Needed Changes

With Elizabeth Warren calling for the eradication of the Electoral College, one asks the obvious question whether it might not be as well to make a number of changes to our Constitution — a dated document that could well be strengthened. One obvious change would be to address the matter of the infamous Citizens United decision which has opened the road to corruption in the form of unlimited financial donations to selected candidates who will exercise the will of the corporations who support their candidacy.

The Electoral College, of course, was established during the founding years of this nation in order to guarantee that the very best people available would be elected to the highest office in the land. The founders didn’t really trust the people and they felt it necessary to have a buffer, if you will, between the people and the elected officials. Indeed, the representatives are the only group directly elected by the people in the original Constitution and the representatives were presumed to have short terms in order to go back to work after a brief spell at governing (which paid very little). The Senate was to be selected by the state legislators and the Electoral College would select the president — not the people themselves.

Recently, however, we have seen how faulty this reasoning was when the popular vote in the most recent election selected the best qualified candidate for president by nearly three million votes and the electoral college voted against the popular vote and selected a man who has proved to be entirely unqualified for the highest office and, at times, bewildered by what is required of him.

In any event, former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican President, wrote a book in which he proposed six amendments to the Constitution that would bring the document more or less up to date. Not only does the Constitution ignore altogether the immense power of the corporations, but it ties the hands of government in important ways. Furthermore, it lacks the necessary checks and balances to the power of the president — ironic because that was the major thrust of the document at the outset.

The first amendment Stevens recommends is an alteration to the “Anti-Commandeering” rule in Article VI of the Constitution which

“unnecessarily and unwisely curtails the power for Congress to make use of state officials in the enforcement or administration of federal law. It creates a serious risk that the federal response to national catastrophes or acts of terrorism will be inadequate; it also impairs the efficient administration of ordinary federal programs.”

A case in point was the Printz case in 1997 following the attempt on president Reagan’s life that would establish instant background checks to prevent felons and persons with mental problems from buying guns. The problem was that state officials simply ignored the court’s decision on the grounds that the Supreme Court cannot direct states officials in their duties. In times of emergencies, such as the shootings of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook, there needs to be a quick federal response that is not hindered by questions of States’ rights. In a word, the problem does back at least to the days of the “states rights” battles that preceded the Civil War and are still hiding deep in the words of the eighteenth century Constitution.

Stevens would also introduce amendments to the Constitution that would prohibit political gerrymandering; modify campaign finance laws in order to reduce “the power of the purse in determining the outcome of elections [see above]”; the elimination of the supposed immunity of state agencies or state officers from liability for violating an act of Congress; the inclusion of the words “the death penalty” in the clause prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment,” thereby eradicating the death penalty in all states due to the fact that it does indeed constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And finally, Stevens proposes the insertion a simple phrase in the Second Amendment making clear the founders’ determination to arm the militia but not the entire population of the country. The Amendment would then appear as follows:

“A Well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

The phrase in italics would be added and the original intent of the founder made clear. The Amendment is not about the right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to bear arms. It is about the need for an armed militia to protect the nation from foreign enemies.

In the end, whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that a document written in the eighteenth century by remarkable men who had the best interest of their country at heart is today lacking in adequate protection from the very thing they most worried about: corruption and the abuse of power. Surely, it’s time for change. Let’s start with the Electoral College!

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Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

Blueprint of the Bourgeois

If Hanna Arendt is to be believed, and I strongly suspect she is, Thomas Hobbes writing in the seventeenth century provided us with the blueprint of the bourgeois personality, one who is relentlessly engaged in the process of acquiring wealth, the type that would become the predominant character, world-wide, in the three hundred years that have followed. In this regard, she tells us that:

“There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’ logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has neither been outdated nor excelled. ‘Reason . . . is nothing but Reckoning’; ‘a free Subject, a free Will . . . [are words] . . . without meaning; that is to say, Absurd.’ A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will — that is, without the capacity for responsibility — bourgeois man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his ‘value or worth . . . his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power.’ This price is constantly evaluated and reevaluated by society, the ‘esteem of others,’ . . . “

The bourgeois was originally the owner of the means of production who was the bane of Karl Marx’s existence, the ugly capitalist who ground his workers under his foot, stealing the profits they made and keeping the profits for himself. The capitalist today may no longer own the means of production. He may own properties, deal in stocks and bonds, or more than likely be the C.E.O. of a multinational corporation. He might even be a professional athlete! He has become the man Hobbes described early on, a man fixated on making more money than he can possibly spend in his lifetime. The amorality of the bourgeois who simply wants to live well soon becomes the immorality of the exploiter and the dodger of taxes who uses others and places additional burdens on those who can ill afford to take up the weight. All of this is predicated on his fascination with wealth and power as ends in themselves. As Arendt notes:

“The so-called accumulation of capital which gave birth to the bourgeois changed the very conception of property and wealth: they were no longer considered the results of accumulation and acquisition but their beginnings; wealth became a never-ending process of getting wealthier. The classification of the bourgeois as an owning class is only superficially correct, for a characteristic of this class has been that anyone could belong to it who conceived of life as a process of perpetually becoming wealthier, and considered money as something sacrosanct which under no circumstances should be a mere commodity for consumption.”

Arendt thought the Leviathan, Hobbes major work, provided the blueprint I mentioned at the outset. The type of person he describes feeds on raw competition, creating in the world of the bourgeoisie a war of man against man, survival of the fittest. Hobbes said this was a state of nature and suggested that in such a state life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In this state humans cease to be human and become pawns in a game in which the capitalist himself becomes wealthy at the cost of those who oppose him.

Needless to say, this blueprint has changed considerably since Hobbes drew it. Raw capitalism has never seen the light of day, the state of nature becoming in the transition a bit of an exaggeration. Capitalism has always been tempered by remnants of Christian ethics and the rule of law, constraints on the raw greed that motivates the man or woman who seeks only money and more money, a person Arendt describes as “more-than-rich.” In this country we have a number of such laws that prohibit the unfettered growth of capital in the hands of a few — or so it would seem. But those who are more-than-rich spend much of their time working to make sure that those laws and those restraints — such as tax laws and the E.P.A., for example — are rendered nugatory, weakened so that the government cannot effectively interfere with the making of huge profits. The type Hobbes describes still exists.

There are good people owning property and paying others to work for them. And there are private owners of small corporations who do not exploit their employees. To be sure. These people do not fit the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with. But for the “more-than-rich” in this country the blueprint is accurate: there are those who would squash all opposition underfoot in order to amass more and more wealth –money beyond reckoning — thereby creating ugly juxtapositions. Athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts while many others around them must work two jobs or have no place to live and no food on the table. The average corporate C.E.O. in this country makes nearly 400 times as much annually as his or her average employee. And the C.E.O. typically pays little or no income taxes.

The picture is unpleasant, but it is not overblown. We claim to be a Christian country (or some make the claim) while at the same time we see around us the 1% growing richer, the middle class disappearing, and the more-than-poor growing poorer and more numerous. What this means, it seems to me, is that those laws that protect the rest of us against the rich must be enforced and even strengthened because the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with in the seventeenth century is not the least bit exaggerated when it comes to describing unfettered capitalism, including the type of person who flourishes in our day and who would just as soon see all around him fail as long as he amasses great wealth.

Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.

Easily Duped?

(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.

In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways  — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.

One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.

We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.

In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):

“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”

Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically  disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.

We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,”  and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.

While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.

Totalitarian Threats?

Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins Of Totalitarianism nearly 70 years ago and it focused primarily on Germany and Russia, the countries that at that time were most obviously totalitarian in their treatment of their citizens. One might think that such a book with that particular focus would be  dated and not at all relevant to today’s world. After all, Germany and Russia are no longer the countries they were when Arendt wrote. But the totalitarian tendencies about which she was most interested survive to this day — and not only in those countries, but elsewhere as well.

I venture to predict that as the pressures on all of the countries in the world become greater with the globe warming and food and water increasingly scarce the totalitarian threat will become an increasing concern: power will devolve to fewer and fewer hands to control unrest. And, as Lord Acton reminded us long ago “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I also worry about today and about the trend in this country, led as it is by a man who completely misunderstands the workings of a free society, a man who has shown himself in sympathy with some of the most autocratic leaders on the globe and who has also shown those tendencies himself.

In any event I shall let Arendt speak for herself. I will only add that when she speaks of the “elite” she speaks about the “intelligentsia,” those who have had the most schooling (but may not be well educated) and have assumed leadership roles — those, for example, who have assumed positions of strength in our universities and colleges. And bear in mind that in the not-so-distant past the intelligentsia, especially the young radicals, tended to support the Jacobites, the Nazis and the Communists.  As she says:

“. . .  there is no doubt that the elite [in Germany and Russia] . . . did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past might force their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind [think: “New History”]. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last shall be first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity. . . .

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective, and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. . . .

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

In describing what might be said about the present state of many of our universities and colleges, not to say society itself, she is revealing to us the way the “elite” take over the minds of the young students and outside the academy how propaganda works by recasting the truth in the form of, shall we say,  “false news.” And her discussion of those who have “been excluded unjustly” from the seats of power and who now struggle to find a place at the table is timely indeed  — especially since the “excluded” in America have managed to elect one of their own to the position of greatest power in this country if not the world.

There is more, of course. A great deal more — including a remarkable analysis of the totalitarian type, which is to say, the type of person attracted to absolute power and the steps such a type will take in order to acquire and maintain power. Regarding Hitler, for example, she had this to say:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

In reading Arendt’s analysis bells continually go off, especially her description of modern society with its “characteristic lack of discerning judgment.”  I put that down to our floundering education system, as you know. She understood power and its abuses perhaps as well as or even better than Machiavelli. More to the point, her analysis is timely and shines a light on contemporary America, revealing aspects of our present situation that we must always try to understand and struggle against if we are to remain free.

Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”

 

 

What Matters?

In the recent college basketball game between Duke and their in-state rival North Carolina, Duke’s star player “blew out” one of his expensive Nike shoes, tripped and sprained his knee. He left the game and didn’t return. Duke, predictably, lost the game. It appears as of this writing that the sprain is minor. But it raised a number of questions that got the talking heads talking.

On the television the next day the air was filled with opinions left and right: since the injury is not season-ending, should he just “shut it down” and not play lest he seriously hurt himself and ruin his chances to make big money (VERY big money) in the N.B.A.?  The consensus was that he should. After all, that’s what intercollegiate athletics at the highest levels are all about these days: money. But Jalen Rose — who played basketball for Michigan and later in the N.B.A. and now comments on ESPN’s lively morning show “Get Up!” — held to the opinion that the man signed a letter of intent to play for Duke and owes them the rest of the year and a chance to win the National Championship — a real possibility with this man playing, a long shot without him.

I applaud Jalen because he was the only one I heard in all the drivel (and I gather there were a few others, but very few)  who seemed to be the least bit aware that those who play intercollegiate athletics do have an obligation to the institution that gave them a “free ride” and to those teammates with whom he or she played. It’s not all about money, though the weight of opinion “out there” is clearly that it is about money. Period!.

I have blogged about this before and I will not hash over the points I made earlier, but I will only add that it is heartening that at least one or two people in the entertainment world are aware that there is such a thing as a moral obligation (though Jalen didn’t use those words) and that athletics is not all about money. Or it shouldn’t be.

Athletics at every level should be subsumed under the highest goals of the universities where they are housed. The highest goal, obviously, is to educate the young. There is a serious question whether athletics at the NCAA Division I level have anything whatever to do with education, but we will let that also pass as I have posted about that ad nauseam. In their place, however, athletics can play an important role in educating the “whole person” who attends a college or a university. It can help the participant learn to put the team above the self — a lost art in a culture that dwells on the “selfie” and wants only to be “liked.”

Sports can also teach the player about the valuable lessons to be learned from losing, another lost value in a culture where “self-esteem” is the goal of the schools and entitlement is the result — with everyone expecting a reward with little or no effort whatever. All of us who have lost or failed from time to time remark about the valuable lessons we learned from those losses or failures. It helps us grow and mature. It makes us work harder next time and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from finally succeeding.

Sports in their right place are important and valuable, despite the fact that there are folks who will insist that they are frivolous and a waste of time. How better to spend our time than with healthy exercise that also helps us learn about failure and the joys of winning while at the same time we also learn that our success at times depends on others? We need to keep these lessons clearly in mind in a culture that tends to cover them with mud and money. But it is not clear that football and basketball at the highest collegiate levels are sports any more. They have become a business — like education itself.

In any event applaud Jalen Rose for seeing beyond the immediate focus on greed and self-advancement to the wider picture that also involves important values, values that are slowly sinking into the mud.

Idiot America

In my various and assorted writings I have had occasion to borrow ideas from other thinkers. My advisor at Northwestern used to say that “we are all intellectual shoplifters.” But I have tried to acknowledge when I have shoplifted an idea here and there. I have even shoplifted my own ideas from time to time! But, as I say, I try to give credit where credit is due.

In any event, I have referred a number of times to the marvelous book by Charles P. Pierce titled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land Of The Free. It is a book written by a journalist who knows how to put words together and who has his finger on the pulse of the country he loves.  Despite this love — or because of it — he worried that we have wandered far off the path that founders like James Madison set us on many years ago and are now wallowing in a sea of confusion where we no longer recognize the truth when it stares us in the face; where we have replaced confidence in reason and science with gut feelings and flagrant lies.

At one point in his book (and note here how I give attribution!) he holds forth:

“. . . Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of excisions made and not made, to reduce everything to salesmanship. Debate becomes corrupted argument, in which every point of view is just another product, no better  or worse than all the others, and an informed citizenship is abandoned to the marketplace. Idiot America is the development of the collective Gut at the expense of the collective mind. It’s what results when we abandon our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and we not only surrender our right to punish them at the polls but also become too timid to punish their ideas with daily scorn . . . . .

“The rise of Idiot America. . . is essentially a war on expertise. . . . [It] reflects — for profit mainly,  but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

“This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkey neck preacher out of the Church of Christ’s Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an ‘expert’ and, therefore an ‘elitist.’ Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He’s brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool.”

Pierce is not ridiculing America, he is ridiculing the fact that America has allowed this to happen. And this was before a certain self-proclaimed business tycoon was elected to the Presidency, if you can imagine! Americans can little tell the difference between fact and fiction, they have allowed important distinctions between truth and opinion, between science and faith to disappear in a fog of indifference. Many today, even many teachers of high school biology, accept that dinosaurs lived alongside cavemen; they deny evolution and climate change; and they think science is simply someone’s opinion. Pierce attributes this to national apathy, an indifference to what is happening around us and a willingness to believe whatever we are told as long as it makes us comfortable. We do not allow that there are uncomfortable truths — like the truth about the warming globe we live on, for example.

I do think Pierce is on to something, though I would also fault the education system. That I respect his arguments should be obvious from the fact that I have quoted him repeatedly and at length. But George Berkeley said it long ago in a very few words: “Every opinion should be tolerated for what it is worth.” We need to engage our critical thinking faculties and submit every claim from whatever source it might arise to scrutiny to see whether or not it makes sense and whether or not we must accept it — like it or not. We might do well to bear in mind Curtler’s Law: consider the source: who said what and when? Above all else we need to teach critical thinking in our schools. All of them at all levels.

Truth its not opinion and science is not fiction. And there are some people who know more than others. There are experts and there are dunces. The latter may be entitled to their opinions, but critical scrutiny should allow us to dismiss their claims out of hand. If we do not allow these basic distinctions then we are indeed the idiots that Charles Pierce says we are.

Friendship

Strange to say we do not often hear folks talk about friendship, the relationship between two people which can, in some cases, last a lifetime and makes both people so much happier than they would be otherwise. Clearly it is an important relationship, but since it doesn’t involve sex (as a rule) it doesn’t seem to be of interest to a great many people.

Interestingly enough both Plato and Aristotle discussed friendship at some length. Plato wrote a dialogue about it, called Lysis. Aristotle spoke about friendship at length in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says, in part:

“Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

“There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

“The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

“Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long-lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

“On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

“Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.”

For Montaigne true friendship consists in a blending of wills. One wills what the other wills, wants only what the other wants. I suppose this is what Aristotle meant when he mentions being friends “for each other’s sake.”  It is the blending of two souls into one. The key for both men is that one must be primarily concerned about another person — not oneself.

As I look back on my life I realize that, aside from my wife who is my best friend, I had only one or two “good” friends in the sense that Aristotle mentions. I feel myself very lucky to have had those few since some people never have any at all. And in an age in which friendships are often superficial and made and broken by way of social media we may lose the notion of good friends altogether. That would be very sad indeed. For as Aristotle insists, friendship is essential for human happiness.  But it requires that we come out of ourselves and “admire the other’s goodness and help [that person] strive for goodness.” In a word, we must care about another and want that person’s happiness in order to find happiness ourselves. And please note that love plays an important role in friendship. It cannot be found on an electronic toy or in the casual relationships most of us form with the others with whom we work or play — unless we get to the point where we think more about them than we do ourselves.

I have found the friendships I have formed on these blogs to be very important to me and to my own happiness. I am delighted when I hear from my blogging buddies, worry about them when they are silent, and wish them well in whatever they undertake. I realize this is not the highest form of friendship, but, while it may be based on utility to a degree, it is none the less a type that Aristotle could never have imagined and I suspect he would have been only too happy to discuss it at some length!