The Moral Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

Highly Specialized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.I.C. (Revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

If only the teachers would..


Hypocrisy?

The talk these days on the sports shows — at least the ones I watch — is all about the NCAA rule that athletes in college may soon be allowed to get paid for the use of their image for promotional purposes. This follows the state of California which not long ago ruled that athletes in college should be allowed to be paid to play. Several other states have followed and the NCAA is in a panic that the whole thing will mushroom and they will lose their preeminent place at the center of collegiate sports — as they see it.

In any event, I wrote many years ago about the hypocrisy involved in intercollegiate athletics (at the Division I level) where it is clear that the vast majority of those who play football and men’s and women’s basketball (at least) are not in college to get an education but to prove themselves worthy of recruitment into the professional ranks. It’s a proving ground on which the vast majority falls down and is quickly forgotten, sad to say.

In any event, the rationale I now hear for paying these kids to play in college is that they now receive “nothing” and are exploited by greedy universities. This is a half-truth. The players are clearly exploited (and the colleges are indeed greedy businesses trying to turn a profit), but very few in the world we all live in are not exploited. Be that as it may, the athletes certainly do not play for nothing. They get free tuition, room, board, and books (which they may or may not read, but they can certainly sell them back to the university or used book stores). And that’s a helluva lot of money these days. Just ask the struggling non-athlete. And I hesitate to mention the money and perks athletes now get “under the table” which go largely unnoticed.

(Just an aside: I recall years ago when the make-believe line between amateur and professional was still being bandied about about in tennis, as it is now by the NCAA which is  nothing of not delusional.  Roy Emerson was asked why he didn’t turn professional and he said he couldn’t afford to. He was making too much money as an “amateur.”)

I return to my argument, however, because it’s all about honesty. Let’s honestly admit that the majority of Division I athletes are using collegiate sports as a platform on which to display their talents. They are not students in any sense of that term. Given the drop-out rates, the failure to graduate rates, the constant bombardment of news about cheating on papers in their classes, and the like, let’s stop calling most of these people “student-athletes.”  As I said long ago, they SHOULD be paid as would any other semi-professional athlete. And then those few who want to actually attend classes and get an education (or what passes for education these days) should pay for it just like any other student. At the very least they would become aware of the incredible amount those who went before them were “paid” in the form of free tuition, room, and board.

As I said then and I say again: it’s simply more honest. The NCAA has opened the door and it will be thrown wide open very soon. But the reasons for that opening are all wrong and still sustain the myth of the student-athlete which at the Division I level in the sports mentioned above is pure fiction. They are not students unless they choose to be so and as semi-professional athletes they should be paid what they are worth — as determined by the demands of the “marketplace.”

Taste

You can’t dispute it, people say. Everyone is entitled not only to his or her opinion (which is debatable) but to his or her own taste as well. You may like Norman Rockwell or Pop music, but I prefer Rembrandt and Beethoven. So it goes.

But is it true? Just because we hear these platitudes on every side doesn’t make them true. People cling desperately to all sorts of nonsense — especially these days. Let’s just ask whether there is such a thing as “good taste.” What would it amount to? Knowing that then perhaps we can talk intelligently about “bad taste.”

To begin with, good taste is a function of that thing I am always going on about: restraint. In art, for example, when the artist exhibits not only imagination and skill but also restraint, when a decorator doesn’t fall into the trap of “more is better,” but shows restraint in the arrangement of colors and shapes, one might contend this reflects good taste. Flaubert once said “discipline makes art of impulse.” That’s about it. But we could argue about this until the proverbial cows come home. You like what you like and I what I like. And we all know I am an intellectual snob, an elitist who thinks that everyone should be liberally educated. So there! Ignore what I say.

But take the following example where ESPN — in this case — shows a singular lack of restraint and, I would say, exhibits very bad taste.

One of the features of the ESPN sports broadcasts is the segment called “Not Top Ten.” These are supposed to be sports gaffs that occur during the week, things that just sort of happen and we find them funny. They are designed to make us laugh at human foibles. And they are, in fact, usually quite funny.

But recently ESPN chose to include in their list of “Not Top Ten” the crash of the “Sooner Schooner,” a smaller version of the covered wagons that took our ancestors West. It is the symbol, the mascot, if you will, of the Oklahoma football team and it races on the field before every game with the crowd cheering madly. In this case the schooner took too sharp a turn and the entire rig came off its base and threw the occupants, including a young woman, to the ground. Several people were hurt, though none seriously. In any case it was not funny. Humor stops when someone gets hurt. If there is a rock in the pie thrown in the face of the clown and he gets cut we do not laugh; if the person under whom the chair is removed as they try to sit hurts his spine, we do not laugh. In a word, we laugh until sympathy enters in. Humor demands distance and is an entirely intellectual response; emotions do not enter in — especially sympathy for another human being.

When the schooner fell over the crowd was aghast — as well it should be. But ESPN, in its wisdom, decided it was funny and they included it in their list of “Not Top Ten” for the week which they put forward as simply another humorous incident in a sporting event. But it was not.

Thus, I submit, we have here a clear case of bad taste on the part of ESPN. They showed a singular lack of restrain and tried to pass off the hurling to the ground of at least two people and the trashing of the schooner itself as a humorous event. It was not. And anyone who thought it was should make an appointment to have his or her head examined. As so should the producers at ESPN.

Show some restraint. Separate out those things that are genuinely funny (and which therefore do not involves the harm of humans or animals) and skip the events that show people being thrown to the ground while the crowd (which exhibited much greater restraint and good taste) looked on aghast.

Taste can be good or bad and we can quibble about art and music. But when people are hurt, it is not funny and it is in bad taste to include such an event in a list of seemingly funny events, designed to make people laugh, on this or any sports show.

Chinese Puzzle

I posted recently about the international incident that was stirred up when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, of the NBA, dared to tweet that the Chinese people should be supported in their efforts to criticize their government. As a result the two teams that went to China to play an exhibition game were pretty much confined to quarters for much of a week while the public appearances that were scheduled were cancelled by the Chinese government. This is a big deal in that basketball is a very popular sport in China — especially NBA basketball. This may be the result of the fact that one of their players was a star in the NBA for years — Yao Ming by name.

In any event, upon their return to the United States the media in this country were eager to hear all about the kerfuffle in China and finally, after a day’s rest, LeBron James, who  plays for the Los Angles Lakers basketball team, spoke about the matter and in a rather long comment he said that in general we should not tweet about things without first being “educated” (his word, he should have said “well informed”) about the subject, and thinking about the consequences of those tweets in the international arena.

He was severely criticized on many fronts for siding with capitalism as over against “caring,” which is to say, worrying more about the profits that might come to the NBA as a result of good relations with China than he was about free speech which is much prized on this side of the Ocean — though not in China. We regard freedom of speech as a right, of course, though we fail to consider that rights are not absolute; on the contrary, they are always (even the right to bear arms) carefully circumscribed by restraints. We do not have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater, for example. Or, I would add, a right to bear automatic weapons designed for the military.

Now I am not a big fan of LeBron James. On the contrary I find his personality off-putting and I don’t particularly like his style of basketball, relying  much on his size and strength rather than the finesse I always associated with basketball. Moreover, I don’t see why he should regard himself as a qualified spokesperson for the NBA. But in this case I would like to defend him: I think he’s right. This was not a case of freedom of speech, it was a matter of common sense and awareness of the repercussions of the things we say and do. As he noted (and I really thought when he spoke that he was talking here to our President!) we need to think about the consequences of our words and actions. We, as a rule, tend not to do that, especially in this electronic age when buttons are pushed and we realize later what problems arose because of poor judgment and a too-quick thumb. I found that to be the case with at least one of my blogs. James is right: we need to think about the consequences of our words.

In and of itself, the incident is a tempest in a teapot as I noted in my previous post. But as a general trend and given the international repercussions of this seemingly insignificant  incident, we would do well to pause and think about the way we rush into things without taking the time to think about the consequences of our words and actions. That is good advice and in this case it was well intended; James was not denying our right to freedom of speech. He was simply urging us all (including those at the very top) to think before we tweet.

Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

Tempest in a Teapot?

You have doubtless heard about the gigantic SNAFU resulting from a seeming harmless tweet that went out a few days ago. NO, not a tweet from Tweety Bird, but one from an NBA manager. CNN tells us:

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent what may be the most problematic and potentially damaging tweet in corporate America this year.

Morey set off an international firestorm over the weekend when he tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” said the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Chinese authorities, challenged by months of protests in Hong Kong, have made it clear that business as usual with the league will cease until the NBA totally repudiates Morey’s statement.
The NBA has not “repudiated” the statement, which was cancelled very soon after it went out. In fact, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported Morey’s tweet thereby adding fuel to the fire and, of course, the President had to add his two cents worth. In any event, there’s a firestorm as China will now have nothing to do with the NBA and plans for pre-season games among a number of NBA teams that were scheduled in China, along with visits by the immensely popular players to various youth groups and charitable work among the throngs of people in China who find the NBA and its stars captivating have been cancelled.
There are a number of business repercussions as well, including the determination of a shoe company in China that was negotiating with several NBA players begging off and cutting ties with the NBA — under orders from the repressive regime in China, no doubt. In any event, this is a kerfuffle of immense importance in a day when our relations with China were already standing on the edge of a precipice.
I tend to agree with the NBA Commissioner who defended th right of Morey and anyone else to say what he or she may want to say. After all, our nation is founded on the right of free speech — among other rights.
But this never should have happened because it is not up to Morey — or anyone else in this country — to tell the Chinese how they should live their lives. Freedom of speech is one we all prize and rightly so. But the Chinese do not and to shout out in a tweet that the Chinese are justified to protest the actions of their government is iill-advised if not downright stupid. Especially, as I said, given the tottering relations with that nation resulting from numerous actions by our sitting President.
In a word, the right of folks to say what they want (within limits, I would think) is one we rightly pride ourselves on. But we cannot assume that other nations accept those rights — even if they should. And while the actions of a sports team on the other side of the earth may seem trivial in light of the many problems we face these days, it is simply adding fuel to a fire that had already been started when our President decided to impose tariffs on imports from that country not long ago.
We cannot possibly agree with the strictures laid down by the totalitarian regime in China, but it is a healthy reminder to those of us in this country who are faced with the growing possibility of an increasingly repressive government in this country that our freedoms are precious and there are those in this world who are not lucky enough to share them with us.
This is sad, and Morey was on solid ethical ground. But it was a political mistake and a lesson to us all.

Why Science?

After addressing the U.S. Congress recently the young, courageous Greta Thunberg who was warning us all of the dangers of global warming (which we euphemistically call “climate change”) was asked by one of our feckless leaders “why should we pay any attention to science?” Or words to that effect.

The man then almost certainly left the House, climbed into a taxi and drive to the airport where he boarded an airplane to fly home to hob-nob with his corporate sponsors. I dare to say he saw no contradiction whatever between his question and his behavior. But the fact is that science is all around us and it almost always provides us with the truth of things. Not always, but almost always. And the evidence of global warming and the role humans have played in the drama has gone beyond the level of mere conjecture and is now a virtual certainty.

So the answer to the man’s question (if it deserves an answer) is “because it is giving us a warning and whether or not we want to listen to that warning it would be prudent to do so.” Our situation is not unlike that described by Pascal when he told us that we would all be better off to believe in God than not. In both cases, the chance we might be wrong to believe in science or God results in altered behavior, simply. But if Science is right and if God does exist then we would be wise to believe and act accordingly. In the case of global warming it is a matter of life and death. It may not appear so, but it is and that fact is supported by overwhelming evidence. Evidence that only the most stupid among us can continue to ignore.

As one who taught both logic and the philosophy of science for many years, however, I am fully aware that neither tool will deliver all the goods. Life does not always (seldom?) accord with logic and science cannot tell us about things that are deeply important to us — such as how to live our lives. Or how to resolve a moral dilemma, or how to judge a work of art.

But the denial of science in an age such as ours is not borderline stupid: it crosses the border into insanity. There is a point at which the evidence is so heavy that we cannot bear it even though we must. The changes in our behavior that might make a difference in the rapidly warming globe on which we live are minimal when compared to the alterations in all our behavior that must occur when the consequences of global warming are felt by us all — when, for example, we cannot afford the cost of basic foods in our grocery stores whose shelves are nearly empty because the earth simply cannot produce enough food to support a growing human population.

The problem with blog posts such as this, of course, is that they border on preaching and the congregation listening, or reading, already knows whereof I speak and write. But that doesn’t make it any the less important to continue to shout fire in a burning building, because if things remain as they are at present the building will burn down around us and we shall perish in the aftermath. There is no Plan B.

How Are We Entertained?

I am having some health problems of late and seem to lack the will to return to those themes that have inspired years of posts in this blog. And, heaven knows, I strive mightily to avoid politics these days. So, instead I shall offer up from time to time a post that seems to me to have some resonance with today’s goings-on. Today’s topic is suggested in the title of this post.

A number of theorists have drawn interesting parallels between Rome and contemporary America. With one eye on Rome the founders of this nation feared the dissolution of our Republic from within as people lost their sense of civic virtue and went off on tangents into self-indulgence and the seeking of unnecessary wealth. Aldous Huxley later warned Western civilization about its urge to satisfy endless pleasures. I doubt, however, that any of these people could have foreseen the sort of incident that happened in Florida recently.

It is certainly the case that our nation can no longer brag about its commitment to the common good and its practice of public virtue which puts the good of all above one’s  own self-interest. The pursuit of wealth has become synonymous in the minds of many with democracy and freedom. In this regard we do resemble the ancient Romans. But one of the most compelling parallel between today’s Republic and the Roman Republic is our love of diversions. The Romans loved their bread and circuses. Clearly there need to be some diversions, especially at a time when there are pressures from all directions on nearly everyone in this country. But as Aristotle warned, “everything in moderation.”  The love of diversions in this country has reached absurd limits when events like Nathan’s hot dog eating contest takes center stage — only to be upstaged recently by the eating of worms and cockroaches. A recent storytells the sad results:

MIAMI (AP) — The winner of a roach-eating contest in South Florida died shortly after downing dozens of the live bugs as well as worms, authorities said Monday.

About 30 contestants ate the insects during Friday night’s contest at Ben Siegel Reptile Store in Deerfield Beach about 40 miles north of Miami. The grand prize was a python.

If it weren’t so sad it would be positively funny — shades of Monty Python (sorry, ‘had to go there). But one must ask, really, where are we headed in this culture? How does this sort of absurd spectacle pass as entertainment? Even if the man had not died — and he may have died for a number of reasons having nothing whatever to do with his latest meal — what’s with 30 people standing around watching idiots wolf down bugs and worms to see who would win a snake? The sponsors of the “event” thought it fitting to donate the python to the family of the man who died. As the story tells us, “The Miami Herald reported the grand prize has been put aside in Archbold’s [the diseased] name and will be given to his estate.” If we knew how to laugh at a person’s untimely death (as Mary Tyler Moore did)  this, too would be funny. What on earth will this man’s grieving family do with a python?

Twenty years after writing Brave New World Aldous Huxley revisited a number of the themes he had raised in that novel and collected his essays in a book titled Brave New World Revisited. It is a fascinating take on events in the late 50s in light of Huxley’s own predictions in the 1930s. I quoted him in a previous blog as he notes “mankind’s almost limitless appetite for distractions.” Never were truer words spoken and this should make us take seriously his many other warnings about the future of a people who seek nothing more in life than the satisfaction of their own pleasures. But eating bugs and worms? You must be kidding! Surely this is the reductio ad absurdum of our love of distractions and invites another long look at what happened to ancient Rome.