Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.

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Sign Of The Apocalypse?

One of the more insidious movements in this country is that toward the rewriting of history– eliminating unpleasant facts from the history books. This movement is perhaps a part of the New History movement about which I have blogged in the past — the attempt to reduce history to a form of literature, giving special attention to minor historical figures that have been ignored in the past (probably with good reason!)

In any event, one does wonder why this sort of censorship is not only allowed, but encouraged — even by the Texas State Board of Education which has decided to erase any mention of Hillary Clinton from the history textbooks in order to “streamline” history. As a recent Yahoo news story tells us:

The Texas State Board of Education voted Friday to remove mentions of Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from the state’s mandatory history curriculum . . .  The Dallas Morning News reported.

The changes are part of an effort to selectively ”streamline” information in history classes for some 5.4 million schoolchildren.

The board also voted to keep in the curriculum a reference to the “heroism” of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses’ influence on the writing of the nation’s founding documents, multiple references to “Judeo-Christian” values and a requirement that students explain how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East.

Ignoring, if we can, the multiple absurdities these no-minds have decided to make public policy, let’s simply consider the elimination for any reference to Hillary Clinton. Whether or not one is a fan of Mrs. Clinton, she is an important part of American history — not only as a recent presidential candidate who outdrew her opponent by 3 million votes, but also as a former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. And, of course, she was married to a sitting president throughout his eight years in office. One wonders what the hell is going on between the ears of those in Texas who voted for this move. But, then, it is Texas — the state that wanted to secede from the Union in 2017 because they were not pleased with the way the Federal Government was behaving. And it is a state in which, according to a recent study, three-fifths of the high school biology teachers think evolution is a fiction and that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. These same teachers deny that DNA has anything to do with heredity. Biology teachers, not students.

As far as the other determinations by the Board, we must suppose they were smoking something potent and their collective brains were just a tad cloudy. No?

In any event, one continues to wonder where this country will end up as it drifts slowly but inexorably toward the deep morass of stupidity and self-satisfaction.

 

One More Time, With Feeling!

Once again I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” We not only regard the release of uncontrolled emotion as a good thing, we sing its praises and television reinforces our adoration with images to athletes and spectators “losing it” while involved in athletic contests. The attempts to excuse Serena Williams for her raw emotion at the U.S.Open recently is simply one more example of which I speak. In any event, our notions about “honesty” or “true feelings” contrasts sharply with the views of the Greeks who insisted that Temperance, the control of emotions, is one of the highest of virtues. But, then, talk about “virtue” is also passé. Our love of raw emotion goes hand-in-hand with our distrust of reason and this, too, contrasts with the Greeks. To be sure, the Athenians were not perfect, But, at the same time, we might learn something from them.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape for many weeks showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL and collegiate sports engage in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more crediblebecause he showed more feeling. Say what??Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpasthrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, a novel about love, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain ascendency; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching television.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. However, reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

Good People Doing Good Things — Carolyn Collins

We need to read about people like this.

Filosofa's Word

I was working on a special piece for this week’s ‘Good People’ feature, but as often happens, I find that it requires more digging and research than I have time for right at this moment, so I will have that one next week.  But for today … you are going to fall in love with this woman!  She will restore your faith in human nature!  Please allow me to introduce …Carolyn-Collins-2Carolyn Collins, a high school custodian in Tucker, Georgia.  About four years ago, Carolyn was working the early shift, it was still dark out, and she was getting ready to take out the trash when there came a knock on the cafeteria door.  Two students — a boy and a girl — looked at her nervously. “Can we please come in?” asked the boy, even though school didn’t start for two more hours. “Me and my sister are getting…

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Serena’s Meltdown

Whether or not you follow women’s tennis, and I dare say most do not, the recent women’s final at the U.S. Open made a loud enough noise to be heard by anyone who wasn’t even listening. The winner was a young 20 year-old Japanese woman by the name of Naomi Osaka who beat possibly the best woman in tennis in the person of Serena Williams. But the match was marred by an outburst by Serena Williams that received all the attention while the deserving Osaka was largely ignored.

Osaka won the first set of a best-of-three final easily, 6-2. Serena has lost the first set in tournaments often and usually she is able to come back. In this case it is my humble opinion that she would not have done so. But we’ll never know because of the meltdown. At the start of the second set she was warned by an overly zealous umpire about receiving coaching — which is a problem in tennis on both the men’s and women’s side. It is commonplace for the coaches sitting in the gallery to use hand signals to help their charges win their matches. But it is a rule that coaching is not to be allowed. Williams was warned and she approached the chair and, filled with righteous indignation, insisted that she would never cheat to win, that she was not being coached. As it turned out, she was being signaled by her coach but it appears she was playing no attention to him whatever. In any event, she soon hit a backhand into the net and threw her racket at the court and broke it. She was given a second warning for “racket abuse,” also a rule. The second warning resulted in a point for her opponent in the next game. As the players changed ends and sat for a breather she opened up against the umpire and began her well publicized “meltdown.” She charged the umpire with theft and demanded an apology (for what it is not clear). He then penalized her a third time for abusing the umpire and this time it cost her a game. The score at the change-over was 4-3 in Osaka’s favor. With the penalty it was now 5-3.

Serena managed to “keep it together” for the next game and won. But then Osaka, keeping her poise and playing the sort of tennis that had made her the far better player to that point, won the match the next time she served. She won the match 6-2, 6-4 while Serena continued to simmer. The crowd booed loudly, as their American countrywoman — in their eyes — was being cheated out of a victory that would have tied her with the famous Margaret Court for the most wins in women’s tennis.

Much has been said and written about the event, though very little of what has been said and written had anything to do with the match itself. Mostly people wanted to jump in with charges of “sexism” against the umpire (which is possible, as his overly zealous calls were a bit unusual, though he has a reputation for being a hard-liner when it comes to the rules and has ruled against the men as well as the women. But he was a bit over the edge in this match. “Sexist” is somewhat questionable, but he certainly was overly zealous). Most of what has been written and said, as noted, was about Serena and this is sad because Naomi Osaka played a superb match. She was quicker, stronger, more tenacious than her 37 year-old opponent. One must wonder if the latter’s outbursts and eventual meltdown were not more about her losing a match to a younger, more athletic player than it was about an umpire who was too eager to apply the rules of tennis.

It’s time for a disclaimer, I suppose. I am no fan of Serena Williams. I think she wins by intimidation: she is bigger and stronger than most of her opponents though she lacks certain fundamental skills that she is able to disguise with her power and strength (such as poor footwork). But she is a proven winner and the crowd was solidly behind her and the hype was extraordinary and perhaps a bit of a distraction, something that may have had her a bit on edge to start with. But she has shown in the past a tendency to lose her temper when behind in a tennis match, twice berating line-judges when she was losing her matches.

But in the end, it was Osaka’s day and she was lost in the kerfuffle, even brought to tears. And this is too bad as she is one of the best women tennis players I have seen play the game (and I coached women’s tennis for nearly twenty years). She is quick, agile, has a powerful serve (every bit as powerful as Serena’s). She was the real winner in every way. Serena was gracious in defeat at the awards ceremony, urging the crowd to stop with their boos and catcalls. But Osaka was the real winner though in the end very few thought it worth mentioning. Such has American sports and entertainment become. We want car crashes, fights, sparks, and loud noise; not superbly played sports events.

Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.

On Toleration

In this day of increasing intolerance it behooves us to come to grips with the notion of tolerance and ask ourselves just how much outrage should be tolerated. In an attempt to answer this question I will begin with an interesting comment in Michael Walzer’s book from which I stole the title for this post: On Toleration. Walzer says, in part:

“Toleration itself is often underestimated, as if it is the least we can do for our fellows, the most minimal of their entitlements. In fact, tolerance (the attitude) takes many different forms, and toleration (the practice) can be arranged in different ways. Even the most grudging forms and precarious arrangements are very good things, sufficiently rare in human history that they require not only practical but also theoretical appreciation. . . .[Toleration] sustains life itself, because persecution is often to the death, and it also sustains common lives, the different communities in which we live. Toleration makes difference possible; difference makes toleration necessary.”

The problem is, of course, we have a leader who preaches the opposite of toleration, a man who harangues and berates difference and seeks to raise outrage to a fever pitch. We must ask how much of what is said in support of breeding hatred is to be tolerated. To what extent is our freedom of speech a right to be protected above all others? Is one’s right to free speech license to spread hatred and rouse the rabble to violence? I suspect not, though I realize that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know just where to draw the line.

The same is true for toleration in general. As Walzer notes, it is a good thing. Indeed, in a democracy it is an essential thing. In a democracy difference must be tolerated because all voices need to be heard and all ways of life must be protected. Or must they? Must we tolerate the behavior of a man in the theater who shouts “fire” just for a laugh? Must we tolerate the violence of an athlete who beats his wife? Again, where do we draw the line?

I might suggest that we draw the line when toleration leads to harm, knowing full well how troublesome that word can be. We must tolerate difference and defend the right of others to be eccentric, even positively strange, to the point where that behavior leads to harm to another person — or an animal. No further.

Walzer suggests a broader criterion, namely, allowing individuals to coexist in peace. But please note that he also suggests limits:

“To argue that different groups and/or individuals should be allowed to coexist in peace is not to argue that every actual or imaginable difference should be tolerated.”

In a word, there are some things that simply should not be tolerated. The problem is to decide in each case which it is to be, fully realizing that allowing folks to coexist in peace rules out any harmful, or potentially harmful, treatment toward others.

It is often noted that today’s youth should be praised for their tolerance, for the willingness of the young to put up with almost anything. Old folks like me complain about the noise from a passing car or a crying baby in a crowded restaurant. The young would probably not even notice. Is this tolerance I wonder? Or is it mere indifference, or even obliviousness? Are the young so wrapped up in themselves that they simply don’t notice the things that bother many others? There is an important difference here, but this difference, among so many others, must also be tolerated. It’s what makes the world go ’round. It is what makes a democracy strong. But when tolerance shades off into indifference we need to pause, because it means that we have stopped thinking about those things that ought NOT to be tolerated.

A leader who stands up before an adoring crowd and berates others because of their look, the color of their skin, their religious affiliation, or their immigrant status is no leader for a country that calls itself a democracy. He, or she, is the epitome of intolerance and an example of the type who simply doesn’t know where the line is to be drawn. And, as I suggest, it must be drawn when tolerance leads to the harming of others, or the determination to plant within the hearts and minds of the listeners a hatred of those who are different from themselves, a hatred that can easily lead to violence. Speech and behavior of all types must be not only allowed but even defended in a democratic society. But when speech or behavior cross the line then toleration ceases to be a good thing. It amounts to callous indifference to the pain and suffering of others, something that should never be tolerated.