What’s Best?


In a recent post I noted that the template for so many activities we humans engage in has been created by business. We have become a nation of shopkeepers governed by shopkeepers with tiny minds. I mentioned the health-care industry (note the noun) and education — which I have commented about endlessly, some might say. I should have mentioned sports, especially professional sports.

I noted repeatedly the increasing movement toward business in NCAA I sports, especially football and basketball. But I might also have noted the effects of huge amounts of money in professional sports. Because in both cases it is money that is indeed the root of the evil. I  recall a discussion I heard on ESPN recently among four men and one woman, who all agreed that the trend toward football players opting out of the meaningless Bowl Games at the end of the year is perfectly OK because these young men “must do what is best for them” — meaning, they must do whatever necessary in order to make as much money as possible in professional sports.

Now I have a habit of whistling into the wind, as some might have noted. Some will insist that I am blind to reality. But I will agree that young men should do what is best for them, and even agree that they would be wise to maximize their income in a sport that may well cripple them. But there is the fact, ignored by so many these days, that these young men do have a responsibility to their college teams and it is not clear that making the most money possible is indeed what is best for them. In any event, the trend started last year when a couple  of young men who knew they were to be high draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft refused to play in their team’s Bowl Games after the regular season ended. This year a player on the Ohio State football team chose to withdraw from the team in mid-season because he knows he will assuredly be a high draft pick and didn’t want to get hurt after returning to the team and therefore lower his chances of landing a big contract from some NFL team or other.

Coaches used to like to say, “There  is no ‘I’ in team.” But then a great many coaches jump ship whenever they get a better offer from another university and the players who sign on with them are often severely disappointed, even frustrated. They have learned to be suspicious and take promises at their face value — which value is becoming increasingly worthless. Now players can transfer from university to university and become immediately eligible to play on their new team, and, as I have noted, the really good ones feel free to quit if they think their professional futures are in jeopardy, given the violence of the game they play. To be sure there is a risk. There are millions of dollars involved. And that is the rub.

The trend toward opting out of the Bowl Games is one that the experts are convinced will grow as more and more players with potential to become highly paid professional players realize that by playing in what is in so many ways a meaningless game they would jeopardize their future wealth. All five talking heads I referred to above agree that this is coming, if it is not already here, and it is perfectly OK. They saw nothing whatever wrong with it. And this speaks volumes when it comes to understanding what is going on in our post-modern society. It is all about money. End of story.

But I will not end the story because not all things should be about money. Health care certainly should not. Education assuredly should not. And a young man or woman who plays for a collegiate sports team and accepts a full scholarship should pause before choosing to quit before their season ends — even if that season ends in a meaningless Bowl Game. Because let’s face it, all of the games are meaningless in the grand scheme of things; and the Bowl Games, as absurd as they are, are still a part of the football season and are prized by many who play the sport and are not good enough to expect a professional contract when they are finished.

In a word, there is a responsibility to the team here, a responsibility that is totally ignored because we have all become so inured to the parade of fools who sell their better selves for filthy lucre. It is not all about money. Sports are not and education and health care certainly are not. And yet the fact that we have allowed the business model to become so very prominent in our culture causes us to ignore the deeper levels of human behavior — such things as character, for example. And this seems to me to be a serious problem we might well consider as we casually dismiss the latest young man or woman who is concerned only about “what is best for them.”

 

Advertisements

Death of Soul?

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

Commodified Culture

You have probably seen the commercial. A young woman walks into the kitchen of a very posh house and places two sets of keys down on the counter and smiles at her husband (presumably). They race out of the posh house and stand beside two brand new GMC trucks (costs, appx. $50,000.00 apiece). One truck is blue and the other is red. The man points to the blue one, but his wife has already claimed it for herself and he weakly smiles as he realizes that the red one is his.

I have borrowed the words of Robert Heilbronner to help us grasp what is wrong with this commercial, so typical of those we see on our television at this time of year. To begin with these are apparently Christmas presents that the woman has bought for herself and her husband. Thus begins the set of problems this commercial sets before us.

Christmas is not all about getting, though the commercials like this one would lead us to believe it is. Granted, if all are expected to get something at Christmas then someone must be giving, but the point is moot because the scenes we witness again and again are about the joy of receiving, not giving. So that’s the first problem. A season of giving has turned into a season of getting — and we mustn’t ignore the sad faces of the little children who may not get anything this Christmas. Heaven forbid.

The second problem is the fact that these expensive gifts are now the aspiration of a great many people in this country most of whom could not even dream of spending that sort of money to buy Christmas presents. So it breeds resentment, of which I have spoken before: the frustration and anger that arise because others have things we want for ourselves. But the fact that we want these things is a fact that rests on the virtual certainty that the marketing forces that rule the media have convinced us that those expensive toys will make us happy.

The third problem suggested above, is that the woman’s behavior in claiming the blue truck which her husband clearly wants shows us her selfish desire to gratify her own pleasures and to ignore his — again, getting takes precedence over giving. What started out to be a gift turns out to be a sort of booby prize because the man has the very thing he wants snatched away from him by the giver, in this case his wife.

But beyond these obvious layers of message, and there are many when we reflect on commercials, is the growing evidence that ours has become indeed a commodified culture that stands or falls on the willingness of consumers to buy things they do not need simply because they have been conditioned by the “hidden persuaders” that they want them.  Therefore they must have them. Need is forgotten. Wants trump and they are easily created by a media that has become very astute at sending messages, both conscious and unconscious, that help us decide what sorts of things will make us happy.

And here is the nub of the problem. It is bad enough that we have become a society of blind consumers, but it adds to the problem when we realize that Christmas time, starting these days immediately after Halloween, has become all about getting things. Getting and things: two concepts that are at the core of a commodified culture. Thus, a season that is supposed to be all about love and peace on earth, is now about getting the stuff we want, regardless of the cost. Period.