Commissars of Culture

Little known to folks outside the ivory towers that used to house higher education are the machinations of those who struggle for power within, elbowing one another aside to claim the title of commissar of culture, kings or queens of political correctness. In fact, the struggle is about over as the dominant thought in colleges and universities today is to convert institutions of higher education where young people once came to achieve some degree of intellectual freedom into Therapeutic Centers where they are made to feel good about themselves in a climate that increasingly resembles a Country Club. In any event, this was foreseen a couple of decades ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs. In her insightful book about the demise of virtue and its replacement by “values” that oh-so-closely resemble feelings, she tells us this about the movement just then aborning, recalling the character of Mrs. Grundy the embodiment of the “narrow-minded, self-righteous, and self-appointed censor.”

“The Mrs. Grundys of our day, vigilantly supervising the proprieties of conduct and speech, command the respect of many of those who profess to be in the vanguard of enlightened thought. Some of them, appointed to direct ‘sensitivity,’ and ‘consciousness’ sessions — ‘facilitators,’ they are sometimes called — enjoy the status and perquisites of well-paid administrators in corporations and universities.”

Himmelfarb refers here to the fact that many of our larger corporations are caught up in the political correctness game and watch every word for transgressions that are deserving of, at the very least, a note in the perpetrator’s personnel file and an official reprimand. They also watch, like collective hawks, for the slightest sign of variation from company policy or, worse yet, words or actions that might result in lawsuits brought against the company. In many ways this mirrors the universities where faculty and students are warned not to say or do anything that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who might insist that his or her feathers have, indeed, been ruffled. This is the Age of the Victim where real suffering has been replaced by papier-mache replicas made by the victims that look surprisingly like self-portraits.  But Himmelfarb would have us  begin to talk once again about serious moral issues rather than the pseudo-issues that closely resemble a tempest in a teapot and tend to stand in the way of serious discussion and an honest exchange of ideas.

She reminds us of the character in Dickens’ Bleak House, a Mrs. Jellyby, whose children are hungry, dirty and out of control at her feet while she writes a check to help out a tribe on the banks of the Tiber. Dickens called hers a “telescopic philanthropy,” her eyes “having the curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” Himmelfarb accordingly coins the term “telescopic morality” to describe the latest shenanigans in the universities where mountains are made of mole hills and real issues are ignored because of the latest faux pas in the faculty lounge or the student newspaper. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard, these “New Victorians” who pride themselves on bringing attention to the latest outrage have invented the “Telescopic Morality” that focuses on the trivial and ignores the serious.

“The code of behavior they zealously monitor is at once more permissive and more repressive than the old; casual sexual intercourse is condoned, while a flirtatious remark may be grounds for legal action. It is a curious combination of prudery and promiscuity that is enshrined in the new moral code. .  . They. . . do not condemn promiscuity; they only condemn  those men who fail to obtain the requisite consent for every phase of sexual intercourse.  . . . They are not concerned about the kinds of crime that agitate most citizens — violent, irrational, repeated, and repeatedly unpunished crimes; they only propose to pass new legislation to punish speech or conduct normally deemed uncivil rather than illegal. . . . Telescopic morality . . . also distances moral responsibility from the moral agent.”

And there’s the key: the loss of a concern for virtue out of a confused and confusing concern about hurt feelings has eliminated any discussion whatever of the responsibility of those who commit atrocities and cause real pain and suffering. Our attention, rather, is directed toward the young man about to use the “N” word in a term paper to the faculty member who is ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting in a faculty meeting that perhaps intellectual diversity is more important than cultural diversity.

Himmelfarb does not call for a return to the Victorian age. She knows as well as the rest of us that it was in many ways a miserable time for a great many people. But, she insists, at least they discussed moral issues and weren’t afraid to address them in the public arena. They didn’t have to apologize for bringing up moral questions in public while insisting that, of course, “it’s only my opinion.” They weren’t so concerned about the manner in which they spoke as they were the matter about which they spoke. And in this transition, this movement toward form and away from content, away from virtue and toward values, we have lost sight of those things which matter most, such things as character, duty, and taking responsibility for our own actions instead of finding someone else to blame. In casting out Victorian values we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

 

The Fourth Estate

It is appalling that those now in power seek to undermine all confidence in the media in order, we must suppose, to then be able to inform us themselves about those things they think we need to know. This type of control over what we are privy to, coupled with the recent attempt to suggest that there are “alternatives” to the facts which determine the truth, are disquieting to say the least. A free people, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, require adequate information and the education necessary to separate facts from alternative facts.

And as a nation, we are slipping behind other developed countries in our commitment to an educated citizenry — which is essential to a democracy. But, despite this, we must be armed against any attempt to quiet criticism and stifle open debate which are the lifeblood of that type of government. Jefferson was, before all else, the defender of a free people in a free democracy, that freedom being predicated on a free press and a citizenry capable of reading and willing and able to discuss openly the issues of the day.

Accordingly, I thought it timely to return to some of the things that Jefferson said in this regard as we seem to be living in a period in which those in power would disarm us and render us ignorant of what it is they do and propose to do. A leader who brings his own audience with him to press conferences in order to hear their applause and who plans to expand the space in which the press corps meets to discuss the issues of the day in order, presumably, to allow room for his supporters and make it extremely difficult to hear those who object to what is being said, is a leader who would declare war on the exchange of free ideas and opinions and the open debate of decisions that will affect us all. This is not to be endured. It is antithetical to the fundamental principles on which this democracy were founded and they signal the death knell of this democracy if they are allowed to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Accordingly, I attach herewith some of the comments by Jefferson that speak to our present concerns:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have their propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

“. . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate — errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

” . . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

It is true, of course, that once he became President Jefferson was less enamored of the press, but this is to be expected. No one likes to be criticized and as President Jefferson made some terrible blunders — reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain was once again rattling its saber, for example. But he was large enough in the end to realize that his personal objections to what the press had to say about him were less important than the freedom of that press to write what they regarded as pertinent truths. No one in the public eye can expect to have his or her every move applauded unless they stack the decks and silence opposition. But that is not to be tolerated in a free government where the Constitution guarantees the right of the media to tell the truth and deny “alternative facts.” We as citizens have a right to know just as the press has a right to express itself without censorship. Thus, we must hope that these rights are protected in the next four years during which time they will be severely tested and attempts will no doubt be made to deny their legitimacy.

Silence Is Not Golden

In the face of the recent shut-down of the E.P.A. (for all intents and purposes) including the directive to all employees to basically keep their collective mouths shut, one must object and do so loudly. I swore I was not going to allow myself to get all riled up by what this man does — after all, we saw this coming, didn’t we? — but the attempt to gag a Federal agency cannot pass unnoticed, especially an agency that can prove the lie that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

In looking for Voltaire’s famous comment about one’s right to speak, I came across an equally pithy and even profound comment that I would like to elaborate upon:

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

This is indeed profound and so very timely because it appears as though this Administration is losing no time whatever in doing precisely that, making us believe absurdities. What else is the nonsense about “alternative facts”? It appears as though the plan is to confuse the citizens of this country with alleged facts which are made up on the spot — such things as the claim allegedly made by Trump that the Women’s March on Washington was in protest over Obama’s presidency. If it weren’t pathological it would be funny. But it is pathological, it is becoming an almost surreal pattern.

One must hope that the Congress, fighting as it is with one hand tied behind its back, will not be cowed by this man and will stand in opposition to this blatant attempt to silence dissent and force-feed untruths to a stupefied public. One would also hope that members of the Fourth Estate would stand up and scream “foul,” but so far they have not shown the courage to take this man on. He is fearsome and clearly capable of silencing the media by simply telling them what he wants them to hear or refusing to allow them into his daily briefing sessions or press conferences. I am reminded of the shell game where the object is to confuse in order to win the game.

If the attempt to silence the media and bring it to heel succeeds this country will be in very serious trouble indeed. With the Newspeak that is coming out of Washington coupled with the recent attempt to shut down the voice of the E.P.A. in order to keep people in the dark about what is and what is not happening to our planet, we are closing in on the next step Voltaire notes, the commission of atrocities. Voltaire knew whereof he spoke and we would do well to listen.

In the meantime we must hope that members of Congress who still have a conscience — and there appear to be a few of them remaining — will speak out against the latest blatant attempt to gain control of the public mind. The rest of us can write to our representatives and hope they read and respond to what we write — and take action. And we can pray that the opposition to this most recent attempt to keep us all ignorant is opposed with loud and coherent voices. Silence is not golden. Not in this case.

Ideas Have Consequences

I have spent the major part of my life in schools: eight years in “grammar school,” four years in high school, and eight years in college and graduate school. Then I taught for 42 years, first in a private grammar school then in colleges and universities. One might say I have an academic bent in my thought and a bit of a preoccupation with what is going on (or not going on) in education circles these days. I have written a book and numerous blog posts and articles on education and its present ills. As I say, I come at questions from a decidedly academic perspective.

Accordingly, I hesitate to write once again about one of the major movements in our colleges and universities, because I dare say readers have become a bit tired of the themes I return to so often. But some of those themes have wider application, as I have been at pains to show. One of them is put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have drawn on for several of my blog posts. She is a bright and interesting thinker and I have always managed to find ruch veins of gold in her many pages. Writing in the mid 90s of the last century, for example, she foretold on the resurgence of nationalism which we are seeing happen today. In one of her more recent books she has this disclaimer:

“Perhaps [my] book should be labelled ‘The Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig,’ because it is dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between the two, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society. We pay lip service to the adage ‘Ideas Have Consequences,’ but it is only in extremis that were take it seriously, when the ideas of a Stalin or a Hitler issue in the realities of gulags and death camps. It is the premise of this book that well short of such dire situations there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and polity.”

Indeed, a number of ideas that originated in academia have found their way into the world of everyday life, such things as Affirmative Action, Political Correctness — in the sense that certain words that offend certain people are taboo — and, most recently, the esoteric movement in our colleges called “deconstructionism.” As an academic pursuit, deconstructionism began with literary and philosophical texts in an effort to show that the text means what the interpreter wants it to mean — drawing on what he or she thinks the writer was thinking and what they know about the political and social background of the writer and the text itself. The idea is to “de-construct,” i.e., take it the text apart and put it back together in a coherent fashion. There is no correct reading of the text, only interpretations. The movement has infiltrated schools of literary criticism, philosophy, and history and has threatened to reduce all academic disciplines to social studies and unintelligible psychobabble. It is a complicated movement, but it begins and ends with the rejection of truth and reality, insisting that both are constructs, made up by readers and interpreters of “texts.”

The grand pooh-bah of deconstructionism was the French thinker Jacques Derrida. When one of the founders of deconstructionism, Paul de Man, was discovered to have been an avowed Nazi who continued to support Naziism even after the Second World War, Derrida joined a number of his fellow deconstructionists in deconstructing the world and words of De Man in an attempt to prove that he didn’t say what everyone knew he had said. They insisted that de Man “proposed not the extermination of the Jews but only their expulsion from Europe” despite the fact that this was clearly not what he had written on numerous occasions. Deconstructionists determine what was written, not ordinary readers like ourselves. We see the words but cannot possibly know what they mean until their meaning is revealed to us by the deconstructionist themselves. In general, as Himmelfarb notes:

“Still another [apologist] reminds us that although many facts about the affair have emerged, facts in themselves are meaningless. ‘It’s all a matter of interpretation, and each interpretation will probably reveal more about the interpreter than about de Man.”

This denial of “facts” and the accompanying denial of anything resembling “truth” has clearly made its way outside the hallowed halls of academe, like a science experiment gone bad, — and moved beyond the reading of literature and philosophy to the “real” world (which is itself a construct, or so it is claimed). We now have a President, for one, who is a master of desconstruction (albeit out of ignorance; I doubt that he ever heard of Derrida!), a “gaslighter” who is intent on convincing us all that black is not black and white is not white — unless he tells us otherwise. The crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record because he and his minions say so — and despite the photographic record and the testimony of those actually in attendance.

As an academic exercise deconstructionism has done little more than turn off would-be English majors who would rather read exceptional literature than read theories about those books written by so-called experts within their fields. It would therefore appear harmless, a fruitless exercise for academics that makes them feel important. But it is not harmless, as we are now becoming painfully aware. Ideas do have consequences and we are forewarned to keep on our guard: join the ranks of the “Unregenerate Prigs” who insist that there are such things as truth and reality — independent of all of us, even those who insist it is only they who are in the know.

True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.

Gaslighting

I recall years ago seeing a survey that concluded the most distrusted people in this culture are used-car salesmen (excuse me, previously-owned-car-salesmen) — followed closely by politicians. I dare say that after the recent election the ranking has switched: politicians must be in the lead, surely. Both are notorious for their lies and deceptions, though the politicians seem to be determined to set new records.

But, what precisely is a lie? We can say that a lie is a deliberate attempt to mislead. It involves intent, not just mistaken facts. When another study during the recent election showed that Trump had lied 87 times in a week and Clinton only 8 Hillary’s followers were well pleased — even though it was noted that she did lie. Now, we don’t know if it was lies, in either case, because we do not know what the intentions of the two candidates were. We cannot know — and it is quite possible that the candidates themselves didn’t know! (How many of know what our intentions are when we take action?) There’s a difference between confusing the facts and downright lying. It’s possible that either, or both, were simply confused about some fact or another. Heaven knows I do that all the time.

But the repeated pattern of distortion and falsehood suggests a deliberate intention to mislead. In Trump’s case we seem to have before us an inveterate lier, one who lies without knowing that he is doing so. It’s simply a habit. It has proved successful in his business dealings and it has become a part of his persona, such as it is. Tell them what they want to hear; it matters not if you lie like a rug. In Hillary’s case, it is not clear. Being a politician I dare say she has intentionally lied on numerous occasions — at times because she was guarding secrets at other times simply because she wanted to mislead. But Trump offers us a case study in what has been called “gaslighting,” a practice that is sure to lead us to the point where truth and falsehood will lose all meaning. A recent CNN story  helps us grasp the concept:

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.
If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day. Unless Trump starts behaving in a radically different way . . . , gaslighting will become one of the words of 2017.
The term comes from the 1930s play “Gas Light” and the 1940s Hollywood movie version (Gaslight) in which a manipulative husband tries to unmoor his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, by tampering with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and then pretends it’s only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker.
That’s only the beginning. He uses a variety of truth-blurring techniques. His goal is to exert power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn’t, distracting her as he attempts to steal precious jewels.. . .

. . . The techniques include saying and doing things and then denying it, blaming others for misunderstanding, disparaging their concerns as oversensitivity, claiming outrageous statements were jokes or misunderstandings, and other forms of twilighting the truth. . . . When Trump says something that outrages a portion of the population and pleases one segment, he can have it both ways. Voters eager for a tough guy president may be happy with the bully, while those who don’t like it might be appeased by the denial. In the end, few people can keep up with all the facts all the time. And as he tries to undercut the credibility of serious journalists, he makes it even harder for everyone else to find an easy path to the truth.

The key lies in this fact: it’s all about power over others. It’s a shell game born of  Trump’s disdain for others and he plays it masterfully. This is a man who loves power and seems determined to do whatever it takes to increase his own and reduce that of those around him. He may not always intend to mislead — we cannot possibly know — but it is fairly clear that when he is confronted by bare facts that conflict with what he says he shows definite signs of one who is now faced with the problem of restating the falsehood so it appears closer to the truth, ignoring it altogether, or simply accusing his accuser of misrepresenting what he had said. It’s all a part of the gaslighting scheme and in the end we are the victims — as is the truth itself.

Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

Virtues

In her most interesting book, The De-moralization of Society, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that a part of the reason that folks insist that morality is relative — to individuals or to cultures — is because we no longer talk about “virtue.” She also suggests that we have abandoned the term out of preference for the term “”values” because the notion of virtue has unpleasant associations with the Victorians. She insists that the Victorians’ “family oriented culture” has gotten bad press — and she ought to know, since that is her area of specialization. But what I find most interesting is the current trend toward talk about “values” as though they are nothing more than “beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies — whatever any individual or group, or society happens to value at any time for any reason.” Artists even talk about colors as “values.” As Himmelfarb goes on to point out:

“One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values lay claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial ‘nonjudgmental, ‘ as we now say, sense of values — values as ‘value-free’ — is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.”

Historically, the term “value” was introduced into Western conversations by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century and embraced by Max Weber soon thereafter who sought a “value-free” social science. Until then, going back to the Greeks, talk was all about “virtue,” which is based on character — that in the human being which is instilled in children by their parents and later dictates how they will behave as they grow into adults. For the Greeks there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These four were supplemented during the Christian era by faith, hope, and charity. But in England, just prior to Victoria’s reign as Queen, the notion of virtue broadened to include such things as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, self-discipline, responsibility, love of family, perseverance, and honesty — virtues recognized by Victorian Christians and Jews alike.

None the less, the notion of  “Victorian virtues” has become identified with the notion that the Victorians had hang-ups about sex and were prudish introverts that turned a blind eye toward all the civil inequalities and injustices that surrounded them. Himmelfarb takes exception, acknowledging that these attitudes were prevalent during the Victorian age, but insisting (as she ought) that this is the way people behaved: it is not what they believed. Indeed, if they engaged in what they regarded as “irregularities” they paid a heavy price, as Himmelfard notes:

“They did not take sin lightly — their own or anyone else’s. If they were censorious of others they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

Folks have always believed one thing and behaved in an entirely different way. This is not necessarily hypocrisy because the conviction that there are things that matter is often overwhelmed by situations in which those things simply cannot be realized for one reason or another. We may think courage truly virtuous, for example, and embrace the virtue itself while, at the same time, running in fear from a man with a loaded gun headed in our direction, or trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife. In any event, hypocrisy cannot be attributed to the Victorians any more than it can to today’s Christians who voted for Donald Trump — or indeed of Donald Trump himself.  In fact, they were almost certainly less hypocritical given the heavy weight they attached to their lapses from virtuous behavior, lively consciences that dwarf our own.

The problem is, as Himmelfarb correctly points out, we no longer even pay lip service to the virtues. Not only have we changed our terminology, we have abandoned any notion that there are moral principles that matter. Character is no longer stressed as a thing that ought to be instilled in our young people as we now worry more about whether they are they happy and well-adjusted. Aristotle noted long ago that character is instilled in young people by habits, the correction of unwanted behavior and the stress on those behaviors that later develop into strengths, what came to be called “positive reinforcement.” In a permissive society, like ours, many young people develop character flaws, behaviors that cannot be corrected in later life; emphasis on correcting behavior in the young in order to develop strong character, as was the case in the Victorian era, while it may develop into neurosis, can be corrected. Character flaws cannot. A dishonest, self-indulgent child will become a dishonest, self-indulgent adult.

Thus, the seemingly simple transition in our thought from concerns about virtue to talk about values has resulted in the reduction of a concern about things that really matter, virtues that form the warp and woof of strong character, the abandonment of any real concern for the kinds of people our young will become as they age. We now talk about values which are relative or subjective, and simply assume — without giving it any real thought — that all morality is itself relative and there is no right or wrong — only what people feel is right or wrong. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t just hung-up about such things as sex and chastity but had a firmer grasp of those things that really do matter in this world.

Trumping The Environment

A recent online story about a Reuters poll that reflects the views of many Americans with respect to the environment is of considerable interest. It said, in part,

Some 39 percent of Americans would like to see the E.P.A., the nation’s top environmental regulator, “strengthened or expanded,” while another 22 percent hope for it to “remain the same,” according to the poll. Just 19 percent said they would like to see the agency “weakened or eliminated” and the rest said they “don’t know.”

Among Republicans, 47 percent wish for the EPA either to “remain the same” or be “strengthened or expanded,” while 35 percent want it “weakened or eliminated”.

The online poll of 9,935 people was conducted Dec. 16 to Jan. 12 and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 1.1 percentage points.

“Trump is a businessman, and that’s all he thinks about … what will make money,” said Terry Cox, a 61-year-old resident of Tennessee who voted for the New York real estate mogul in November’s election. “But I’m hopeful there’s a limit to what he can do when it comes to weakening protections for wildlife and the environment.”

There are a couple of things that are of interest here. Let’s start with the most glaring, the quote from the Trump supporter who also is opposed to weakening protections. Where the hell has this man been the past few months??!! There’s no way his man will support a stronger E.P.A. He wants to eradicate all government controls and has nominated a candidate for watchdog of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, who claims to be a strong advocate of the E.P.A. but has repeatedly sued the agency and other government entities over environmental rules and regulations, at times in direct cooperation with fossil fuel companies. Moreover, according to FactCheck:

He falsely said in May that scientists “disagree about the degree” and “connection” of global warming “to the actions of mankind.” As we have written time and time again, the vast majority of climate scientists believe global warming is real and human-caused.
He also said the Clean Power Plan will “significantly” increase electricity prices. Whether the price change is “significant” is a matter of opinion, but the Energy Information Administration estimates that prices under the plan would range from a 7 percent decrease to a 7 percent increase between 2025 and 2040, depending on the region.
He implied in April 2014 that’s there’s no evidence to support a link between fracking and water contamination. There is some evidence to support a link in certain instances, but not enough to definitively conclude that contamination is widespread, as we wrote in early December.

Those who are bent on increasing the size of their investment portfolios and bank accounts couldn’t care less about wildlife and the environment. Trump himself has said that global warming is a fiction invented but he Chinese to cripple the American economy. In fact, he has never given us any evidence whatever to base any hope on his having a change of heart — about anything. He is convinced he knows what is best for the rest of us and is determined to bring about his dream for America, to make it “Great” again — whatever that means. He aspires to be Dictator. And the only “limits to what he can do” will not come from this Congress unless the voters of this country scream their collective voices out. But if anything will wake Americans up to what this man is committed to doing to the earth, it just might be the steps he will soon be taking to dismantle the E.P.A. and open public lands to oil exploration. We shall see.

The problem is the poll reflects what might be called a relaxed concern on the part of a great many Americans. They want tougher controls on Big Oil but they don’t want it enough to elect the men and women to Congress who are willing to take a stand on those issues. They respond to poll takers in the “correct” way and then go back to their television sets. Their “concerns” don’t translate into action.

Terry Cox is a case in point. He says he “opposes weakening protections for wildlife and the environment,” but he voted for a businessman who is probably the most anti-environment presidential candidate we have seen in recent years. Americans have consistently responded to polls in a manner that shows a genuine concern about their environment and even about wildlife. But consistently, they have failed to vote out of office those who are hell-bent on attacking the environment and eradicating protections for wildlife. I suppose you might say they pay lip service to the notion of protection but don’t really know what that entails. For men like Terry Cox is it merely a hope. A forlorn hope, I would say.

Socratic Example

The figure of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher who was unjustly executed, became a fixation in the mind of the young Plato who, it might be said, never got over the lesson he learned from his mentor. Socrates was a citizen of the Athenian democracy — through he preferred to distance himself from political life and focus, rather, on tending his soul in dialogue with the brightest and best young men around him. He could be found almost any day at the Piraeus deep in discussion with those young men about the nature of justice, wisdom, and courage. The young Plato was among those men.

During the height of the Peloponnesian War the Athenian democracy was dissolved and violently replaced by an oligarchy, the rule of fifty-one men, headed by thirty tyrants, who sought to determine the course of the war and dictate the political policies of the day. That oligarchic government determined to involve Socrates in their violence toward those who sympathized with the democratic government they had overthrown. Socrates refused and the oligarchy was itself overthrown not long after by the democratic government. The democrats then — seemingly resenting the fact that Socrates had shown himself to be above political machinations — decided to bring bogus charges against the man and tried him for “impiety and corrupting the young.”

The evidence against Socrates was thin at best — resting as it did on the facts that he insisted that a man couldn’t engage in politics and retain his integrity and that one or two of the corrupt men who had participated in the abortive experiment in oligarchy had been known to consort with Socrates. In any event he was tried and found guilty. He was given his choice of punishment and many thought he would simply exile himself from the city-state and they would be done with him. But he chose to drink hemlock which would end his life.

In the days leading up to his execution his friends, several of whom were wealthy and influential, sought to help him escape. But Socrates refused and in the end drank the cup and died quietly among his closest and dearest friends. In defending his actions he insisted that as a citizen of Athens he was bound by their laws — despite the fact that he knew in his case the laws were not justly interpreted: he was convicted on bogus charges by a jury of his peers who were resentful of the fact that he seemed aloof and somehow superior to them. In any event, his friends’ arguments were dismissed by Socrates and his determination to comply with the court’s decision is often used as an example of the necessity to obey laws despite the fact that those laws are unjust.

But this misses the point. which was that Socrates saw his membership in the political body as making demands upon him in the form of duties that he, who had enjoyed the privileges of citizenship all his life, was bound to obey — including the decision of the court. At his trial he had told the jury that if they insisted that he stop “teaching” as a condition of his being let off he would ignore the condition and continue to converse with young men (which he did not regard as teaching). He had no argument with the courts or with the law as such. His argument was against the misinterpretation of those laws and the actions of the court, the people who thought they were correctly applying the laws. But his quarrel with his accusers was not, in his view, sufficient to make him break the laws of his chosen home.

How different was this man from the president-elect we are about to see sworn into the highest office of this land! The man who insisted that if he lost the election he would raise Hell and refuse to acknowledge his opponent’s legitimacy. He would play the political game, but only if he was allowed to make the rules.

But, sadly, many of the more than 66 million voters who voted against him and who now regret the ascension into that high office of a man who is clearly unfit also want to refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy. There are tee shirts available that say “Trump is not my president.” But he is. We played the game and with the example of Socrates in front of us (and not the example of Donald Trump) we are bound by the rules of that game and must acknowledge his legitimacy, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote and almost certainly cheated in the process. Our system is designed to make the Electoral College the final court of appeal in the election of a president and, like it or not, the College duly cast their votes for a man many of us regard as the antithesis of what a president of this country should be. We need not embrace the man; but we must acknowledge him. My only hope is that he is not long in that office.

I am aware, of course, that there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the election, including the probable role of Russia in determining who our president would be, but until those questions have been answered (if indeed they are ever allowed to be answered) we must accept the fact that Donald Trump is the president of this democracy, until further notice. Bitter though the taste might be, we must bite the bullet. It is preferable, I would hope, to having to drink Hemlock!