Want and Need

Because of a very interesting comment on one of my recent posts, my attention was drawn back to a distinction I have noted before but one which we as a culture have lost sight of totally. I refer, of course, to the distinction between “want” and “need.” Now, it might be said that distinctions are of interest only to philosophers — and others of their peculiar type — but in fact they help us to be clear about what it is we are saying. In this case, the distinction goes to the heart of some rather alarming mistakes we are making as a culture. I refer to the mistakes we have made both as parents and teachers.

John Dewey (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

John Dewey
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In education, the movement to “progressive,” child-oriented education under John Dewey and the faculties of  Columbia University Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago Laboratory School that followed after him led directly to the present deterioration of our educational system and also to poor parenting. Dewey thought at the time, in the early thirties, that the schools were too focused on what was being taught and had lost sight of who were being taught — namely, the children. To an extent this was true, but his followers got the bit in their teeth and, contrary to Dewey’s intention, ran with the notion that education should be totally focused on the child and the substance of what was taught really didn’t matter. It took a while and it was not without its critics, but “progressive education” and what we might call “progressive parenting” were born. The most profound comment I have ever read about this mistake was made by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in an article she wrote in 1969. At that time she said:

“. . .progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

The focus here, not only in education but also in parenting since the 1950s at least, is on the fundamental difference between what children want and what they need. In addition, Arendt draws attention to the fact that parents and teachers are, whether they like it or not, authority figures. And we ought to act like it. But we do not. We ask the children what they want to do or learn and take our cue from them. Thus we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of making those choices for them, despite the fact that we must realize that those children really have no idea what they need and in many cases don’t even know what they want. Like it or not, it is the parents and the teachers who must make the decisions for those too young to be expected to make them themselves.

In any event, gradually teachers and parents ceased to play the role of authority figures and turned the raising and teaching of their children over the what Christopher Lasch called “the helping professions,” the behavioral psychologists and social workers who claimed to know what was best for the children and founded that knowledge on the answers the children gave to the question “what do you want to do (learn)?” By asking the children, or students, what they wanted to do or learn we gradually lost sight of the question of what they needed to know and in doing so (as Arendt so astutely pointed out) absolved ourselves of the responsibility of raising or teaching the children what they need to know and do in order to work their way through the maze that is the modern world. In a word, we took the path of least resistance and in doing so abandoned the children to their whims and fancies. Not a good way to do things.

In the end, the focus on what children and students need got lost in the tizzy to give them what they wanted and thus was born the age of entitlement. And this is the world we live in at present while we struggle to figure out what went wrong. Our kids, especially the so-called “millennialists,” are confused and bewildered and ultimately without direction or purpose. And it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault that these young people are now  a part of the confused generation, wondering what went wrong and which direction will lead them to success, properly understood as well-being and happiness. That road begins and ends with the answer to the question: what do these young people need? And while adults may struggle with the answer to this question, we have a better take on it than do those who are too young to have learned where the blind alleys and dead ends are.

Advertisements

Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.

Gridlock

It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

Dumping Trump?

As is well known by now the Republican Establishment has no love for the man who appears to be the sure-fire Republican candidate for president in November. Rumors have been flying for months about ways to dump the man at the convention this Summer and find someone who is more popular with the mainstream Republicans and, more to the point, someone who can defeat Hillary Clinton. The polls show increasingly that Trump cannot beat Hillary despite the fact that many Sanders supporters are totally disenchanted by the political system that has bypassed their man and nearly half of them say they will not vote for Hillary. This disenchantment has helped boost the candidacy of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, who is in disfavor with both the Republicans and Democrats who, she thinks, are too mainstream and unwilling to take the country where it needs to go — away from war and toward a greener future. Many of the Sanders supporters would appear to be likely to switch allegiance to Stein rather than Hillary. Despite these problems on the political left, Trump has problems of his own. The point was made rather succinctly in a recent story about the move to dump Trump which is gaining momentum on the political right:

Members of the GOP Convention Rules committee are planning to consider an amendment to allow delegates a way out of voting for Trump on the first ballot—an effort that in an extreme could be used to deny him the nomination.

Under the proposal, delegates could be granted conscientious objector status, thereby freeing them from their pledge to vote as they are bound as the result of primaries and caucuses. The measure, first put forward by Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh, would undo the strict ‘faithless-delegate’ rule enacted at the GOP convention in 2012 and allow a “vote of conscience, whether personal or religious” by delegates.

“Allowable personal reasons shall include the public disclosure of one or more grievous acts of personal conduct by a nominee candidate, including but not limited to, criminally actionable acts, acts of moral turpitude or extreme prejudice, and/or notorious public statements of support for positions that clearly oppose or contradict the policies embodied in the Republican Party’s platform as established at the national convention,” the amendment says.

Interesting concept: political conscientious objection — as if the term “political conscience” weren’t an oxymoron! Those deligates seemingly committed to voting for Donald Trump on the first ballot can switch allegiance on the grounds — solid to be sure — that he has engaged in “acts of moral turpitude or extreme prejudice, and/or notorious statements of support for positions that clearly oppose or contradict the policies, etc. etc.” This assumes, of course, that enough of those delegates understand what moral turpitude is and do honestly object to the way Trump has run his campaign, thus seeing him as a palpably unfit candidate for the highest office in the land. I see it clearly, as do so many others. But whether those who attend the Republican convention this Summer will see this and vote their “conscience” remains to be seen. And this assumes that this tactic will be adopted by the Republican party prior to the convention. If it is not, I dare say, another policy will surface, because the Republican Establishment clearly does not want this man to carry their banner in the Fall.

So, the Democrats need to keep an eye on Jill Stein while the Republicans need to keep their eye on Libertarian candidates such as Gary Johnson and William Weld who will take a few votes away from their chosen candidate, whoever that turns out to be. But one thing seems assured, and that is that Trump’s followers will not go quietly. Even if Trump decides to “go it alone,” as he has threatened, they will surely see a conspiracy and appear to be the types of people who will raise Hell if they think their man has been screwed by the political process –a process they hate with a passion.

It could prove to be a most interesting Summer. Stay tuned!

Earwigs

EarwigAs was the case several years back, we are having an earwig infestation. Yuk! They are outside the house as well as in the house. Everywhere. I don’t mean by the hundreds, but we will see six or eight in the house in a day, sometimes more than a dozen. The other day we found six before breakfast — and four more soon afterwards! And you never know where they will show up. They are small, about the size of a large ant. And, as you can see, they are ugly bugs; they are insidious. They appear in or under coffee cups, on (or in) your toothbrush or hairbrush, in cupboards, on walls, on the floor or counter. A friend of ours found one in her child’s sippy-cup straw just before her child was about to take a drink of her milk. You lift a plate and they crawl out; you open a cupboard and they are sitting on the edge of your dinner plates; you pick up an item of clothing and they drop out (if you are lucky). They scurry quickly when the light goes on and they do bite, or pinch, I am told. I am also told they got their name from the fact that they hole up in people’s ears while folks are sleeping. I don’t know whether this is a fact, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They are plentiful and they are very unsettling.

These creatures are most abundant during warm and wet seasons, like the one we are having at present, and they like dark, damp places. But, as mentioned, they appear everywhere — and always, it seems, when least expected. It does make one tense and wanting to be somewhere else.

They put me in mind of the creatures that Donald Trump has exposed by turning over rocks and allowing ugly bugs to escape and multiply. Many come heavily armed, and they are angry, stupid, and they want to hurt. Trump’s creatures, of course, are much more dangerous. The earwigs don’t kill (as far as I know), but those inspired by the rhetoric of one of America’s greatest salesmen are capable of pretty much anything. One really cannot predict. Like the earwigs. They are there; they make us tense and wanting to be somewhere else. Moreover, unlike earwigs, you can’t simply flush Trump’s bugs down the toilet — sad to say.

 

Frustration Aplenty

I think, perhaps, the most frustrating thing to me about the triumph of Donald Trump is the inability — or unwillingness — of hordes of people to see through the facade, to the man beneath. It is so painfully obvious to a great many people that he is replete with character flaws despite the fact that he is also a master at channeling human emotions, chiefly fear and hatred, toward a desired goal. In every case the goal is the greater glory of Donald Trump. I don’t think he cares a tinker’s dam about this country or about the well-being of those who adoringly hang on his every word and rush off in whatever direction he points to.

The latest example of this, of course, is the terrible shooting in Orlando where at least 49 people were killed by a madman. Immediately the Trumpet jumped into the confusion calling the event a clear act of terrorism (which it was by any definition of that term) and hastily pointing fingers at the religion of Islam. After hinting broadly that our sitting president was somehow complicit, Trump insisted that the shooter was born in “Afghan” (which I thought was a blanket, but which apparently is a country that Donald Trump invented). In fact, of course, the man was born in New York — not far from Donald Trump as it happens. But this obvious stupidity was overlooked, as it always seems to be, by his purblind minions who are ready to take up arms against the enemy who happens to be anyone who at the moment is irritating Donald Trump.

In the face of this emotional frenzy — which is the sort of situation Trump seems better able than most to make worse  — we hear the calm voice of reason in the form of Hillary Clinton’s urge to calm down and figure out how best to deal with the real enemy and avoid fanning the fires of hatred toward an entire religion that preaches, as it happens, peace and love. As someone recently said, “This act had about as much to do with religion as it had to do with horticulture. The guy was an unstable time bomb who hated everyone who wasn’t him, but who nonetheless had no trouble at all buying an AR-15 rifle and a handgun . . . ” None the less, Trump’s reaction is to refuse all Muslims admission to this country. As Clinton noted in a recent rally in Pittsburg, referring to Trump’s hysterical reaction to the shooting in Orlando:

“We don’t need conspiracy theories and pathological self-congratulations,” said Clinton. “We need leadership, common sense and concrete plans, because we are facing a brutal enemy.”

As Hillary goes on to point out, the Trumpet’s variety of hysterical fear-mongering is the very thing ISIS hopes to encourage in this country and it helps their cause immensely.  Now, I have said it before and I repeat it here: I am not  a Hillary Clinton fan. I think she sails way too close to the wind, has her hand deep within the pockets of the wealthy robber-barons of Wall Street who have so much to say about how this country is to be run, and seems to be every bit as ambitious as is Donald Trump. But as we have been told by the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, who worked closely with Donald Trump in Scotland, our choice is between sanity and insanity in the upcoming election. And that choice forces us, it would appear, to choose the lesser of evils. I say this while realizing that Clinton is politically astute, has wide and deep international experience, and is bright and able — despite her  flaws. She would make a decent president, I believe. But in light of the choice that faces us all, she appears brighter than bright white.

In the end, my frustration over the fact that so many have been taken in by a super-salesman whose main claim to high office is his ability to sell himself to the deluded and mentally incompetent. I will try to keep on an even keel and in doing so will choose to listen to reason, which is the voice Hillary Clinton speaks with most of the time, and to close my ears to the wild exaggerations and hysteria that are all around us and seek to drown us in a sea of hatred and fear. The coming months will test the best in all of us.

The Dead Horse

I have been kicking this poor, dead horse for more than fifteen years, starting with my book Recalling Education in 2001. But the following protest by English majors at Yale University — of all places — makes me want to take one more kick. I must say, I know how Bernie Sanders feels (and Cassandra). He knows what is wrong with this country and has a pretty good idea how to fix things. But while there are those who follow his lead (and I do wish I had that many followers!) the people who have the power to actually support his efforts, to take him seriously, simply turn away and ignore him altogether. He is spitting against the wind. I know that feeling: kicking a dead horse while spitting into the wind!

In any event, the following snippet on the ‘net drew my attention:

Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.

“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

We can all sincerely hope that this will not happen. But what is interesting here is that these students want to determine the curriculum while they obviously have no idea whatever what education is all about. It is certainly not about what the students want; it’s about what they need. Moreover, it is not about information, “Correct” or “Incorrect,” though information is a necessary condition of education — one cannot do without it and, as we are seeing, the uneducated among us are terribly misinformed and don’t know a fact from a lie. But while information is necessary it is not sufficient. One must be able to assimilate and process information, separate fact from fiction, truth from falsity, recognize hyperbole and humor. And that’s where these students — and many faculty in my experience — go wrong. They confuse cultural diversity with intellectual diversity. The latter, like information, is necessary for an education; the former is not.

Surely, it is a good thing to know about diverse cultures and there is no reason whatever that these students should not be introduced to cultures other than their own. But above all else they must be introduced to intellectual diversity, the difference of opinion, preferably among men and women of extraordinary stature, the great minds among us. This kind of diversity is found in the so-called “classics” of Western tradition, which these students choose to ignore. There are no two minds in that tradition that agree with one another about much of anything. For example, Aristotle was Plato’s student and he disagreed with his teacher about every important item in the panoply of human thought — except that thought itself is essential for the human being to achieve his or her full potential.

Our students, especially at prestigious universities like Yale where the leaders of tomorrow will study, need to know about intellectual diversity. They need to learn how to use their minds, to become free and independent thinkers who are not bound by cultural boundaries and who recognize tomfoolery and bloat when they see and hear it. They need to read and discuss the greatest minds that have ever lived. This will not happen if their teachers listen to their pleas (threats?) and throw out such thinkers as the great English poets and writers who have helped form the warp and woof of the civilization we are all struggling to maintain.

Diversity is important. Information is important. But cultural diversity and mere information are not sufficient to guarantee that young minds will take possession of themselves. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As the article goes on to point out,

There’s nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there’s only so much that can be done. There just aren’t that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.

Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.

In a word, we need to know whereof we speak before we turn our backs on great minds. Those minds are the very ones that can free our own.

Sierra Report

On a semi-regular basis I share some of the information that comes in the monthly Sierra Magazine. They have a page they call “Up To Speed: Two Months, One Page.” I summarize some of the information on that page here:

The Bad News:

• March 2016 was the warmest month one record. It was the 11th straight month to set the record, which was also unprecedented.*

• Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose by the greatest margin on record.*

• For the second year in a row the Arctic Sea ice has shrunk to a record low.*

• Mitsubishi admitted that it has been exaggerating the fuel economy of its cars sold in Japan for 25 years.

• The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that local governments, such as those in Longmont and Fort Colins, cannot ban fracking in their jurisdictions.

[*And yet we have a presidential candidate who insists that Global Warming is a hoax while, at the same time, he petitions the Scottish government for permission to build a sea wall to protect his golf course in Scotland from rising sea waters. (This would also come under the heading of “bad news,” except that it deserves its own category — perhaps: More Insanity?? )]

The Good News:

• Oregon announced that it will stop buying coal entirely by 2030.

• Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company declared bankruptcy.

• ConAgra Foods, General Mills, and Kellogg said they will voluntarily label foods containing GMOs.

• President Obama withdrew his earlier proposal to open the southeastern Atlantic seaboard to oil and gas drilling.

• Within a month of the Tesla Model 3’s unveiling, nearly 400,000 people had paid $1000 apiece to reserve the all-electric car.

* Seaworld announced that it will stop the captive breeding of orcas.

 

 

 

 

Dumbing Down America II

In light of the “Trump phenomenon,” which has even Stephen Hawking bewildered, I thought I would reblog a post from 2011 that tries to figure out what went wrong. A large part of our problem is the fact that Trump gets headlines every time he farts and Bernie Sanders gathers thousands to his rallies and gets no notice whatever. Other than the fact that the corporations pretty much own the media these days — and they do NOT want Sanders to be the nominee of the Democratic Party — the media have fumbled the ball. But, as planned, Hillary has recovered the fumble and is running with it. 

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.

Victimhood

My good friend Dana Yost recently made an excellent comment on a previous post dealing with Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. While I noted that the narrator admired his grandmother’s Victorian stoicism in dealing with a self-involved husband, Dana pointed out the fact that his grandmother, like so many of the women in her era, was worthy of our sympathy. She had, after all, lived with a man who loved her but, as Dana notes “always on his terms.” She was indeed powerless in an age in which women were generally powerless. Dana fell short of calling the grandmother a “victim,” but what he was saying put me in mind of a book by our mutual friend Joe Amato, titled Victims and Values, on the nature of victimhood in which he says, speaking of American history after the debacle of the Viet Nam War:

“The language of victims, spoken by blacks, Native Americans, women, Latinos, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, animal rights advocates, representatives of wildlife, and others, became a part of standard public discourse, as did the poor, hungry, and the oppressed of the third world. This language escalated and it becomes a means for seeking moral dominance and contending for power. . .

“. . . heightened sensitivity was proclaimed to be a precious good; caring became an obligation; and compassion, ever more conspicuously flaunted, was assumed to be readily available in the human heart. At the extremes even those who committed crimes against property and persons were welcomed into the fold of victims. In fact, their crimes became proof that they themselves, not the victims of those crimes, were the true victims of the system. . . .

“The word ‘victim,’ once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hyper-complaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

In a word, the term is being used so widely — and for various reasons, some of which are bogus — that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Amato’s notion that it being used to seek “moral dominance” and “contending for power” by certain groups of people is especially interesting and echoes the point I made in an earlier post about the “will to power.” Assuredly, many of those who claim to be victims do so to draw attention to themselves and to demand recompense. Their suffering may be real or imagined. In any event, we tend to use a word like “victim” for so many referents that is eventually loses all meaning whatever. For the most part it still refers to those who suffer in one way or another.

But I am going to suggest something outrageous, something that very few people will allow as even a remote possibility. I am going to suggest, following Fyodor Dostoevsky, that we have lost sight of the notion that suffering may be a good thing. We simply assume, without any questioning whatever, that it is necessary to eradicate all suffering wherever possible. This has made it popular for all and sundry to claim that they are suffering and require our sympathy — whether they suffer in fact or not.

Recall that the Victorian women, like so many of the disadvantaged at that time, would have simply accepted the hand they were dealt and tried gamely to make the best of it. One doubts if they thought of themselves as victims. We might even admire their courage to endure the treatment they received at the hand not only of their husbands but of society generally, though we have also lost sight of what courage truly is. In any event, I quote Dostoevsky, in his notes to Crime and Punishment to make the point:

“Man is not born to happiness. Man earns his happiness and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. . . . “

And, in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky suggests that it is through suffering that we achieve true freedom, which is central to our very humanity.

It is certainly the case that most Americans in the twenty-first century suffer very little. This may go a long way toward explaining our self-absorption. We do whatever is necessary to eliminate pain and suffering: complain, take pills, seek medical assistance, find an understanding and sympathetic partner. It seldom occurs to us that it may be a way to increase  our appreciation for what we have in hand, that it makes us deeper and more interesting human beings. I do not want to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to prevent suffering or that suffering in an inherently good thing. As Amato notes, “There is an elemental moral requirement to respond to innocent suffering.” But we do need to consider that, whether or not we agree with Dostoevsky (and what he says about suffering does sound like heresy these days, despite the fact that it is a notion fundamental to Christianity) we would do well to watch the way we bandy about terms like “victim,” because if everyone is a victim then no one is.