Human Interaction

A former colleague of mine has written a book of science fiction suggesting what our great-grandchildren might look forward to in 2092. It promises to be the first in a series about the world far into the future after the world war has destroyed pretty much all of what we call “civilization.” All that is left, besides vast wasteland, is a few communities, cantonments, and the remnants of some of the major  cities along with a wealth of technology which has allowed for regular trips to the moon and even a Mars colony. The major player in the game in the Mars Corporation which pretty much runs the world after the nations spent themselves and were left powerless.

The book is a clever indictment and brilliant satire of the corporate world, its depersonalization and relentless thirst for power and wealth — the only real values left besides the urge to simply maintain one’s own life and try to ascend up the corporate ladder and gain a bit more power for oneself. It raises, among other things, the question of whether the world would indeed be better off with one central power, even a corrupt power, keeping all other powers at bay — if the price is human freedom? After all, where has that freedom brought us?

I have only begun the first volume and cannot comment on the whole book (much less the entire Saga) but an insight that I found most thought-provoking was the author’s claim that the disintegration of civilization that led to the world war and the terrible aftermath began with the dehumanization resulting from the technical world: the replacement of human relationships by electronic toys and social media.

The dissident Miller lives outside of the cities (such as they are) and spends his days, among other things, tending to his garden. He tries to explain what happened to the world to his daughter who is loyal to Marsco:

“‘I don’t know how to explain it, Tess, except that the techworld that evolved, that world seemed to make this world unnecessary.’ He placed his bare hand gently on her forearm. . . .’Human touch became unnecessary for some — to enough. Cyberspace became authenticity for far too many.'”

Such is happening all around us at present, people find themselves ignoring one another more and more as human relationships degenerate and the electronic toys and the desire to be “liked” on social media replace such things as genuine contact with other human beings; disappearing are such things as feelings of love and respect, fear and embarrassment — you know, those things that make us human, for better or worse.

I think this is a profound insight on my colleague’s part as I have for years shouted warnings myself (on these pages) about the dangers of those electronic toys. The evidence is overwhelming that they leave parts of the human brain undeveloped (the thinking parts) and they are addictive. Those shouts fall on deaf ears, of course, because, in fact, the toys are addictive and it is not clear that even if they wanted to folks could not put them down even for a day or two, look around them, and interact with others and with the world itself which offers us so much joy and delight. Our author is convinced that we are paying a severe price: the loss of our basic humanity.

Novels have a way of making a point so much more effectively than the sort of prose I write, but this novel has been self-published and lacks the promotional punch that could be provided by a major book company, leading perhaps to one one hellova movie series. This is too bad because the book is insightful, well written and remarkably imaginative. It opens us to the possibility of what the world might be like after we have encountered the near-fatal catastrophe that will finally get our attention, make us realize what a self-involved people we are, the kinds of damage we are doing to our planet, and force us once again to reach out and treat one another with the respect and love we both crave and deserve. Those who survive, that is.

The book is titled The Marsco Dissident and is written by James Zarzana. It is available on Amazon and promises to be a good read. And, no, I will not receive a kickback! Jim doesn’t even know I have written this and will almost certainly not read it. Take  care and have a Happy New Year, one and all.

The Arts and Real Life

I wrote this years ago but for those who  are new (or who haven’t bought my book where it appears!) I reprint it here as it is a topic close to my heart. Consider it my Christmas gift to one and all! Happy Christmas and a very Merry New Year!

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliador the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend to ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness,and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.

 

Once Again In the Toilet Bowl!

I update and repost this in my ongoing effort to spit into the wind. There is something radically wrong in academia where the business model has become the paradigm and students are regarded as clients. But major sports are clearly still the tail that wags the dog!

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year orgy known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious: 40 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over even if one weren’t gorging himself on chips and warm beer. The bowl games are now appropriately named after their corporate sponsors and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced soon. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is a symptom of something terribly wrong. The big-time collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher and former small-time collegiate coach. Seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Answer: nothing whatever; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what their parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Bollocks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6. It makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name on ESPN. There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education in any way shape or form.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as a Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games of late (though not this year, sad to say). In the end it’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for big bucks has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level.  In the typical American college or university, for example, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed; the students themselves, pumped up by an unwarranted sense of entitlement and ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. The institutions regard them as a source of money, as faculty fight for their precious territory and students are lost in the shuffle. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty also fight for their territory but also are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. These problems are compounded by the sports mania. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim.

But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.

res publica

I wrote this years before Donald Trump appeared on the political stage. I re-post it here hopefully as a matter of historical interest.

Years ago, before the Flood, I reviewed a book written by the Ripon Society. It led me to do some research about that group since the book was well written and struck a comfortable balance between political conservatism and “bleeding heart” liberalism. I confess I find the political middle ground more firm than the ground at either extreme. At the time I wrote the review the society embraced moderate Republicanism. I discovered some interesting things about the group, including the fact that it was the first major Republican organization to support passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, it called for the normalization of relations with China, and the abolition of the military draft.

That was then. That was when the Republican party traced its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson who traced his roots back to Cicero and the republican ideal of the “public thing,” the res publica. The founders all had read their Cicero in Latin, of course, and they tended to idealize the Roman Republic of Cicero’s days when individuals were admonished to put the common good ahead of their own in the name of “public virtue.” It was the ideal St. Augustine had in mind when he established his monastery which became the model for similar Christian communities throughout Europe: committed to the common good, seeking to control man’s natural wish to put self ahead of the good of all.

But, as I say, that was then: the days of Jefferson, and later Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today the Republican party is the party of [Donald Trump], Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, the spiritually certain, Fox News, and the corporations that want to squash the common good in the name of increased profits. And the Ripon Society seems to be leaning precariously to the right these days as a consequence. It is difficult to see any connection whatever between today’s grasping and greedy Republican party that would trash social and environmental programs in the name of saving a few tax dollars and the Roman ideal. The idea of the common good has disappeared behind a stinking cloud of greed and self-interest, the very thing Cicero tried so hard to prevent. And yet these people claim to be “Republicans.”

The Republican party is not alone in its preoccupation with greed and self-interest, of course. Both parties are in the pockets of the corporations and tend to ignore the commonwealth as they push their own agendas — whatever those might be. But — as a general rule —  the Democratic party tends to care about people above profits even as it seeks to solve all problems by throwing money at them. So for all its shortcomings, the Democratic party does seem more concerned about the common good, more concerned about the welfare of others and the survival of the planet. However, the more adept members of this party become at playing the political game (and they seem to be learning quickly) the farther they will remove themselves from Cicero’s ideal of the res publica, the public thing, the commonwealth.

If that ideal is to mean anything again it will require a third party that remains disconnected from corporate wealth and special interests. Don’t hold your breath.

Is Repression a Bad Thing?

This is one of my first posts — eight years old, would you believe?! I repost it here because it stresses one of my favorite themes and it still seems to me to be relevant, and the fact that it brought about needed change shows how powerful and influential my posts have been.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and — like all good novelists — presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow, self-absorbed lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Quality Control?

A recent story echos a former experience with the Ford Motor Company:

The engineer said: “We’d raise our hands and be told, ‘Don’t be naysayers.’ We got strange comments. It seemed the ship had sailed. After that, if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny, so you put your head down and make it work. Good people tried to make it work. But you can’t violate the laws of physics. It’s a mechanical catastrophe.”

He was referring to the DPS6 dual-clutch “PowerShift” transmission used in 2 million Focus and Fiesta cars sold this decade that is the subject of massive litigation and a federal criminal fraud probe.

The case is one of flawed transmissions which Ford knew about and decided to continue to produce anyway. This case reminds me of the infamous Pinto case in which that car was known to have a sharp object that, upon impact, pierced the gas tank and in several instances incinerated the occupants. Ford was taken to court and in their defense they argued that the cost of avoiding this problem (which in an individual case was minimal, a few dollars) was prohibitive. It would require recalibrating the entire production line and necessitate lengthy delays in producing more and more cars. Ford admitted publicly that the cost of the adjustment to avoid the problem was a great deal more than the cost of a few court cases brought against the company in the name of those who had been disfigured by crashes and the inferno that followed. They opted to continue to ignore the problem. Eventually they stopped production of the Pinto, due, perhaps, to the stir that was caused when the corporate decision was brought to light by Mike Wallace on CBS.

In the world of Big Business there is always a calculation that weighs the costs against the benefits. The benefits, of course, are profits. And the costs are almost always those nagging problems that may or may not end up in headlines. Those in high places in corporations like The Ford Motor Company are very good at denial and in passing the buck. In fact, in many cases in which companies have been found neglectful it has been virtually impossible to figure out who was responsible. Who is the company after all?

In Bhopal, India years ago when a gas leak at Union Carbide India, Ltd. killed more than two thousand people, an engineer was found who should have turned a handle and he was fired. In the infamous B.F. Goodrich Brake Scandal in which an engineer, Kermit Vandiver, blew the whistle on a company that, in order to deliver the product below cost, was about to release a brake on a plane that would have failed to stop the plane when landing, Vandiver was later fired. The company was not found responsible. Again, who is the company?

Apparently the only body that has been able to answer this question is the United States Supreme Court when a few years ago in the case of “Citizens United” they determined that corporations are legal persons and are entitled to the same protections as any other citizen. Interesting, since as far as I know corporations cannot reproduce their kind or even catch a cold. But the decision of the court made it possible for corporations to open their treasure troves and pour tons of money into political races in order to determine the outcomes in their favor. Yet they are seldom, if ever, found culpable in courts of law.

In any event, the case of the Ford Motor Company is interesting because it raises once again the question whistle blowing. As the spokesperson said in the quote above, “if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny.” Companies want good soldiers, employees who will do what they are told, toe the line as it were. They do not want employees who can think for themselves and point out that the company is at fault and may be turning out a faulty product that may end up costing someone his or her life. Whistle blowers are almost always fired, or if protected by laws as they are in some states, they are made to feel like a pariah and given menial jobs in the hope that they will quit on their own.

On the contrary, whistle blowers ought to be lauded and rewarded by their companies since they have the best interest of the company at heart — and they also show signs of having a lively conscience which corporations — persons though they may be in the eyes of the Court — obviously lack.

Now That’s Ironic!

Back in the day when I was teaching a course in the Humanities I was discussing The Book of Job with my class. I suggested that the God of the Old Testament was quite different from the God of the New Testament. After all, He made a wager with the devil that Job would not lose his faith no matter what might happen to him. During the test that the devil contrived Job’s “comforters” insisted that the must have done something wrong because God would not allow him to suffer for no reason. But the lesson, apparently, was that humans suffer for no good reason all the time and they ought to maintain their faith in God despite all.

Further, the God of the Old Testament asked Abraham to take his infant son to a mountain top and slit his throat, testing Abraham’s faith. The Old Testament is full of examples of a God who tests His believers, who seems to all outward appearances to be vindictive and all-powerful, not given to forgive and forget, much less to love. In fact some of the true believers are able to find in the Old Testament the seeds of their own racial prejudice.  I suggested that the New Testament God was a God of love and He was clearly quite different.

One of the students in my class, whom I knew to proudly consider herself among the spiritually certain, insisted that “it is the same God.” And, indeed, to those who claim to know their Bible this may be the case. But I suggested that from a theological, a philosophical, or even a literary point of view the two Gods were quite different.

After all, the New Testament is supposed to be the NEW Testament, to supplant the Old Testament; the God depicted in the New Testament (whether one believes in Him or not) is a God of love, not a God who plays favorites, inspires fear, and is given to testing his followers. In fact, in the New Testament God sacrificed his son in order to save humankind — whether or not one believes that humankind is worth saving (and at times I do wonder). He admonishes His followers to eschew wealth, reminding them that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven. He demands that they turn the other cheek, forgive one another, never judge another lest they also be judged by the same high standards. In a word, the two Gods are different in practically every respect.

The irony, however, is that so many of those who pride themselves to be among the spiritually certain seem to have failed to read the New Testament carefully and seem to be filled with hatred toward their fellow humans, not love. So many of them feel themselves to be superior to those who do not believe and are therefore not among the elect. They are quick to judge others, despite the admonition not to do so. And the love they are supposed to feel for one another is often very selective and the majority of their neighbors, whom they are asked to love like themselves,  are targets of their ire — especially if they look different, happen to have a different life-style, or practice a different religion. Many of the true believers pursue mammon with astonishing determination, seeing no problem with their love of wealth and personal possessions (even including private planes among some of their leaders), despite the admonitions in the New Testament not to do so.

In fact, it is difficult to say if the great majority of those who claim to Have The Truth and to be among the spiritually certain have any idea what is contained in the New Testament. The gospel of love, for so many of them, is simply a license to feel superior to others and to pursue their personal pleasures rather than to seek ways to become better human beings. Now that’s ironic, is it not?