Our Way

I am reblogging a post from several years ago that makes the point I was trying to make in my last post in a slightly different — and more effective — way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Lessons

It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.

Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.

Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy.  He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.

In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in  Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.

If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.

Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.

Trump And American Education

Whatever other conclusions we might draw about the depressing number of Americans who have decided that Donald Trump can save America, one things stands out as a surety: it is an indictment of American education. I say that as one who spent 42 years of his life seeking to help young people gain control of their own minds and become independent, thoughtful citizens of the world.

We have known for some time that America lags behind the other so-called civilized nations on earth — anywhere from 17th in the world to 35th — and far behind such tiny nations as Finland. Indeed, a commission formed under Ronald Reagan in 1983 published a document titled “A Nation At Risk” that concluded that America was in serious trouble in contrast with other nations in such basic subjects as mathematics, science, and language comprehension. Skeptics at the time insisted that this was a “conservative” group put together by a reactionary president and it was dismissed as so much hooey. In a word, we shoot the messenger rather than to take the message to heart. All sorts of excuses were made — and are still being made — for the world rankings that placed this country in a bad light. But the fact remains that subsequent studies from agencies around the globe support what that commission determined was the case back in the early eighties.

There are reasons, of course, why America falls behind such countries as Finland — and I have touched on them in previous posts. It is obvious, for example, that teaching is not a prestige occupation in this country  and does not attract the best and brightest of our college students, as it does in Finland. In a country such as ours where success is marked in dollars and cents, the students have disdain for anyone who would work for slave wages — such as their teachers. We pay our teachers barely enough to live on and then expect them to teach difficult subjects to our children who as parents we have not taken the time to raise properly. Thus, much of their time is taken up with attempting to discipline spoiled children while at the same time they are told that they must not touch the students or even raise their voices.

Whatever the reasons, and I expect there are many more, the fact remains that our kids are simply not being taught how to read, write, and think. I know this  from my own personal experience during which I saw the level of learning drop from year to year and realized that much of my time was taken up explaining what the assigned text was saying — rather than expecting students to take the text to task and raise troublesome questions about what the authors were saying. My readings became shorter and easier to comprehend and my tests became easier to take. And my own readings about the experience of other teachers around the country — at the primary and secondary levels as well as in “higher” education, where much of the work has become remedial — confirmed my own experience.

In any event, what this all translates to is that large numbers of people are easily taken in by a glib speaker who seems self-assured and says the kinds of things people want desperately to hear. And this is especially the case if that speaker pledges to start anew, with a clean slate, and make America great again. They don’t know what the man is talking about except that they have been told all their lives that certain things are taboo and this man tells them this is not so; and they don’t even realize that as an American president there is very little he can do, in fact, because of the limitations of the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold — but which none of those people have read and about which the man himself has shown astonishing ignorance. No one with a modicum of critical thinking skills would be taken in by such a charlatan. He has bragged that he holds the educated in low esteem, but he need not do that because there are very few educated people any more — at least in the sense of this word that has any meaning whatever: those who can read, write, speak, and figure the tip in a restaurant.

The fact that folks have fallen in behind a self-absorbed demagogue should not surprise anyone. It was inevitable, given the failure of our education system. That’s where the problem starts.

Why? In Politics

I posted recently about the need to continue to ask “the why question? in an effort to exercise the little gray cells. At no time is this more important than when we have to make major decisions in the midst of a media frenzy that overwhelms us with political rhetoric and thinly disguised lies and fictions. Like many others, I continue to ask myself why I should or should not vote for particular candidates and here’s what I have come up with so far — noting that this is tentative and subject to further evidence and argument.

Why Donald Trump? I honestly cannot find many reasons to support this man and this makes the project that much more difficult. I don’t like him or what he stand for, thus I fear that I am guided by gut feelings. But, at the same time, I seek to understand why so many people have fallen in behind this man and I discover a few reasons though they do strike me as rather weak. I doubt that their affection for this man has much to do with reasons. Anyway, many who seem devoted to him are opposed to “big government” which they also regard as corrupt. They see Trump as a step in another direction. There is a certain weight to this reason. It is said that he is anti-establishment, not a politician of the usual stripe. Many find him disarmingly honest and straightforward, though when one looks closely this appears to be a facade behind which hides a failed businessman, a xenophobe and misogynist, a thin-skinned bully, and a megalomaniac who is, as was recently noted, a “serial liar.” Moreover, and more importantly, he is ignorant of international affairs and lacks credibility with our allies, thus weakening the nation’s position vis-á-vis other nations. In a word, it would appear the “reasons” for supporting this man are few in number and very weak.

Why Bernie Sanders? Here the reasons jump out. He appears to be a man of principle and integrity. As well, it appears that he is out of the mainstream of politics, having served in the Senate as an Independent and refusing to accept any of the PAC money allowed to politicians who run for president. The fact that he lacks the support of the Democratic Party and that the media ignore him are factors in his favor, strange to say. He is bright and very up on current issues; he obviously cares about the nation and realizes that the real battle is not between Republicans and Democrats but between the corporations that are taking over this country and the people who are supposed to rule. On the other hand, he appears to be naive, an idealist who has many good ideas but very little hope of realizing many of them if elected and forced to work with a Congress like the present one that has sworn to refuse to cooperate with any Democrat of any stripe whatever. His idealism is delightful, but idealists can become cynical when they realize how few of their ideals can be realized. Unless he has a more cooperative Congress, he would almost certainly be a lame-duck for four years.

Why Hillary Clinton? Here we have an interesting problem. This woman is a seasoned politician though this is not a good thing these days when so many folks are convinced that all politicians are corrupt. There are clear signs that she is not above corruption: she has her hand deep into the pockets of the corporations and has shown a disturbing willingness to compromise her principles. But she is a progressive Democrat with a good mind and she might be able to work with an otherwise intransigent Congress. She knows where the skeletons are buried and if she doesn’t her husband does. Together they have shown they have consummate political savvy, and while this is a curse as well as a blessing, it would serve her well as Leader of the Free World (as some would have it). And given the shenanigans of the Democratic party and its system of nominating those chosen by the “superdelegates” Clinton is almost certain to be the nominee.

On balance it would appear that anyone who might approach this election with an open mind — which, admittedly is a very difficult thing to do when we are surrounded by lies and half-truths and are asked to go with our gut rather than with our minds — Clinton appears to be the least problematic of the three, the one most likely to accomplish a few things while president which under her leadership, unfortunately, will continue in the direction of an oligarchy — as many, including myself, believe our system already is.

When the dust finally settles and we are provided with two candidates for president (who might be none of the above!) I side with the the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, who worked closely with Donald Trump on the development of one of Trump’s golf courses. He recently said America has a choice between insanity and sanity. If Trump emerges as the Republican nominee I do believe the Scot is basically correct.

 

Super Delegates

For all his popular support, Bernie Sanders has refused to play ball with the D.N.C. and that may cost him the election. The key to the Democratic nomination is the superdelegates, some 712 hand-picked delegates who are “encouraged” to vote the party line and that line points to Hillary Clinton, not Sanders. As was recently asked by the New Republic,

How is this possible? The answer is superdelegates, the 712 votes doled out to Democratic National Committee officers, elected officials, and other party luminaries. The superdelegates are free to vote for their preferred nominee, unbound by the will of the voters—and if a nominee they think is terrible for the party is close to securing the nomination, they can conceivably throw their weight behind an alternative.

The reason this can and almost certainly will happen is due to the fact that in the early 1980s a handful of powerful Democrats met to decide how to make sure mavericks like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter (who were soundly trounced by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively) would never again be the party’s nominee. They paved the way for the 712 delegates to be kept in the wings until the nomination is taking place, at which time they will vote for the person they think is the best candidate — presumably the one who will toe the party line — though, as mentioned above, the superdelegates are (theoretically) free to vote their conscience.

How did this come about? For seven months, between August 1981 and February 1982, 70 of the most powerful people in the Democratic party formed what was called the “Hunt Commission” which met in posh hotels in Washington D.C. and came up with the notion of the superdelegates. As has been noted:

The [initial] gathering got off on a light note when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser joked that the party could simply announce it wouldn’t nominate anyone selected through the primaries. This, the transcript [of the meetings] notes, elicited “general laughter.”

The very democracy of the primary process [up to that point] appears to have made the commission members nervous. They felt they had to give party elites — elected officials and high-ranking party members — a greater hand in choosing candidates, or as Xandra Kayden, a member of the Center for Democratic Policy (now Center for National Policy), put it, the power to “to regain control of the nomination.”

This was partly couched in a belief in elites’ superior judgment. “They bring to the convention a certain political acumen, a certain political antenna,” explained Connecticut state Sen. Dick Schneier, a liberal member of the party.

‘Thus, no matter how popular Bernie Sanders is with the voters, and even though the polls might say (as they assuredly do) that he has a better chance to beat Donald Trump than does Hillary Clinton, it is all but assured that the superdelegates (all but 39 at present count) will vote for Clinton, the party’s choice to be next president. She currently has 2,293 delegates while Sanders has only 1,533. The shift of the superdelegates at the Democratic Convention will put her well over the 2,383 necessary to win the nomination, regardless of what occurs in the interim — unless there should be a sudden rush to throw the weight of several hundred of these special people  behind Sanders.

In the 1970s the Democratic party decided that the people should be the ones to determine their nominee, and they promoted the primaries  and encouraged more of the rank and file  to participate in the selection process. But the selection by the people of McGovern and Carter (and Sanders??) is not consistent with what the party leaders want. Thus, they changed the game. The result is the absurd concept of the superdelegates who will, in large part, determine who the next Democratic Nominee for president of this country is to be — if not the president himself or herself.

Is it fair? Certainly not. Is it Democracy? It is not. But it is realpolitik in today’s world where the powerful and the wealthy (usually the same people) determine who plays the political game. The rest is simply window dressing: for some reason it is important to keep up the impression that the process is a democratic one, that the people are the ones who choose their president. But that is simply not the case any more — if, indeed, it ever was.

 

Noam Chomsky’s Prediction

I have decided to borrow the following article from a site called “Salon” despite the fact that Chomsky worries about the rise of an “honest” charismatic character and what we have is a dishonest charismatic character in Donald Trump (who, admittedly appears to be honest to the blind mice who follow him). But the prediction is remarkable and worth pondering. Can anyone still have doubts about this nation being a de facto oligarchy?

In an interview with Chris Hedges in 2010, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and dissident intellectual, remarked that he has “never seen anything like this.”
By this, he meant the state of American society, relative to the time in which he was raised — the Depression years — and to the tumultuous state of Europe during that same period.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky said. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”
For decades, Chomsky has warned of the right turn of the Democratic Party, which has, in an effort to win elections, adopted large swaths of the Republican platform and abandoned the form of liberalism that gave us the New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“Trump has been viewed with bewilderment by politicians who have divorced themselves from the needs of the people and who have sold them false goods to get ahead. But Trump, as Chomsky’s prescient interview demonstrates, was inevitable.”
This new approach was canonized by Bill Clinton, who triumphantly declared that the “era of big government is over.”
With this declaration, Clinton ushered in a new era of the Democratic Party (the so-called New Democrats), which left behind the working class and cultivated amiable relationships with corporate executives and Wall Street financiers; many of them would eventually occupy key positions in Clinton’s government, and many of them emerged once more during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The philosophical bent of the New Democrats was best summarized by Charles Peters in “A Neoliberal Manifesto,” in which he defines neoliberalism as an ideology perfect for those who “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Democrats, since Peters penned his manifesto, have far exceeded the bounds of this seemingly neutral stance.
Bill Clinton, for his part, destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, worsened the growing mass incarceration crisis, and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping deal that harmed millions of workers, in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Today, President Obama, in partnership with congressional Republicans, is lobbying aggressively for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been deemed by critics “NAFTA on steroids.” The agreement, if made the law of the land, will encompass 40% of global GDP and will grant massive companies unprecedented power.
Despite President Obama’s promises of transparency, the public has been forced to rely on leaked information to glean any specifics about the deal — and, based on the information we have, the agreement is a disaster for workers and the environment and, unsurprisingly, a boon for multinational corporations.
Democrats, in short, have left the working class in the dust, often using “the excuse,” as a recent New York Times editorial put it, “that they need big-money backers to succeed.”
Republicans, meanwhile, as Chomsky has observed, are “dedicated with utter servility” to the interests of the wealthy, and their party, with its longing for war and denial of climate science, “is a danger to the human species.”
So we are faced with a political system largely devoted to the needs of organized wealth, which leaves working people anxious, worried about the future, and, as we have seen, very angry. In essence, political elites — on both sides — have created a vacuum into which a charismatic and loudmouthed demagogue can emerge.
As Chomsky noted in his interview with Hedges, “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response.”

Justice?

Albert Camus, the novelist and member of the French Underground during the occupation of France by the Germans, died at the young age of 46 in an automobile accident. Throughout his life he was opposed to capital punishment. He sensed that his opposition would be ineffectual, but he thought it worthwhile none the less. Indeed, he championed the view that despite the absurd nature of human existence one ought always to fight against what one thought was evil. Once one stops fighting he simply takes up space. He thought capital punishment was evil.

A clue to the depth of that feeling is found in his autobiographical novel The First Man, which was published after his death by his daughter, working from notes scribbled in the margins of the hand-written manuscript. In that novel he tells of an experience his father had early in the child’s life when he went to a public hanging of a man who was reputed to have killed his employers and three children. There was widespread hatred directed toward the killer and the trial was quick and public hanging was the verdict. Speaking of himself in the third person, as “Jacques,” Camus describes the scene afterwards:

“. . . Jacques’s father was livid when he came home; he went to bed, then got up several times to vomit, and went back to bed. He never wanted to talk about what he had seen. And on the night he heard the story, Jacques himself, when he was lying huddled on the side of the bed . . . choked back his nausea and his horror as he relived the details he had heard and those he imagined. And throughout his life those images had followed him even into his sleep . . .”

I have written about capital punishment before though it is a topic that seems to be only of mild interest to people for the most part — perhaps because we don’t have public executions — yet. There has been discussion of such a possibility, but even in this blood-lusting culture so far it has remained only a dream in the hearts and minds of those who think justice is all about revenge. Because, in a word, that is was capital punishment is: revenge. It is assuredly not justice, especially in an age when we discover growing numbers of cases of false identity and miscarriages of the legal procedures that incarcerate (and execute) men, mostly black men, only to discover that they were innocent. Indeed, it is precisely the likelihood (and I stress that term) of human error that undermines any possible argument for taking the life of one human being because he presumably took another or other lives. If humans were infallible, which we assuredly are not, there might be a case for capital punishment. But because we are not and because we tend to let our passions and raw emotions dwarf our judgment, there can be no possible argument for taking a human life to avenge another life.

I have often thought about this on a deeply personal level: how would I react if my wife or my sons were killed and the killer was caught and brought to trial? Would I want that person executed in order to right a wrong? It’s hard to say, but I expect I wouldn’t be thinking clearly and would simply want someone punished and punished soundly for what they did. But that would be my emotions taking control. In my mind, when it is clear, I know that it would be wrong. Taking a human life under any circumstances is wrong and cannot be justified. It can be rationalized, we can find bad reasons for doing what we want to do on a visceral level, but it cannot be justified.

Why?

Though it was, admittedly, many years ago, I recall vividly the very first seminar I attended as a Freshman in college. This was a real seminar, where the students were expected to carry the ball; not a “seminar” where students sat and listened to an “expert” talk at them. We had been reading Homer’s Illiad and about midway through the two-hour seminar I made what I thought was a salient point about the reasons Hector dragged Achilles’ body three times around Troy after killing him. Almost immediately another student looked at me and asked “why?” I was stunned. I thought the point was obvious. Why should I have to give reasons for what otherwise was as obvious as the proverbial nose on your face?

My blogging buddy Keith recently mentioned that his daughter, a college Freshman, was praised by her professor for writing a paper in his class in which she took exception to what the author had said. She was praised because she was one of the few students who disagreed with what she was reading and being told. She had asked herself the question: “why?” She was praised because she was one of the few who had done so.

Little kids ask the question “why? repeatedly out of their natural curiosity. Their fathers and mothers answer until they are finally forced to say “because I said so.” Perhaps this stops the question, but not for long. The child soon begins again: “Why Daddy?”  “Why Mommy?” Eventually they stop asking the question. And the schools rarely encourage students to ask the question, so the kids stop asking questions and increasingly believe what they are told  — even by chronic liars who couldn’t tell a fact if it came up and bit them in the butt.

Why is this? I never stopped asking this question after that first seminar. In fact, we had four years of seminars twice a week in which students were constantly asking the “why question.” It led me to philosophy where I have continued to ask the question ever since. Indeed, I wrote an ethics book that centers on the question “why?” in an attempt to encourage the students to ask that question at every turn — just as they did as little children. The “why question” requires that reasons be given for claims being made. One doesn’t simply accept as fact the things people say or write. One demands evidence and argument support — even in ethics, where we too frequently dismiss complex issues with the lazy response “who’s to say?”

Complex issues demand thought and the refusal to stop asking the why question until we have reached a point where the answer seems to be staring us in the face. When the weight of the evidence seems to have provided the answer, it is time to stop (subject to further review). But we never know when we have reached that point until we have examined the issue from both sides and have eliminated all possibilities. It is an exhausting process, but it is what makes us think when we might otherwise allow our mental faculties to sleep and simply accept as true a claim that is blatantly false. You know, the kinds of things that certain politicians say all the time.

There has never been a better time than the present to ask the “why question,” and we should not stop until it seems pointless to ask it any more. And that point cannot be reached without persistence and determination to know what is true and separate the true from the false, the absurd from the plausible, the reasonable from the unreasonable. We will never know where that point is until we have reached it. And it is best to have someone asking it with us, because two heads really are better than one — as I learned lo those many years ago in that seminar.

Empty Churches

Abandoned Church Photo by Matthias Haker

Abandoned Church
Photo by Matthias Haker

The photograph on this page is one of a series of abandoned churches around the world taken by German photographer Matthias Haker. Interestingly, he does not name the churches or the places where they can be located. But all are, like this one, abandoned and falling apart. The pictures tell a story much more powerful than words: like the churches, religion is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

This is not a popular theme and I have written about it in the past with little or no response. People don’t like to think about it. But the fact remains that traditional churches, generally, are being abandoned and turned into apartments, homes, or even public houses and taverns. The latter are simply more useful in a culture absorbed by itself and its pleasures. The church which has traditionally made demands of people — following the admonitions in the New Testament — preaches to closed ears and closed minds.

To be sure, the mega-churches have grown in size while their preachers buy jet planes and try to explain their huge salaries in light of the fact that the Gospel they preach urges all to give up their wealth and follow the Lord. But these mega-churches, as I have noted in the past, are really gathering places for folks who want to give the appearance of being religious while, during the rest of the week — if not the rest of the day — they go back to business as usual. It should not be thought for a moment that those churches have anything whatever to do with religion. They simply collect people once a week in huge buildings complete with coffee bars, lounge chairs, TVs, and bookstores selling the latest publication written by the man standing before them in flowing robes pretending to be a model of religious purity.

Indeed, the commonality among all religions is the notion of sacrifice. Those who seek to follow the path laid out for them by divine direction always, without exception, must sacrifice short-term pleasure and control their desires in order to do “the right thing,” the holy thing. The notion that one can simply “go to church” once a week and ipso facto be a religious person borders on the absurd. There is nothing whatever about attending church in, for example, the New Testament, though there is a great deal about the sacrifices required in order to do what is required to purify one’s soul.

But, like the churches themselves, the notion of the soul, along with the concern for what might happen to it after one’s body finally gives up, are passé. That’s yesterday’s news. Today, it’s all about growing the numbers of communicants and making sure they are told what they want to hear and not required to do what they might find demanding. Talk about sacrifice would result in wholesale exiting of the congregation in order to find a more appealing church to attend of a Sunday. I know of a specific case in which a large portion of a congregation left a particular church because the leaders had decided that it was acceptable to hire homosexual preachers. Now, the fact that the number of homosexual preachers can probably be counted on one hand, it was regarded, nevertheless, as a matter of “principle.” That is, it was grounds for rejection of a doctrine that is consistent with the love preached in the Gospels, because those retreating members regarded that doctrine as unacceptable. Today it’s not about what others demand of us, it’s about what we demand of ourselves. And that seldom, if ever, requires any sacrifice whatever.

Thus the crumbling and abandoned churches. Nietzsche was right: God is dead. We don’t need Him any more. We’ve got Google.

There’s Still Hope!

I meet on a regular basis with a good friend who still teaches at the university where I taught for 37 years. He teaches English and was talking about a remarkable paper written by one of his students in a Freshman Composition class. The student is a high school student taking college classes in order to reduce the time and money spent in college later on. It’s a program that Minnesota has had in place for many years now and some of our best students have been those kids who are still in high school. In any event, the paper this student wrote was so remarkable that I asked for a copy and read it with astonishment. The assignment was to go to the library, take any magazine and write what most impressed the student about that particular publication. The idea was to (a) teach the students where the library is, (b) have them read a magazine and (c) test their observational and writing skills. This student picked the National Geographic. He decided to compare and contrast recent copies with several written years before — as early as 1915.

The student was impressed with the great difference between the older version of the magazine and more recent issues. He compared the length of the articles and was struck by their simplicity and brevity. As he noted “Fewer words and more pictures.” He then went through two articles, both on Armenia as it happens, in the two publications — word by word! After the more recent article, he concluded:

“This passage contains ninety-six words, four sentences, nine commas, two colons, one pair of quotation marks, and one pair of dashes.”

He then contrasted this with an older article on the same topic and noted that:

“This passage has 146 words, four sentences, twenty-two commas, two semi-colons, and a pair of dashes. There are four lists, if groups of adjectives are not counted, and there are even instances of figurative language present in the older article that are not found in the newer one. On average, there are 4.67 letters per word in the first [newer] passage and 1.39 syllables. This is significantly different from the 5.58 letters per word in the second [older] excerpt, and the 2.26 syllables. We are simpler now than we were before. . .”

Needless to say, after this remarkable study of the particulars in the two articles he was eager to draw conclusions — as you can see from his final comment. But he shores up that conclusion with further evidence. At the very end of his paper he contrasts two passages from literature, a short story by Conan Doyle and another current one by Stephanie Meyer. His conclusion is worth pondering:

“These passages both describe characters that the protagonist is meeting for the first time. The descriptions, however, are barely comparable. Meyer is vague and barely scratches the surface of the characters, while Doyle goes in depth about his character. Meyer uses sentence fragments in her writing, while Doyle uses comprehensive sentences. The styles are not simply 2000s writing against 1910s writing; there is more to the differences than that. People do not want to read the older literature on the grounds that it is ‘too hard,’ it takes effort and time to truly comprehend Doyle’s work, where anyone could understand what Meyer writes about.”

I would also note the shrunken vocabularies and diminished imaginations of those who still read and write — a number that also seems to be shrinking.

It is possible that this student is writing what his professor wants him to say (students tend to do that) or even that he pilfered this article from the net. But that would all be sour grapes. I prefer to think that this young person has a good head on his or her shoulders and not only writes well but also thinks well. I realize, of course, as does my friend, that this student is one of those few that have slipped between the cracks of a decaying educational system. This is why we were so excited. So many of their peers in colleges all around this country prefer the picture books and the short paragraphs that demand no intellectual effort whatever. Reading, writing, and thinking have become passé.

This explains the growing popularity of a demagogue who uses small words, twists the truth around his tiny fingers, makes vapid promises he cannot possibly keep, and seems, contrary to Lincoln, capable of fooling a great many people most, if not all, the time. Still, it is delightful to read such a paper and to know that there is hope if young people such as this manage to work their way to the top and have a say about the future of this country and our besieged planet.