And Yet Another Black Friday

It’s time for my annual “Black Friday” rant. If only those with ears could hear!!

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate since we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas close-up once again. The more things change the more they stay the same! I have added a few pithy comments to this version.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers into their stores this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that begins before Thanksgiving [Halloween?] is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation at a time when the theme should be “peace On Earth.” If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy, tighten the purse strings. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket; when you retire move somewhere where the taxes are lower. The real issues, like the spread of nuclear weapons (25,000 world-wide at last count) and the damage we are doing to the environment in our determination to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we presumably celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities. But we won’t.

Worldly Wise

Is it possible that women are wiser than men? I ask in all seriousness. Two of the wisest people I have ever encountered (through their writings) are George Eliot and Edith Wharton, both women, needless to say. I ask this while noting that I have read all the philosophers, the “lovers of wisdom,” from Thales to the most recent lover of hair-splitting. Most of the philosophers I have read are brilliant and well worth the effort of pondering the depths they ask us to explore with them. I have learned a great deal and have grown along the way. But with thinkers like Eliot and Wharton I feel as though I have entered another world.

Bear in mind that George Eliot was recognized in her day as a brilliant writer and also a very wise woman. People wrote to her with their problems and expected her to be able to suggest possible solutions. Her novels are full of psychological insight and penetrating observations about the human condition. She was indeed a wise woman. The same can be said for Edith Wharton, though she is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Eliot, despite the fact that she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for her remarkable novel Age of Innocence. Her novels are rich with insight and spot-on observations — not to mention just plain common sense (which so many men seem to lack).

I am re-reading Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree, an overlooked novel that has within it all the worldly wisdom one could hope to uncover — along with philosophical problems to tax the deepest mind. She has a way with words, no doubt, and her descriptions are second to none — and were said to inspire such writers as Wallace Stegner. In addition to novels she wrote travelogues at a time when the camera was in its infancy and those who wanted to convey the beauty of what they saw had to use words — a talent that has been too long lost and was rare to begin with.

In The Fruit of the Tree Wharton tells us of a man who marries a wealthy woman in order to join with her to revolutionize the industry where he had once worked as an Assistant Manager — and which she had inherited when her first husband died. They were very much in love, so they thought, and both saw the terrible conditions the workers had to endure in order to scrape together a living while their bosses thought only of the ways they could increase profits. In its day this was heresy as America was going through its Horatio Alger phase and many thought only of how they could get rich. Few worried about the exploited souls who made their wealth possible. And while the novel centers around the struggle of the couple to make the employees’ working conditions, not to say living conditions, more humane, their fragile marriage begins to tear apart. This brings Wharton to such issues as euthanasia and infidelity. The novel has it all!

A few of the insightful comments Wharton makes along the way are worth quoting.

“The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer — a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies — presented to [the hero’s] mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment.”

“He had forgotten, too, that the swift apprehension of suffering in others is as much the result of training as the immediate perception of beauty. Both perceptions may be inborn, but if they are not they can only be developed through the discipline of experience.”

“But his demands, moderate as they were, assumed in his hearers the consciousness of a moral claim superior to the obligation of making one’s business ‘pay’ . . . .”

“But it seemed to her that they missed the poetry of their situation, transacting their pleasures with the dreary method and shortness of the view of a race tethered to the ledger.”

“She could not conceive of shutting herself into a little citadel of personal well-being while the great tides of existence rolled unheeded outside. . . .as human nature is constituted it has to find it’s real self — the self to be interested in — outside of what we conventionally call ‘self.'”

As I ponder those comments and recall why it is we read well-written novels it does occur to me that there are a few men who have also written profound words and have shown brilliance and penetrating insight, even worldly wisdom. I hasten to mention Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad as two of my favorites. Perhaps it’s not that Wharton and Elliot were women but that they were novelists. Perhaps. But I still wonder if the women don’t have a corner on worldly wisdom and common sense.

Taking Morrison’s Pill Again

I frequently check to see which of my past blogs someone has graciously taken the time to read (as noted in my web notes). The following one — written two years ago — struck me as not half bad, and, given that we are now entering full-on into the Christmas season (as determined  by the retailers among us), it seems particularly apt.

Carl Gustav Jung noted in the 1930s that modern man is in search of a soul. Postmodern man denies he ever had one. In any event Jung proposed a number of possible substitutes for the loss of a deep relationship with a powerful and demanding God, and many of those suggestions have been taken to heart by a people who share a sense of lost certainties once so assured. Many would argue that those certainties were compensation for short lives, deprivation, fear, wide-spread poverty, and human suffering; but, be that as it may, Jung was very much aware of the radical alteration in the outlook of a disenchanted  people who exchanged an all-pervasive religion for psychiatric counseling, T-groups, scientism, and creature comforts. The age of Industrialism, capitalism, and democracy came in with a roar and folks turned away from the heavens and toward their iPads and determined that their very own here and now was the most important thing.

One of those who worried about the radical changes and sought to cling to a past that was already dead — perhaps to resuscitate it and bring it back to life — was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a conservative who, at the same time, espoused universal education and worried deeply about the disadvantaged, restless poor and what could be done to make their lives easier.

Carlyle was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and saw what he called the “Healing Parliament” of 1660 (usually referred to as the “Cavalier Parliament”) as the turning point in English History, marking the death in England of true religion for all intents and purposes. This Parliament acted in accord with Charles II who was restored to power after the death of Cromwell. Carlyle saw Cromwell as a powerful man who could rule England with an iron fist and make the decisions that would heal her wounds and avoid another “reign of terror” that tore France asunder. In any event, the major results, as Carlyle saw it, of the “Healing Parliament” were the ruthless attempts to restore the Church of England and displace other religions, attempts that took the form of “repressive religious legislation.” Religion was once again experiencing a power struggle among the various Churches: the plight of ordinary folks was ignored in the fallout.

Be that as it may, Carlyle saw what Jung saw later: human beings had become cut off from a God who could save them from any and all evils that might befall them while making the demands on their consciences that would result in the salvation of their immortal souls. Needless to say, these demands were not welcomed by increasing numbers of people who worried much more about the state of their pocketbook and where the next pint of ale might come from. Carlyle saw this alteration of focus as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. In his book Past and Present— in which he wanders all over the place and sounds at times like a born-again preacher with a sense of humor (if you can imagine) — he makes a number of astute and somewhat startling observations. Regarding our love of money (including the Church’s love of money, of course) he has this to say, with tongue in cheek:

“Money is Miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral sense in large masses of mankind. . . . Let inventive men consider whether the secret of this universe, and of man’s life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money?”

The problem, as Carlyle saw it, is precisely the loss of religion — not a religion we put on like a coat once a week for an hour and which allows us to seek more and more wealth through self-indulgence, but rather a religion that demands that we seek virtue through self-sacrifice. He likened the recent practice of religion to taking a pill, one that would quickly and painlessly cure all ills. As he put it:

” . . . religion shall be a kind of Morrison’s Pill, which they have only to swallow once and all will be well. Resolutely once gulp down your Religion, your Morrison’s Pill, you have clear sailing now; you can follow your affairs, your non-affairs, go along with money-hunting, pleasure-hunting, etc. etc.”

The point of my bringing up the ramblings of a mind long dead and often dismissed out of hand is that despite his peculiarities, his concerns have been echoed by many intelligent folks who have lived since Carlyle died in 1881. One such thinker is the liberal economist Robert Heilbroner who notes in his study of capitalism that the blind passion of the capitalist to gain more and more wealth has created a “moral vacuum” in which anything goes and the end always justifies the means — the end being the maximizing of profits, needless to say. And, of course, there’s Jung, the brilliant psychiatrist, who echoes Carlyle’s regrets that modern man has lost his soul. As Carlyle would have it:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness, a Parliamentary expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an astronomical time-keeper . . . . man has lost the soul out of him; and now after the due period begins to find the want of it!”

One is tempted to dismiss this man as so many have done. But, still, he does make us think in our disjointed age — if we can think any more. Just because a man is a bit off-the-wall at times doesn’t mean he may not have important things to say! And for those of us who do wonder about our current cultural malaise, Carlyle’s thoughts deepen our understanding.

The Moral Imagination

Many years ago when I first wrote this post, a comment was made by someone calling himself “Auth” in which he (or she) characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year.” I thought at the time that the comment, such as it was, deserved an extended response. So I wrote the following piece.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. Don’t think of yourself as the exception; we are all morally equal. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked empathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy, for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Highly Specialized

In the spirit of sharing what went before and hoping that the topic is still relevant I post here a previous effort from many, many years ago.

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book even though I am downright compulsive about finishing books I have started to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Much art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe — like those artists who place a urinal in the museum on the grounds that it is “art.” In so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 60 years ago,

“. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.” 

And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy or someone convinces them that they can find work in that field when they graduate — or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their entire undergraduate years and get trained but not educated. Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. From the faculty’s perspective, it’s all about protecting their turf. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of us suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

D.I.C. (Revisited)

In the spirit of saving myself the trouble of repeating myself, and given the wealth of new readers of this blog 😆, I reblog a post that may be of some interest.

One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that these folks are living in a shrunken world and they shrink as a result.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts.

If only the teachers would..