Have We Lost Something?

I repost here a piece I wrote a couple of years ago and which strikes me as even more relevant today.  It is a theme I pursued at some length in my book The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida and it remains one of my main interests today.

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.

Sad Irony

In the midst of the pandemic, which our feckless president dismisses as a “hoax,” there is a movement of major importance that is getting inadequate attention. I speak about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Following the murder of George Floyd by a  Minneapolis policeman a few weeks ago, there has been a surge in attention to the undeniable fact that police target the blacks and that they live in fear of those sworn to protect and serve them while the rest of us rest content and simply complain about the protests.

But during this period when the movement needs all the momentum it can possibly gain, the reporters are constantly sticking microphones in the faces of black athletes asking them their opinion about the movement and what it means to them. This is a good thing, in my view, because all the attention the movement can get is beneficial and will, hopefully make the world safer for blacks in the future. The problem is that many of those athletes are tongue-tied when asked about problems outside their area of major interest, which is the sport they have devoted their lives to.

The irony here is that many of these men have either attended or even graduated from America’s colleges and universities and some have college degrees but still have no way to express themselves at a time when expression is of major importance to them and others like them. It is another indictment of the state of education in this country. This is my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I speak about many of the professional athletes’ interviews, not all. There are a number who are bright and articulate and who make a strong case for their movement. But a great many simply cannot find the words they want to express the strong views they hold about social injustice in this country. And this at a time when strong views are of vital importance to the movement.

We need to pay attention to a problem that has been with us for a great many years and which makes the lives of black people fearful and miserable in a country that should make them feel safe and secure. And we need eloquent spokespersons to spell out the legitimate complaints these people have so we can seek solutions. It is not enough to simply identify the problem, it is essential that steps be taken to overcome the problem and make it go away. But we must begin with a clear idea of what the problem is. So white people in a position to make a difference need to listen to black voices.

As an educator all my adult life I cringe when I hear professional athletes, black and white, fumble and struggle to find the words they want to express their point of view. In this instance, we need to hear them speak and we need to hear what they have to say and take it seriously. These are presumably college-educated men and women but they sound like they are trying to speak in a foreign language.  I don’t blame them: their alma-maters have failed them miserably.

Let me say again that this is true of a great many professional athletes. Not all. And it applies to supposedly educated white athletes as well. Their education has not served them well and it is particularly noticeable at a time when they need to speak out and we need to listen to what they have to say.

Scrambling

The Big Ten  recently announced that their athletic teams would play against only conference opponents this Fall. This follows on the heels of the Ive Leagues that announced that they were cancelling all Fall sports because of the Carona Virus. Given the fact that the Pac 12 has admitted the possibility that they will follow the lead of the Big 10, there is a distinct chance that other conferences will follow suit;  it is also possible that there will be no Fall sports on any college campus this year because of the virus.

I ask: so what?

The answer to my snide question is that there is BIG money involved. Football provides the funding for all other sports on many large college campuses and the prospect of no football has sent a number of athletic directors into spasms. In fact, a number of colleges have already eliminated “non-revenue” sports such as swimming, tennis, and golf to save money. As a former tennis coach this pisses me off just a bit. But again, I ask: so what?

Suppose that the colleges have to drop sports this Fall and even in the long term — if not forever. This would mean that the reason to attend college can no longer be linked to the success of the sports teams. It  might even mean that the colleges and universities might have to restructure their priorities and make academics the mainstay of the students’ experience and students find other means of entertainment. Heaven forbid!

When Robert Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago many years ago the first thing he did was to eliminate the athletic programs. This caused no end of consternation among the alumni and boosters, but he weathered the storm and the University became a beacon in the bleak landscape of universities that fell to the temptation to make athletics their main raison to exist. The University of Chicago remains one of the few universities in this country to not have intercollegiate sports and yet it survives. Not only that, but it has maintained a brilliant academic reputation until this day. And this despite the fact that it is located in South Chicago which many regard as a dangerous place to live.

In a word, the Carona Virus is making us all take a deep breath and reorder our priorities. Why should the colleges and universities not do so as well? And in doing so, while we realize that college athletics can provide a large source of income for many — but by no means all — universities, the students may be the ones who benefit from dropping intercollegiate sports in the long run. After all, college is supposed to be a place where the young begin to emerge as mature adults whose world is wider and deeper.  And while they must find other means of entertainment while on campus, they may just end up spending more time in the library — which makes more sense. The question of what place, if any, sports are to take in the college curriculum is a thorny one at best. And it is one many refuse to even consider.

I am a retired academic who has always thought that academics are what college is all about. And while I did coach championship tennis teams and thought the experience rewarding for all involved, I managed to keep my perspective and always regarded the athletic end of things as icing on the cake — never the heart and soul of why those young people were enrolled in college.

It would not pain me at all to see intercollegiate athletics fall by the wayside, even though it would mean my finding something else to do on Saturday during the Fall (I do love to watch college football despite my slightly twisted perspective!). In the end we may just find out what really matters. Not only on college campuses, but in the world in general. I really think we are already beginning to find out!

Ostrich-Like

I went all the way back to my first year of blogging for this one (November 2011). Sad to say, the problem remains and we continue to pretend that it will simply go away — like the Carona virus. More of us need to be aware and involved — though, while the government ignores the big problems that surround us, there are many who do care and who have done remarkable things even in the time since this post was first written. With an election coming up perhaps we can depose some of those in Congress who are the most purblind?

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, recently spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Oregon State University on the topic of global warming. From the story in the local newspaper covering McKibben’s lecture, we read: “McKibben discussed the history of 350.org, the worldwide organizing movement he helped found in 2008. The group’s name stems from research that claims anything more than 350 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unsafe and will disastrously impact the environment. Scientists estimate the environment currently contains 390 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide.” He is a self-styled “bummer-outer” and yet he continues to draw crowds and sell books while dealing with a very disturbing issue. His message is bleak “It’s the worst thing to happen in the history of our Earth — at least since we’ve been on it.” But the crowds he draws are encouraging  (600 people in attendance at a lecture of this type is quite a remarkable thing!) and he hopes that social networking will help address the problem.

The interesting question here is why we continue to ignore this problem — much as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation? The answer, I suspect, is the size of the problem and our reluctance to think about unpleasant, indeed deeply troubling, issues. Further, we tend to ignore problems if they are not in our own back yard. The disturbing thought here is that this problem is in our back yard, whether or not we want to admit it. But we prefer, ostrich-like, to keep our heads buried in the sand of our own ignorance and pretend that things will turn out OK. This is what Jacques Ellul once told us was our response to “the technological imperative,” which focuses on means rather than ends.  We think there is no problem that we cannot fix: someone will come along with a gadget and fix it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no gadget that will fix this problem. And it isn’t simply going to disappear. It is real and it requires, at the outset, that we avoid denial. — which is understandable, but inexcusable.  There are still many people who insist that global warming is a myth. They look at the thermometer, see the low temps and draw the unwarranted conclusion that the globe is not warming. But we must keep in mind the modifier, “global.” In 2010, for example, nineteen nations around the world recorded record high temperatures. And regardless of whether my thermometer reads low temps today, the average here and everywhere else is going up. It is a global issue.

Once we have advanced beyond denial, there are some things we can do to help matters — from the small things like turning down our thermostats and driving more fuel-efficient cars to the larger things like writing our congressmen, supporting companies that are known to be environment friendly, and boycotting those we know to be ignoring their global responsibilities. For example, McKibben’s efforts recently resulted in enough pressure on the President to send the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back to the State Department for thorough review, effectively killing the project. There is hope and political activism and citizen petitions can be effective even against the giant corporations that would pollute the earth in the name of higher profits for a few. McKibben’s web site expands on these themes. But it all starts by pulling our heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a problem and it is one we need to address. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to our children’s children.

Still Blowin’ Into The Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote after the last election because we near yet another one and the issues have not changed. I am not stupid enough to think I can change things with these posts, but I always hope that a discussion will follow and the issues will be at least raised. There was no discussion of this post and this puzzles me.

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

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

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

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

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