Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

LEARNING FROM GREAT POETS
I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

TRUE FREEDOM
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

A Mere $20,000

In checking up on the results of the recent All-Star Baseball game I read that the winners had little incentive to win — aside from the fact that the winning league gets to have home-field advantage for the World Series. Otherwise, we are told, each player makes a “mere”  $20,000 for winning the game. No incentive whatever.

Does this strike anyone but me as borderline obscene? I mean to take such a figure so lightly when there are people on the streets who cannot eat and have no place to live? That’s a year’s salary for many in this country. We have always realized that athletes are the most spoiled and highest paid people in this country — and perhaps anywhere else as well. Steph Curry recently signed a contract with the Golden State Warriors for $200 million over five years. It boggles the mind. In reporting this we are told that this is OK because he only made $12.1 million this past year which is 82nd highest in the NBA. Goodness gracious! Poor Steph.

It’s small wonder that our kids hold their teachers in contempt because they make such meager salaries when we have arrived at the point where we measure success in dollars and cents. And compared with the athletes, who are our “heroes,” teachers suck. This only adds to the teachers’ plight, given that we now expect them to raise our kids in addition to teaching them.

I have played this tune before, I know. I have dwelt on the notion that those with great wealth have a moral responsibility to take care of those who have little or nothing — after they have bought their new $350,000 Ferrari (true that) or the new mansion for themselves and their close friends and family. It is said they deserve this money, “they have earned it.” That’s bollocks. They haven’t earned that much money. No one earns that much money. But given the fact that those of the rest of us who can ill afford it continue to pay outrageous prices for seats to watch them play and their owners make even more money than they do, perhaps is only fair that they get a larger share than many of them do at present. Perhaps.

To be sure, it is none of my business how much money another person makes or how that person chooses to spend their money. That’s a given. And there are those among the very rich, including the athletes, who are generous in their support of others in need. But at the same time, it is hard to look the other way when the pay-outs for those athletes are so out of proportion with the meager salaries others in this culture make, people who are much more important to the well-being of others — people like the fore mentioned teachers, and firemen and police. These people struggle to make ends meet while the wealthy among us think only about making more money when they already have more than they can spend in a lifetime.

Pity the poor players for the American League All-Star team. They only made a “mere” $20,000 for winning. Little incentive, indeed.

Aboard The Titanic (Again)

This is another of the several re-blogs I am posting in an effort to allow me time to collect those that seem to be the very best that I will include in an upcoming book. My hope it to whet your appetite!

Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels Flight Behavior is both disturbing and well worth reading. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours; her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters; Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned,
“For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.”
Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.

Healthy Skepticism (A repost)

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of this century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress — still doubts that climate change is a reality and that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by people hired by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful. How do they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have ever had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress.

According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘”Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert ‘not proven,’ smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.”

In a word, get your PR team to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact, it is precisely the strategy the vested interests, like the Koch brothers and others of their ilk, have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002 “a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context.

‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”

In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure your ability to maintain your political office and the continued rise in profits for those who have placed you there and will keep you there in the future. This works in the case of global warming as well, as we have seen.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense the politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust — and yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not to have to bother about disturbing truths.

In fact, what we do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any real meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling. Because of this, I have devised a new law. (You may be familiar with Curtler’s First Law, which is that “The academic strength of a college or university is in inverse relation to the success of its football team.”) Well, here’s Curtler’s Second Law: “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company or a political group that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

Decline of the West

 

This is a slightly modified and updated version of a previous post.

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its

“vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization.

In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages, though this sounds much like Spengler’s “organic” view of civilizations.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which many of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military which enjoys the lion’s share of our annual budget, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress and their determined attempt to turn this democracy into an oligarchy.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy. This is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security” born of the fear of terrorism.

The Electoral College

I have mentioned a number of times that our Constitution is in need of revision — or at least a number of amendments — to remedy the oversights of the Founders of this nation. They could not possibly see such things as the monumental growth of the corporations or the expanding wealth and power of a few individuals who would take the reins of power away from the people who were supposed to be the backbone of this Republic. Well, “backbone” may be too strong a word, because the Founders didn’t really trust the people altogether.

This can be seen by a cursory glance at the Constitution in which the Senate — selected by the legislators of the various states — is given the greatest power (a fact that disturbed Henry Adams no end) and the House of Representatives — which was the only body voted in by the people — was severely limited in its powers. And the President, of course, was to be elected by the “Electors.” The role of the Electors is discussed in Article II of the Constitution and it states that:

“Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress…”

Note that the Electors are “appointed” not elected. A lengthy paragraph follows in which it is shown how the Electors would choose a President and a Vice President — a paragraph that was altered by the Twelfth Amendment, passed in 1804, which expanded on the manner in which the President and Vice President were to be chosen, but kept the notion of the Electors intact.

In both cases, as in the case of the selection of the Senate, it was very clear that those who authored and approved the Constitution did not trust the people to do much in the way of choosing their government as they managed it so there would be buffers between the people and those chosen to govern them. It was simply assumed that the House of Representatives would be made up of people chosen directly by the citizens, but limited to a two-year term. Why would one want to state in office for longer since there were more important things to do at home?

The notion that those elected would be voted out of office if they were incompetent was clear from nearly every page of the Federalist Papers that were written to persuade the voters of New York state to ratify the Constitution. Those authors also made it clear, as I have noted before, that the voters themselves would exhibit “civic virtue,” that is, a love of country and willingness to put the needs of the country before their own. These notions now seem to have been idealistic if not naive.

But to focus attention the Electoral College, we might note that it was designed to guarantee that the very “best” people would be chosen for the highest office in the land. It was a check against the rude passions of the “rustics” who might want to elect a man (not a woman, of course) who would be unqualified for the job. There is simply no evidence whatever that those who wanted this Constitution really wanted to provide the people themselves with much power; it was to be housed among those who were best qualified — that is, the wealthier and better informed members of the thirteen states. The Founders, remember, were themselves educated, many of them quite wealthy, and most of them had been British citizens long enough to hang on to a deep prejudice against extending “suffrage” and a reluctant desire, perhaps, to mimic the better elements of the English system of government. The Senate, after all, appears to have been their version of the House of Lords — without any mention of Landed Gentry, of course.

It is ironic, then, that this document which is filled with checks and balances — and masterful in its way — placed so much power in the Electoral College to guard against the whims of the citizens who were not to be trusted with great responsibility. This College in our day has become an anachronism and was actually responsible for the recent election of the very sort of man the Founders were seeking to guard against — a man totally unqualified for office who could in a moment of anger or rage bring down then entire edifice around our ears.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that Hillary Clinton won the popular election by nearly three million votes. The Electoral College put her opponent in office. It would appear the people had more wisdom and common sense than the Founders thought they could exhibit. And the end result of the election was the very thing they sought to avoid.

I say again: perhaps it is time to address some of the oversights of the Founders who wrote this truly remarkable, but antiquated, document.

Whom To Trust

This is a post from four years ago which still seems relevant except for the fact that the lowered intelligence I speak of became even more apparent in the recent presidential election.

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow the youngsters to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all. The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.
Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I would label the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this onmslought. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.
I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:
(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.
(3) Fact is that which enough people believe. (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).
I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.
What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

Those Predatory Rich (Again)

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

Me First (A Repost)

A recent study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.
The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed and unconcerned about others or the environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins,

“I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the students in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women in front of those classes who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970, or even to write coherent sentences. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students, many of whom bought “cheaters,” not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about fifteen years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.
We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed, however. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid their elders should judge them. Indeed, the young have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter and everything they want should be handed to them with little or no effort on their part. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system — what Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, has called the “helping professions” — that claim to know children better than their own parents do and which demand little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.
But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly disinterested and self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says,

“Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.”
But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.”

We are told repeatedly that we should be patient with the young because they are under so much “pressure.” But the notion that self-absorbed young people who are unaware of the world around them could be under any more pressure than young people in previous generations is absurd: it’s precisely awareness of the problems around us that creates stress and pressure, and these young people appear to be totally unaware and, worse yet, unconcerned — by and large. Clearly, there are exceptions, thank goodness.
At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; the Chronicle report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the earth and the creatures living on it. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed narcissists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and the people and things around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference. As I noted above: there are exceptions.