Persons

Antonio Brown, an outstanding football player who just can’t seem to get his act together, is much in the news of late — for all the wrong reasons. A warrant for his arrest has been issued lately because allegedly he beat up the driver of a moving van outside his house. Details are sketchy.

Last Fall it appeared he would play football for the Oakland Raiders but his odd behavior resulted in his dismissal from the team. He was later picked up by the New England Patriots and then let go for, again, behavior unacceptable in an adult human. He apparently has a court case ongoing involving possible aggressive behavior toward a former girl friend. And the list goes on.

The talking heads are all in a dither and it seems to be the consensus that this man is a loose canon and needs help — and fast. They all agree, to be sure, that aggravated assault against another human is not acceptable behavior. The same conclusion surfaced when Kansas State and Kansas basketball players got into a brawl at the end of their game recently and one of the players was suspended twelve games for raising a chair apparently in order to hit another player before it was taken away by one of the coaches. In all cases, most reasonable people would agree that this sort of behavior is simply not acceptable.

But why not?

We go along insisting that people should let it all hang out, do their thing, and generally be completely honest with their emotions — if not their actions. If this is so and the basketball player and Antonio Brown enjoy hitting other people why do we now say this cannot be allowed? On the face of it we seem to be inconsistent if not contradictory in our likes and dislikes, not to mention our ethical claims. Either we should allow people to do whatever they want or we should agree that they should not do whatever they want.

Many would say we draw the line at hurting other people. Folks should be allowed to let it all hang out and express their feelings until or unless their behavior involves harm to another person.

But what is “harm”? Physical harm seems straightforward, though there are masochists out there that love to be punished — the harder the better. But generally speaking physical harm is where we draw the line. What about emotional harm — such as bullying, for example? Surely we don’t condone that even though the bully is simply letting it all hang out: he enjoys making other people feel bad. But he is not physically harming anyone. Still, there is damage being done to another person and any sort of damage, whether it be physical or emotional is simply not to be allowed.

If this is then the place where the line is drawn then we can say that we have an ethical principle: one should not harm other people. Persons ought to be respected to the extent that they are persons and as such capable of feeling pain, both physical and emotional. Kant would argue, further, that they as persons they are capable of making moral judgments (whether or not they ever do); thus they ought to be respected by other persons. But in any case, whether  or not we agree with cumbersome Kant, we seem to have arrived at what might be said to be the cornerstone of an ethical system.

And I suggest that we have done just that and in staying this I would add that this lends the lie to the claim that ethics is simply a matter of opinion and feeling: what is good is what we want to do and what is bad are those things we find repulsive. This sort of emotional guide gets us nowhere, whereas the ethical cornerstone we have uncovered — persons are valuable in themselves — allows us to build an ethical system that leads to important conclusions — such as: slavery is wrong; women have the same rights as men; women are entitled to the same rewards in the workplace as their male cohorts who perform the same jobs. And so on. There is a plethora of legitimate ethical claims that stem from our one principle.

And in the process of uncovering those ethical claims we find ourselves thinking about ethics and not simply emoting. Any idiot can emote just as any idiot can take a swing at another person. But it takes a reasonable person to think his or her way through conflict and arrive at a conclusion that can stand up to criticism. That’s what ethics is all about.

A Stupid Species

I return, once again, to a favorite topic of mine. It was first posted in 2012 and garnered a single online comment. True or not, not is worth a moment’s reflection. I have expanded it a bit.

A former student and good friend of mine some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that had passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art; but we must remember that art creates culture: where the artist goes culture follows.

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

Think of the remarkable works of music, art, sculpture, poetry and even literature that were inspired by a writer, artist, or composer seeking something outside the self through which he or she could find meaning in a meaningless world. Is there any music composed today that can compare with Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B. Minor Mass? or Verdi’s (or Brahms’ or Mozart’s) Requiem? The composers who sought inspiration based on a deep feeling for something besides the self were too numerous to mention. Now there are none — except, perhaps, Leonard Bernstein whose MASS, composed in 1971, stands virtually alone. And the visual works created during the medieval period and the Renaissance were breathtaking, leading the attention of the spectators beyond himself or herself to something worth respecting and even loving — much like the Cathedrals themselves. In literature we need only mention Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novel The Brothers Karamazov or Goethe’s Faust.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with a world dominated by technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore as we stare mindlessly down at the latest electronic devise designed to capture our minds. We are capable of love but feel only antipathy toward all but a few — if we are aware of others at all. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned in Japan not long ago — and the urge to discover the newest and latest has become a compulsion .

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, the deer leaping gracefully over the fence, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

Stealing Signals

In the midst of national news about the impeachment of a corrupt president we hear about corruption in the heart of “America’s favorite pastime” — baseball. I am sure you have heard about it and may even have given it some thought. We like to think that we can turn to the sports pages to read the good news while the main pages are filled with the rest of the dreck that we label “politics” and “things as usual.”

But not so.

It appears that the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Well, actually, in 2017 when they won the World Series, they were caught stealing signals the catcher sends to the pitcher and were thus able to let the batter know what pitch was coming before the pitcher even wound up! This sort of thing has been going on for many years, of course, but apparently Alex Cora of the Houston team raised the ante: he suggested that the team use the latest technical devices to their advantage. With a very sensitive camera set up in the center field bleachers pictures of the catcher’s signals were sent to a receiver in the club house just behind the dugout. Signals were then sent to the batter by means of a player banging on a can (!) and he was able to anticipate the exact pitch he was about to see.

So the proverbial shit hit the fan and the baseball world is in a dither. And the main concern is not that signals were stolen — since, as mentioned, that has always been the case — but that the theft was done by means of such clinical and expert (except for the can) technical devices. Think about this for a moment: The problem, as perceived by the sports world, is not that signals were stolen but that it was done in such a careful and precise manner. Apparently it has always been done and that seems to be the reasoning so many use to excuse a wrong-doing: everyone else does it, why can’t I?

This, as we all should know, is faulty ethical reasoning. If stealing signals by means to technical gadgetry is wrong it is wrong because it is stealing — not because the manner in which it was done was so clever. Stealing signals is wrong because it is cheating and it breaks the rules of baseball. This is the fundamental fact (if there are any in such cases). The fact that Alex Cora raised stealing to new heights is beside the point — even though the media and most in the baseball community would make it the center of the discussion.

Once the door is open and stealing is condoned — as it has been for so many years — the fact that someone found a way to do it more efficiently and effectively is beside the point. But Cora, who later became a successful (?) manager for the Boston Red Sox, was fired as were two of the higher-ups at the Houston Astros. The players themselves who went along with the cheating readily so far as we know — and accepted the World Series trophy and all that cash —  will not be punished, apparently. This remains to be seen as baseball is “investigating” the matter as I write this. But given what we know about sports scandals it appears reasonable to assume that the players will get off scott free.

If the baseball world wanted to deal with this issue honestly and try to guarantee that it will not happen again they should strip Houston of the World Series Crown and fine all of the players who played in the game. Big Time! They were as guilty as their leaders.

But, in any case, it would be good to remind ourselves of what really happened here: stealing is not considered the problem; using high-tech equipment to do so effectively is considered the problem. This is nonsense.

Wonder

Children are filled with wonder. Why does this happen, Mommy? Why did that happen Daddy? Their world is filed with wonderful things and experiences. As we grow older, however, the wonder diminishes. This is especially true in our age of Google. If we have a question we take out the iPhone and Google it. The things we used to marvel at are no longer worth a moment’s thought. We presume to know so much and we laugh at those who can’t keep up.

I recently finished a novel by a former student, Bart Sutter, who won the Minnesota Book Award in fiction with this collection of short stories (My Father’s War). I was struck, as I read, how this man is still a young boy, how he is able to capture those fleeting moments when the things around him make him wonder. I do not disparage here; I admire.

In one of his stories Bart describes a blizzard going on outside the house where he and his brothers have been trapped after visiting their Mom and Dad at Christmas. He describes for us the beauty of the snow as it is softly and gently falling and, later, the beautiful sculptures the wind makes with the fallen snow. While walking outside with his brother the hero of the story is stunned by the complete silence that surrounds him in the deep snow at night. I share with Bart my love of the Winter snow and shake my head as my friends head South to escape the Minnesota Winters. I especially love the snow that sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the moonlight or even the light cast be a nearby street light.

In all his stories Bart is looking around and seeing the wonders that surround him. And he listens as well and shares with us the sounds of the forest and the angry lake as it laps fiercely against the shore in a storm. This is a true gift and one that I wish I had. But nevertheless I can appreciate the world this author, and a few others like him, are able to create and put into writing. They help all of us to cling to the remnants of that wonder that filled us when we were young — at least those of us who still read.

Some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen have come during a Minnesota Winter and while reading Bart’s book I shared with him the wonder that the world presents to us each and every moment — if only we take a moment and look around. But we don’t. We are in a hurry and we have in hand the magic tool that allows us to look up the answer to any questions we might have. We have lost our sense of wonder. This is truly sad.

A good friend and fellow blogger recently said that she has no interest in turning back the clock to a world in which so many of the things we take for granted were not yet even thought of. In a way I agree with her. I would have been dead several times over with various ailments if it were not for modern medicine. And I am the first to take an aspirin when my head aches — rather than to lie down with a cold rag on my forehead and wait for the pounding to stop. But at the same time, those simpler times were superior to ours in that things moved so much slower and the temptation to hurry was not everywhere present. We were not victims of the desire for immediate gratification. We miss so much when we scurry along like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, watch in hand a late for something or other. Only we don’t hold a watch, we hold a mobile phone where we can check up on what’s going on around without even looking around.

I don’t advocate that we remain children all our lives — though emotionally a great many of us do so uninvited. But the wonder that the child has is worth preserving and should be carried with us in a locked box well into old age. It is one of those things — like love and beauty — that makes life worth living.

Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

Odd Goings-On

I have noted (endlessly?) that intercollegiate athletics at our major universities have taken over the show. One of the comments by a reader of a recent post on this topic mentioned that when she returned to her alma mater for a reunion not long ago she noted that the English department at her old university — which flourished while she was there — was now pathetic, small in numbers and anemic. Yet the football program is huge and costly. This has become the norm, sad to say.

But one of the peculiar  things to have come out of this dominance of sports, especially football, on college campuses has to do with the ridiculous Bowl season which is about over as I write. I mentioned in a prior blog post that there are now 40 Bowl games during the holidays. But a few years ago the NCAA instituted a playoff of sorts to determine the National Champion — a prize worth millions. It involves the four best teams according to a blue-ribbon panel that decides on the basis of statistics and “the eye test” which four teams should play off for the Grand Prize. Those teams who don’t make the final four are relegated to the lesser Bowl games — such as the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl — all with corporate sponsors of course (which should tell us a thing or two about what is going on here). Those “lesser” Bowl games still involve good teams, though the criterion of 6 victories minimum to make the team eligible for the games makes for some lopsided games. Not all the teams involved are all that good.

In any event, of recent note is the fact that an increasing number of young men destined for the NFL have decided to opt out of the Bowl Games — not those involved in the National Championship (so far), but in the lesser games. They (and their agents) have decided it is too risky to play in a meaningless game where they might get hurt and reduce their value in the pro football market. Georgia recently had several of its star players sit out of their Bowl game for this reason (and they won anyway, which is interesting).

Just prior to the Rose Bowl (the “granddaddy of them all”) an interviewer spoke with Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin — one of the two teams involved in the Rose Bowl game. Taylor is a star running back who has set a number of university and national records and is a sure bet to go high in the upcoming NFL draft. She asked him why he had decided to play in the game when so many of those who also have a promising professional career ahead of them were opting out to maximize their value to a professional team. Taylor said that he regarded the Rose Bowl as a privilege and an honor and since it took a team effort to get there it would be wrong of him to opt out and lessen the chances of his team winning. This was astonishing to me as it suggested that there is at least one young man who realizes that there is something more important in this world than the self and — as they like to say — there is no “I” in team.

He was right, not only factually but also morally. There is a duty that so many of these young men are ignoring: their universities have paid them (in the form of free tuition, room, board, and books) to pay for the team. And it was the team that put them into position to shine and increase their market value (if you will). But they see only the chance to make millions of dollars and they weigh it against the possibility that they will get hurt in the Bowl game and they decide to opt out — except for a few young men like Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor is an exceptional running back for Wisconsin. But more importantly, he is also a remarkable young man. He showed that he understands a bit more than so many of his fellow players about what it means to be on a team. I applaud him for that.

(Oh, and may I also mention the he is a philosophy major at Wisconsin? Coincidence, to be sure, but interesting none the less.)

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.

 

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.