way simply because a person happens to be a member of a minority and excuse his or her behavior no matter how offensive it might happen to be? I beg to differ!

I recall some years ago the comments made by an actress in a popular TV show who complained about the fact that she was not getting the attention she thought she deserved; she insisted that this was due to the fact that the folks who handed out awards were sexist. In fact, she was a terrible actress and deserved to be overlooked. But she attributed the fact that she was being ignored not to her lack of talent, but to prejudice on the part of those who should know better, as she saw it. I suppose it is easier live with the fact that our critics are racist or sexist than to admit that we have no talent or are behaving like fools: one finds comfort in the delusion.

The fact of the matter is that certain types of behavior, when engaged in publicly, are deserving of condemnation. If they were performed in private that’s another question. But public behavior sets an example, good or bad, whether we like to admit it or not. And when it is offensive, it should be duly noted and even condemned — if for no other reason than to send a message to those observing the behavior that such things are unacceptable — regardless of their “entertainment value.” It’s one thing to be tolerant, and I applaud the effort to expand our levels of tolerance in a country founded by Puritans. But it is quite another thing to insist on silence when it is clear that certain types of behavior are simply not to be tolerated. We are urged on all sides not to be “judgmental,” but there are times when judgment is called for. I am not talking about a call to arms, drawing and quartering, much less castration. I am talking about expressing concern and voicing objections. Indifference should not be mistaken for tolerance and held up as exemplary. And whatever “entertainment value” behavior such as that of Richard Sherman might have, it sets a terrible example for young kids watching their heroes parade before them strutting their stuff and ridiculing their opponents. Enough is enough. Some times, it’s just too much, regardless of race, creed, or religion.

Must-See TV

Recently just prior to commercial break on ESPN’s “Sports Center” the anchor person spoke over a clip of several NHL players going at one another on the ice. She told her audience: “Five fights going on at once? Now that’s must-see TV. Stay tuned.”

ESPN also likes to show clips from a program being run on another network that focuses attention on the pressures on little boys, ages 6 or 7, in an organized youth football league. It shows the coaches screaming at the boys and admonishing them to take out their opponent. “Use your helmet. Get him out of there.” It also shows the coaches verbally and physically abusing the boys and the boys politely responding with “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” The NFL has been critical of the show, though one of the talking heads on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” charged the NFL with being hypocritical, for promoting violence and ignoring the complex and costly issue of concussions among football players. But, seriously, doesn’t ESPN warrant much of the blame? They routinely highlight violence in sports. It draws the audience and sells the products that keep the show on the air.

I haven’t watched the aforementioned show about child abuse and don’t plan to. But many will. I imagine it will be a big hit (pardon the pun!).

And we wonder why this nation is prone to violence. Seriously?

I Also Have A Dream

[In honor of his day, I have decided to re-blog a post I wrote some months ago that attempts to echo some of the great man’s words.]

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day people would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. I share that dream, but I also have a related dream that pops up (on alternative nights) that some day people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the size of their pocketbook. It has always bothered me that we measure success by such ridiculous standards as income and the number of toys in the three-car garage. But the point was made long ago by Herodotus, “the father of history” who wrote in order “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” One would also hope that we would learn by reading history, since we are very much like the people who preceded us, though we seem determined to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Herodotus tells a story about the visit of Solon of Athens, reputed to be a wise man, to the domain of Croesus in Sardis, reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world.

“In the course of his travels, [Solon] visited Croesus in Sardis, where Croesus put him up as his guest in his palace. Two or three days after his arrival, Croesus had some attendants give Solon a thorough tour of his treasuries and show him how magnificent and valuable everything was. Once Solon had seen and examined everything, Croesus found an opportunity to put a question to him. ‘My dear guest from Athens,’ he said, ‘we have often heard about you in Sardis: you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you love knowledge and have journeyed far and wide to see the world. So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone who is happier than everyone else?’

In asking the question, he was expecting to be named as the happiest of all men, but Solon preferred truth to flattery and said, ‘Yes, my lord: Tellus of Athens.’

Croesus was surprised at the answer and asked urgently: ‘What makes you think Tellus is the happiest of men?’

‘In the first place,’ Solon replied, ‘while living in a prosperous state, Tellus had sons who were fine, upstanding men and he lived to see them all have children, all of whom survived. In the second place, his death came at a time when he had a good income, by our standards, and it was a glorious death. . . and the Athenians awarded him a public funeral and greatly honored him.'”

The Greeks were convinced that happiness can only be measured by the way a person lives and cannot be measured until the day of that person’s death. It doesn’t matter how much wealth that person happens to have — since wealth can be lost in the blink of an eye (as Croesus learned to his chagrin) — but how one lives one’s life: it’s a question of a bit of luck and living what the Greeks considered “the good life.” One wonders if anyone today can even begin to grasp what Solon was saying.

The Teacher As Victim

If Richard Hofstadter were writing today as he did in 1962 when he explored the origins of anti-intellectualism in this country, he might be struck by the open attacks on the public school system. But he would not be surprised by the low opinion the general public has of the teacher in the schools. In his book, Anti-Intelectualism in American Life, Hofstadter quotes at length a pamphlet written by a New England farmer, William Manning of North Billerica, Massachusetts in 1798. Manning argues as best he can against “book learning” and defends a pragmatic theory of education in which children are taught their three R’s but little else. As Hofstadter tells us:

At the heart of Manning’s philosophy was a profound suspicion of the learned and property-holding classes. Their education, their free time, and the nature of their vocations made it possible, he saw, for the merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and executive and judicial officers of state to act together in pursuit of their ends, as the laboring man could not.

Now if we dismiss the bit of paranoia at the heart of Manning’s attack on the intelligentsia of his day, he has an interesting point — one that goes a long way toward explaining why the popular mind has such a low opinion of teachers whom Manning sees as also belonging to the leisure class. That is to say (as Manning himself put it), they are among “those that live without work.” Please note here that “work” means laboring, sweating, physical engagement in “the real world.” Life in the ivory tower or the classroom is clearly other-worldly, and does not involve real work. I suspect this is an attitude that is shared by many today who see the teachers around them working short hours with long vacations. Folks who struggle to succeed in the work-a-day world don’t regard those who teach as doing real work. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Or, as President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina said late in the nineteenth century, “To teach school is, in the opinion of many, little else than sitting still and doing nothing.” I suspect that many a teacher would love to see these folks spend a week in front of one of their classes!

But rather than choose sides on this issue (and it is clear which side one who taught for 42 years would come down on!) I would like to draw some lessons from all this. To begin with, the attack on our schools is nothing less that one of the many signs of the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country. The notion that teachers don’t do real work is, I dare say, widely shared — given the misconceptions that are abroad. I know when I taught at the university level there were several studies undertaken in order to fend off the attacks of the critics who hold the purse strings that showed the average college professor worked 62 hours a week. The public misconceptions arose from the fact that the normal teaching load was 12 hours of classroom teaching a week, even less in larger universities where professors publish or perish. So folks naturally assumed that college professors are lazy and overpaid. Some are, to be sure, but not all. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that I know a number of high school teachers, of all people, who regard college professors as among those who “live without work.” There’s resentment all around us! But the critics are wrong: teaching is real work, at any level. The notion that a 12 hour class load is not real work ignores the countless hours a college professor spends preparing lectures, advising students, attending (boring) meetings, and grading papers. I am sure elementary and high school teachers, who must not only teach their subject but also try to keep order among unruly kids, spend many hours away from their classrooms doing the same sorts of things as well — including, in their cases, meeting with parents. Anyone who thinks this is not real work needs to think again.

But very little thought is involved in this controversy, as we can see by reflecting on what the Massachusetts farmer was saying in the eighteenth century. When one’s frame of reference defines real work as laboring in the fields or spending eight hours a day in a shop, a cubicle, or on the assembly line, the life of the teacher must seem easy and totally lacking in worth. Despite the fact that a solid core of merchants and businessmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like Andrew Carnegie, were staunch supporters of education as developing young minds, after the Civil War the antipathy between the average business person and the intellectual became sharper and deeper, and as more and more of the nation’s children needed to be schooled education increasingly became a matter of “life adjustment” or job preparation, and teachers continued to be held in low esteem. Increasing numbers of business persons, and others in the work-a-day world, adopted the perspective of the farmer from Massachusetts. And that’s the key here: we are faced by two opposing and conflicting world-views. This is not an issue that can be settled by thoughtful debate. It is an issue of the heart: it’s about feelings, such as resentment and envy based on misconceptions. One can hope to correct those misconceptions, but I doubt that the feelings will be altered by even the most lengthy discussion.

In a word, the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter so carefully examines has its roots deep in a country that was wrestled away from the wilderness (and the native people) by men and women of little learning but immense courage, practical skill, and determination. It’s easy to see why they and their progeny distrust those who get paid to work with their minds and seem to have it easy. Even today in the popular mind teachers “live without work.” This is nonsense, of course, but it is what a great many people believe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. Unless there is a radical change in cultural perspective, teachers will continue to have it hard and can expect little or no sympathy from those who are convinced they are overpaid and “live without work” — which goes a long way toward explaining why this country’s educational system is in such dire straits.

The Magic of Nine

Dante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dante
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The folks back in the Dark Ages were filled with wonder by the number nine. Dante’s Divine Comedy is full of references to the magic of this number which added to the mystery of their lives. After all, nine is the square of three which represents the Holy Trinity for Christians. Dante’s Inferno has nine circles, and Purgatory has seven stages representing the seven deadly sins, plus the ante-purgatory (which has three stages!) and the entrance to Paradise — which adds up to nine!  There were also nine celestial spheres in Dante’s Paradise, where “we shall witness what we hold in faith, not told by reason but self-evident; as men perceive an axiom here on earth.” All of this was based on the Ptolemaic system taken together with Church dogma which the Schoolmen, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, espoused. None of this could simply be a coincidence, especially the mysterious nature of the number nine. Think about it:

Multiply 9 by any number and the integers in the product add up to nine. Moreover, multiply any number whatever whose integers add up to nine and the product’s integers add up to nine. Thus, 9 x 8 = 72, and 7+2 = 9. Again, 54 x 356 = 19224. Add those integers and you come back to nine (5+4 added together gives us 9, 1+9+2+2+4 =18, 1+8 = 9). If you take any examples at random, it works out the same. Multiply any number by nine or any product of nine and you always come back to nine!

Further, consider this:

1×9=09

2×9=18

3×9=27

4×9=36

5×9=45

6×9=54

7×9=63

8×9=72

9×9=81

and so forth. Now if you look at the numbers in the left column they take us 1 through 9, going down. But note the numbers in the product: in the tens place we have 0 through 8 going down — and it would continue if we had the space. Moreover, in the far right-hand column the numbers go in reverse from 9 to 1, going down.  And, of course, the integers in the product always add up to nine. The symmetry is marvellous! No wonder the folks back then thought nine was a special number with mystical powers. Fun stuff! Too bad we have lost our sense of mystery. Think how much richer our world would be!

Truth To Tell

Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankee baseball player accused of using performance enhancing drugs — and later tampering with the evidence — has lost his appeal of a 211 game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball last year. The suspension was upheld, though it was reduced to 162 games, which will keep Rodriguez out of baseball next year. But not if the man himself has anything to say about it! He recently released a lengthy statement about the suspension on (of all things) his Facebook page. The statement says, in part:

I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension.

The interesting thing about the case — well, one of the interesting things — is that Rodriguez assuredly is in denial. He may believe this nonsense, but no one else believes him any more and he is making a fool of himself by going public (on Facebook!) and threatening to spend some of the millions of dollars he will earn next year for not playing baseball to take MLB to court. The larger point here is that this is simply another instance of the people our children regard as heroes (in this case, athletes) who tell flat-out lies and when caught continue to dig the hole they are in deeper and deeper. True, one of our “heroes”occasionally tells how sorry he is and swears it won’t happen again. But few believe him, either. None seems to want to take full responsibility for his actions and I cannot recall a single athlete who came out and confessed to taking performance enhancing drugs BEFORE he was caught.

But the large issue, aside from the inability of these people to take responsibility for their actions, is the fact that these “exemplary” individuals tell lies with a straight face and that has become perfectly normal behavior. We have always known used car salesmen and politicians lie, that’s a given. But now our heroes on the athletic fields have turned into unreliable and irresponsible persons — with a few notable exceptions. Moreover, coaches sign long-term contracts and break them before the ink is dry while marriages end up in divorce before the sheets have been laundered. So much for pledges and promises. And the kids see this sort of thing all around them and especially on television day in and day out. And, like our simian cousins, we learn by imitation. Homer Simpson lies, as does his unruly son Bart. (Don’t get me started about Beavis and Butt-head.) The teenagers on the Disney Channel lie a blue streak and treat their elders with disdain. Increasingly the folks on sit-coms lie as the writers have determined that if they have the central character tell a lie the consequences can be hilarious. Or so they think. Much of what passes for humor on the tube these days is downright mean and often suggests that telling lies is perfectly acceptable behavior.

My wife has said for years that the entertainment industry is largely responsible for shaping the character of our children these days — what with their parents either divorced or working and the television increasingly becoming the baby-sitter of choice. I used to think she was exaggerating but, as is so often the case, I have come around to her way of thinking. I do think the entertainment industry, which includes professional athletics (and semi-professional athletics at the NCAA I level) are in large measure responsible for sending repeated messages to all of us that lying and cheating are perfectly normal and if we get caught in that sort of behavior we should keep digging the hole deeper or, if we must, we can just own up and all will be forgiven — or folks will just have a good belly laugh. But it must be OK. After all, everyone does it. No?

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.