An Oldie But A Goodie!

 

Given what Jerry Stark said in the guest bog I posted recently about the birth of a new morality in this country, our democracy would appear to be in serious difficulty. This is especially true with the president determined to deconstruct the nation and build it anew in his own image. Thus, as I noted in this blog posted many years ago, education remans the key to the survival of this Republic — especially with a vital election on the horizon.

In the 40s of the last century H.G. Wells told us that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Since that time, education has been weighed down in this country by the burden of low regard, and it is not clear, given today’s political climate, that it can win the race.

Victor Scheffer, a marine biologist of international reputation worried about the battle that is going on in public education and suggested that “Education may now be entering a feedback loop in which ill-informed voters are continually creating administrations that blindly deny the value of education.” Indeed. Given the hostility in Wisconsin a few years ago toward the audacious attempt on the part of teachers and other public employees to make a decent living, one suspects that this ship has sailed. And this is just the beginning, as taxpayers in other states seem to be following Wisconsin’s lead in their mania to save a few dollars at any cost. Sad to say, part of the fault for this reaction on the part of the voters must lie with educators themselves. But only part.

I have argued in print for some time now that education has lost its way. It suffers from a lack of a clearly articulated purpose. Instead of concentrating on the essential role of putting young people in possession of their own minds, educators have gotten side-tracked and bought into the myth that education is really about building self-esteem, or, worse yet, training the young to get a job. Further, those who fund education are married to a business paradigm that requires that all “outcomes” be quantified and the bottom line be black, which is absurd. This is part of the explanation of how we could have come to the point where people like Dr. Scheffer rightly worry about the “feed-back loop.” The schools have built an immense bureaucracy that towers over them and dictates educational policy; they are overseen by shortsighted managers who hold teachers to inapplicable standards; and the teachers themselves stumble about in the dark trying to teach out-of-control kids who are ill-prepared for school in the first place. The result is that the schools simply are not turning out the kinds of graduates who can see beyond their own immediate, short-term demands — much less the “common good” that is supposed to be the focus of a democracy.

It was widely understood by our Founders that in order to work a democracy must presuppose educated citizens. This is why, given the uneducated masses, they restricted suffrage well into the Jackson years. And this is why as suffrage was extended the nation opted for universal, public education. As Dr. Scheffer suggests, education is the key. But if so, it is a key that doesn’t seem to be turning in the lock.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley predicted that America would eventually elect an actor to the Presidency. We not only did that, we also elected the village idiot to that highest of offices. Twice. Huxley saw what was coming. But my home state has no room to crow: we elected a former professional wrestler to the governorship. In any event, we should know better: education does seem to be failing to play the key role it must play in a Democracy. And if this is to turn around, parents must spend more time with their children, and those who would teach the young must learn to put their students’ needs first — not their “wants,” but their needs. They must realize that they themselves know what is best for the students in their charge, or there is no reason whatever for those students to be there in the first place. Education must stop being a mirror, as Robert Hutchins said many years ago, reflecting the demands of unknowing, spoiled young people, and become the beacon it was supposed to be in the first place.

If and when educators put their house in order, those who graduate from the schools  and go to the polls must be willing to spend money on education and recognize that education requires more than the measly 2.1 % of the national budget (contrasted with the military’s 42%); they must be willing to allocate sufficient funds at both the state and national levels to pay those who teach a living wage and make teaching an attractive vocation for the best and brightest minds in the country. As Dr. Scheffer said, “I wish that we Americans would respect, value, and compensate our teachers — caretakers of the mind — as we now do our physicians — caretakers of the body.” Until we do, we will continue to lose the race, and while “catastrophe” is a strong word, if Wells’s dichotomy is viable the fact that we are in a “feedback loop” does not bode well for a democratic system that seems to be faltering, led as it is by weak men and women who are subject to corporate pressure and unable to rise above self interest and party politics to envision what is best for the country.

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True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.

Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

Free Press?

Along with a number of my blogging buddies I have wondered aloud why there is so little genuine press coverage of such things as political debates. Why aren’t the politicians pressed harder by the reporters? Why aren’t we allowed to hear both sides of the issues? I have often thought that many of our problems stem from the fact that news has become entertainment, that, in general, what we are allowed to hear is determined by a few corporations that really want to amuse us and to think alike. When my mind wanders in this direction I hear a small voice in my ear whisper that this sounds like “conspiracy theory.” But the fact is that five major corporations in this country own 90% of the public media. These corporations determine what we hear and see and in large measure the way we think. For those of us who treasure our freedom, this is a serious problem. Some have said that in our day our freedom has increased, whereas the truth of the matter is that it has diminished.  The data in the following article suggest why:

The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

What this means for all of us is that the free press which Thomas Jefferson once said was the cornerstone of our democracy has become the voice of a handful of giant corporations that clearly do not want the citizens of this country to exercise free choice. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that our freedom is largely an illusion, since the corporations are in control of the commercial messages that persuade us in hidden ways to make the choices that will increase profits for those companies that support the media through advertising. And this goes for our political choices as well — with rare exceptions. We are convinced that we have a great many choices, whereas in fact those choices are limited in ways we are largely unaware of. It matters not how many books we have to choose from in the library or the bookstore, it matters which ones we choose or if we choose any at all

But there is more. The free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Thus, it is not surprising that we now have entertainment in place of news, that the dogged and determined press of, say, the Roosevelt era that helped Teddy bring down the Trusts, is a thing of the past. What we now have is “news” presented by glib, beautiful people whose strings are pulled by a handful of giant corporations which prefer that we know only what they regard as important. That is to say, our democracy has been replaced (as Aldous Huxley predicted) by an oligarchy that calls the shots while the rest of us go through the motions and do what we are told and elect those politicians who are found to be malleable. Radical change is in order, but does not appear to be in the offing.

 

The Genius of Aldous Huxley

Readers will agree that I have drawn on Aldous Huxley a great deal over the years — and for good reasons! As  happy New Year gift, I am reposting one of my previous blogs with revisions and additions in order to demonstrate once again how  brilliant the man was. I was especially struck by the final quote below.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation. However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward totalitarianism. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and the soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important educations is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward totalitarianism — not totalitarianism held together by violence, but totalitarianism held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need and vote for people who are not qualified for political office.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues (such as Donald Trump, for example) to capture the undeveloped minds of frightened people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or presidents. In the end:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts, and all the rest — will remain.
The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

Are we there yet??

What About Me?

I mentioned in one of my very early blogs that at one point while I was teaching we had a required Freshman course in which the students were required to read Huxley’s Brave New World. I also mentioned one of the comments made by one of those students in the evaluations we asked them to write at the end of the semester. He said, in a comment echoed by a number of other students, “What does this have to do with me?” In a nutshell he told us a great deal abut what is wrong with his generation. For anyone who has half a brain and has read the book (which may exclude that student on both counts), the answer is obvious. Huxley’s world is one in which pleasure is the only recognizable value, much as it is in our world.

Toward the end of the novel John the savage has a remarkable dialogue with the Director about the strengths and weaknesses of Brave New World. The director, who goes by the name of Mustapha Mond, defends his world against the criticisms of the savage. After all, in Mond’s world everyone does what he wants to do and no one suffers needlessly. What’s not to like? As Mond says in a rather lengthy speech:

“. . .The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what [we think] you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”

In response to this and other similar comments, the savage retorts: “Nothing costs enough here.” And that says it all.

Bearing in mind that soma is the Brave New World’s all-purpose tranquilizer and that while the parallel is not exact it is striking, since we have pills now for every malady — even some we merely imagine; the goal of constant pleasure is found both in Huxley’s and in our world, along with a type of Christianity that is designed (counter to its Founder’s intentions as I read the New Testament) to make things as delightful as possible and guarantee that everyone feels good about himself or herself no matter how low on the human scale they stand or crawl.

In a word, the book was written in the 1930s and still has the ring of truth which while loud and clear apparently falls on many a deaf ear. What does the book have to do with us? In both worlds, nothing costs enough. We seem to have traded a human world of struggle and suffering compensated by unexpected love, pleasure and delight for a world of satisfied ants in an ant-hill where there is no suffering or struggle — and no real love or delight in the world around us. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything.

Forgetting The Past

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative  analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which I have referred to in previous blogs he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there were any questions about the spiritual health of this country, the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers.  We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

Bang You’re Dead!

Just when you think you’ve heard about the most absurd human behavior —  a contest to see who can eat the most worms and cockroaches in order to win a python — you read a story like the one in a recent Minneapolis Tribune article that tells about a couple in a Minneapolis suburb who are making money from having created a “simulated killing of Osama Bin Laden experience.” (Seriously, I did not make this up!) Let’s start with a couple of paragraphs from the story itself:

Six AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are loaded with paint bullets. The Kevlar vests are 25 pounds of light body armor. And the nondescript industrial park in New Hope sits 6,900 miles from Osama bin Laden’s former compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But the mixture of fear, adrenaline and smell of gunpowder was real enough to jump-start the heart rates of five mock Navy SEALs who cashed in Groupons for this simulated adventure that has transformed a firearms studio north of Minneapolis into a gung-ho war-game night out.

Eighteen months after a team of SEALs killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist, everyday folks like these guys can plunk down $150 for their own vicarious shot at Operation Geronimo.

The story attempts to make the project seem quite reasonable — giving a struggling business in a Minneapolis suburb a boost while helping people learn how to protect themselves under simulated conditions that make the adrenalin flow and the palms sweat, just like the “real thing.” Participants wear plastic body armor and use paintball rifles. But this is not Sheldon Cooper and his nerdy friends shooting paint balls at the pseudo-scientists in the geology department. This is supposed to simulate real life with real villains. The bottom line is that we have people pretending they are Navy SEALs, shooting cardboard cutouts of women who represent Bin Laden’s wives –“who might be carrying a bottle of kerosene” — or they might not. And, of course, there’s the fact that the real-life character they shoot in the end  — a former police sniper disguised to look like Bin Laden — constitutes a racial profile if there ever was one. Needless to say, there are minority groups in the Twin Cities who are deeply disturbed by reports of these goings-on.

So we have several interesting moral issues here in the name of teaching people how to protect themselves: racial profiling; acceptable “killing” of persons who might well be innocent bystanders in the name of “self-defense”; and fostering aggressive impulses in ordinary people who have a spare $150.00 to blow on playing a war game, of sorts. One of the participants was Ben Leber a former Minnesota Viking whose wife bought him a gift certificate for his birthday. Seriously?

I have blogged before about our limitless appetite for distractions, which Aldous Huxley noted many years ago. And to be sure, we need distractions in our stressful world. But isn’t there a point when these distractions start telling us something deeply disturbing about ourselves? Just when you think you have heard the most bizarre example possible you read about this newest attempt to give bored folks something to do in their spare time that will give them an adrenalin rush and make them feel like they have actually accomplished something important. Apparently, participants get so worked up they have trouble sleeping the following night. It does give one pause.

Debates As Theater

Now that the second of three debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is over and the dissections have begun it is time to either join the fray or turn one’s back in disgust and wish the whole thing were over. I confess I am of the second opinion for the most part, but a recent article on Yahoo News piqued my interest and invited another comment or two on a topic on which far too much ink has already been spilled. I do think the debates are theater and they should not have anything whatever to do with who wins the highest office in the land. But they do, apparently: what I wish were the case really doesn’t count.

Apparently, Obama “won” the second debate according to recent reports. But in political correspondent Jeff Greenfield’s opinion it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s all about the first debate which Obama “lost.” As Greenfield says, if Obama had performed as well in the first debate as he did in the second the election would be virtually over. Consider:

When the evening began, one observation dominated the conversation: “If President Barack Obama has another debate like the last one, the election’s over.”

When the evening ended, I was struck by a different thought: If Obama had performed this way at the first debate, the election would have been over.

In every debate, whatever the format, whatever the questions, there is one and only one way to identify the winner: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? More often than not on Tuesday night, I think, Obama had the better of it.

Moreover, apparently Romney gained ground from the first debate which he will not lose from his performance in the second debate in Greenfield’s opinion. But note the criteria Greenfield cites as keys to who “wins” and who “loses” the debates: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? What on earth do these things have to do with running the country? Nothing. They are about theater, period. And in Greenfield’s opinion, Obama’s performance in the second debate was better theater than Romney’s (give him a 9.6 to Romney’s 8.3) and considerably better than his performance in the first debate (7.4). Aldous Huxley had it right in the 1950s when he predicted that Americans would one day elect an actor as president!

Historically, viewer interest in the debates does fall off after the first one. And in that regard Greenfield is probably correct in saying that Obama’s performance on October 16th was of little consequence. But again one must ask why on earth the voters of this land hadn’t made their minds up about who could run this country best long before the two men stood before TV cameras and played the roles required of them as performing clowns in that first debate? Where have people been for the past months that they have to listen to a TV debate to decide who will get their vote — given that these two men sit on opposite sides of the political fence on every important issue? The answers seem clear: an astonishing number of people in this country are simply too busy to follow the news, pick up a newspaper, visit web sites, or read carefully argued blogs in order to determine where the two men stand on vital issues that impact all our lives.

But as they say it’s “academic.” The second debate is now over and apparently Obama performed much better than he did in the first debate. But it will not make much difference because apparently watching TV for 90 minutes is all many people can spend making up their minds whom they will vote for as president of these United States, and those 90 minutes took place two weeks ago. As Greenfield said, making clear what arena these debates are held in: “That opportunity [for Obama] vanished that night. While it’s clear that Obama’s performance will revive the enthusiasm of his supporters, it seems unlikely that it will cause those impressed by Romney to reconsider. Like they say in show business, timing is everything.”

Bread and Circuses

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 story tells 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 ancient Rome.