Our Disenchanted World

My previous blog post, the latest in a series about the Death of God, fell on deaf ears for the most part. I am not surprised given the nature of the topic; it is not a popular one. But, then (while I was a bit disappointed to see the lack of response from the two or three readers I tend to count on) many of the topics I choose to write about are not of the popular variety. I realized some time ago that if I wanted to assure that those who “follow” me continue to do so, or if I were intent to increase the numbers of followers, I should write more cheerful posts. But I must tell it as I see it, and from where I sit there is not much to cheer about these days, though I will continue to look and to laugh whenever possible in order to maintain some semblance of sanity.

In any event, I have spoken about the Death of God, by which I mean the disenchantment of our world. I have asked that in order to better understand our current angst we contrast our world with Western Europe during the  Middle Ages. That was a time when to protect themselves against life’s uncertainties the typical man or woman carried talismans, amulets, charmed stones, magical writings, and almost certainly the “agnus dei” or a crude cross made of wood. He or she memorized prayers and magic spells to suit a variety of circumstances. They did not distinguish between these charms and the icons and prayers in Latin they heard in church — all of which they hoped would alleviate their fears and pain. As Carolly Erickson told us in The Medieval Vision:

“. . .the availability of occult and religious counter-forces prevented a sense of hopelessness, and made possible a certain accommodation between the visible and the invisible worlds. And the Church, while condemning certain (by no means all) occult knowledge, in practice cooperated actively in this  accommodation.”

More to the point, these charms gave those people a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. Typically, medieval men and women spent time each day in Church and most, if not all, of Sunday. They were all-too happy to risk life and limb in building cathedrals despite the fact that those who worked on them, if they survived, rarely ever saw them completed in their brief lifetime. The point is that theirs was an enchanted world of miracles, mystery and authority. These elements provided them with an anchor in a world that otherwise held out only threats of suffering and violent death. Everything meant more than it seemed to as we can see from Dante’s Divine Comedy which has as many layers of meaning as an onion: everything was a symbol of something else. They trusted their eyes less than they did their deeply held convictions about what was real and what was not.

We, on the other hand, have rejected all three, miracle, mystery, and authority. We reject truth and even legitimate authority in the name of personal opinion which we believe to be infallible. We have embraced scientism (please note the spelling. I don’t speak of science, but of the conviction that the scientific way of knowing is the ONLY way of knowing: if a thing cannot be measured, weighed or poured into graduated cylinders it cannot possibly be known) and we have rejected miracles and mystery in the process.

Thus, to return to my main argument, our disenchanted world is considerably less certain, reassuring, and comforting than the medieval world — despite the very real threats and dangers in that world — because we are alone in a labyrinth of our own creation, having rejected anything that might provide comfort and succor. We are too sophisticated to believe in what we cannot see and our intellectual community, at any rate, finds it difficult to discuss theological or religious questions since this is a sure sign of naiveté and heaven knows we don’t want to be thought to be naïve. Better to lose ourselves in literary theory, postmodern gobble-de-gook, alternative facts, political correctness, or, as a last resort in those electronic toys that give us a sense that we are all-powerful when, in fact, we are becoming slaves to those very toys.

We cannot recover the world view of medieval men and women. It is not only impossible, but also almost certainly not to be recommended. But at the same time, it might be wise to open our eyes and look again at our world, accept that there are things in heaven and earth that cannot be known by science and the empirical method, mysteries that lie beneath the surface of what we call “reality.” This is not to deny scientific truth — that would be absurd and something we shall leave to the politicians. It’s to acknowledge the limitations of scientific method and allow for the possibility that there is a great deal we do not know; in order to begin to learn about it we need to put our toys aside, read what has been written by the great minds that have preceded us, talk to one another, and think deeply about what things mean and where we are headed.

 

Advertisements

Mean What You Say!

I was watching ESPN’s “Sports Center” yesterday morning and found one of the topics especially interesting. The four regulars were asking a sports guru off-site what he thought about the fact that the University of Richmond has suspended five baseball players for playing “Fantasy Football.” This game is regarded by both the NCAA and by the University as a form of gambling because it involves the winning and losing of money. The guru, and later the four talking heads, insisted that this punishment was a case of overkill. The KIDS (the words emphasized by the guru) were just having fun and if the NCAA and the University want them to stop gambling they should pay them for playing baseball instead of encouraging them to gamble in order to make more money (!).

As you can see from they brief synopsis, the discussion frequently went off-topic. The guru had a difficult time staying on-point; his mind jumped around like spit on a hot griddle. But I daresay he was paid well for his appearance. In any event, I tend to agree that all Division I NCAA athletes should be paid and then use some of that money to pay for their education if they want one. I have been saying this in print for years. But that was not the issue. Nor was the issue whether the rule made any sense.  The issue was whether or not those five players should have been punished for gambling. The answer — despite the unanimous opinion of the well-paid people on “Sports Center” — is a resounding YES! They should be punished.

Why?

Because there is a rule at the University and coming down from on high from the NCAA — king of all intercollegiate sports — that gambling is a no-no. It’s against the rules. The rules are clearly set out and the students, we must assume, were told ahead of time that they were not to become involved, no matter how innocent it may seem and whether or not we agree that “Fantasy Football” is gambling (which I think it is, by the way). In a word, if they broke the rules then they should be punished. Otherwise the rules mean nothing. And it seems to be coming to this, doesn’t it? It’s a cultural problem. We draw lines in the sand — at home, at work, in college, wherever — and then we are busy doing something else when the kids cross that line; we then redraw it somewhere else. It’s small wonder the kids lose all respect for authority and seem to be in a fog much of the time. And, recall, according to Christopher Lasch, this loss of respect for authority is at the heart of our narcissistic culture.

When I worked as a camp counsellor for five summers in Maine many years ago the camp director (who was a wise man indeed) told us at the initial meeting: “if you tell the kids you are going to punish them for doing something wrong, you must do so. If you threaten to kill them if they don’t stop fighting, then you must kill them!” Obviously he wasn’t urging its to kill the kids. (Or was he??) He just wanted to make a point: mean what you say*. I took that to heart as a counsellor and later as a parent — and as a teacher. If I made rules for those people to follow I expected them to follow them. And in the case of  my kids whom I loved dearly or good students who had a legitimate excuse for turning in a late term paper, believe me it hurt me to penalize them, which I did anyway. I suppose it’s what they call “tough love,” but whatever they call it, it makes perfect sense and the fact that five people on television all agree that those baseball players should not have been punished simply attests to the sad demise of basic ethics from which those glued to the television take way the wrong sort of message.

Now, if only the punishments made sense and were consistently applied it would be easier to make my case. The talking heads seemed to be more disturbed about the seriousness of the punishment than the punishment itself and with that I agree. The rules should be clear, consistent, and consistently applied to the stars on the team or the kids in the living room watching R rated movies after being told not to do so. And the punishment should fit the crime. But to say that those who break the rules should not be punished is simply wrong-headed.

 

*And as Alice learned in Wonderland, this is not the same thing as “say what you mean.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.

Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”

TRUE CONSERVATISM

“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.

Parental Authority

One of the most difficult concepts for our society to come to grips with has been that of authority, especially parental authority. The authority of the policeman is fairly simple to deal with: if we see a badge or a flashing light most people listen and respond appropriately. But the authority of experts and especially the authority of parents and teachers has been questioned for a number of years now in what is an increasingly egalitarian and permissive society in which a leveling-down process has given birth to a sense of entitlement on the part of a vast majority of the spoiled young people in this country. No one has wrestled more successfully with the concept of authority than Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to in previous blogs and who has brought his grasp of basic Freudian principles to bear on the subject and helped clarify what is decidedly a very misunderstood concept. “Authority” is not a nasty word, as some would have us believe.

We need to start by distinguishing between spurious authority and legitimate authority, rooting out, for example, the bogus authority of “experts” such as Merriam Van Waters, author of Parents On Probation, who as early as the 1920s started the rumor that in an increasing number of cases parental authority was “warped” and children should be raised by the “helping professions” rather than parents.  One must question the credentials of these supposed “authorities” in child rearing. Such bogus authority is simply power in another guise, leading to the rejection of the legitimacy of the parental role in the family in the name of  the state’s “social responsibility” for the children. I hope to explore this theme more fully in a subsequent blog.

The recognition of the legitimate authority of acknowledged experts with bona fide credentials is something we all benefit from and our society desperately needs. This is the case with regard to the authority of those who have a thorough understanding of their field of expertise, as recognized by their peers, and it is most assuredly the case with regard to the legitimate authority of parents and teachers. While we have solid grounds for rejecting the supposed authority of many in the “helping professions,” not only must we recognize the authority of the physician and the auto mechanic, we must also recognize the authority of the scientist who tells us that the globe is warming and that human existence as we know it is facing radical change while the planet itself is in jeopardy. And we must allow for the legitimacy of the authority of the parents over their own children and the teachers to teach the young.

But ours is an egalitarian age in which we have begun with a misunderstanding of the notion of moral equality in which all are entitled to fair treatment under the law and expanded the notion to the absurd conclusion that there are no differences between men and women, or between the gifted and the obtuse, or between a spurious opinion and a reasoned opinion. This is the “leveling-down” process I mentioned above. In insisting, wrongly as it happens, that there are no differences that make any difference between opinions or people  we have tossed out the notion that there are some who know more than others, that some things are true while others are false, and that some people are capable of remarkable deeds while others simply are not. While we are all equal before the law and from a moral perspective differences are less important than similarities, some people are simply more able than others to do specific things: some differences do make a difference. And there are those whose legitimate authority we should all admit, though we seem reluctant to do so.

Now, whether or not one agrees that the general abandonment of the notion of legitimate authority is a serious problem, one must agree that the attack on the legitimate authority of the parents most assuredly is. As Lasch has noted, quoting  anthropologist Jules Henry,

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline. . . The parent’s abdication of authority intensifies rather than softens the child’s fear of punishment, while identifying thoughts of punishment more firmly than ever with the exercise of arbitrary, overwhelming violence.”

In a word, by denying the legitimate role of the parents as authorities in the raising of their own children, and/or the abdication of that role by parents who are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with making a living (as we say), we have brought about a permissive society in which the child has become the center of the family; “discipline” has become a pejorative term; “reform” has replaced punishment; an increasingly coercive state has intruded itself into the private arena of the family which should ideally be off-limits; and the young are convinced they are entitled to what they perceive as “the good life,” and are increasingly inclined to resort to violence in order to make sure that this comes about. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Renegade Cop

You have probably read or heard about the ex-cop Christopher Dorner who killed three people on his way to a mountain cabin where he was surrounded, killed a deputy sheriff, and then apparently shot himself before the cabin burned to the ground. All reports indicate that the man had anger issues and his dismissal from the LAPD was apparently the last straw that turned him against the very laws he had supported for years. He has become something of a cult hero, as we learn from articles like the following:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dozens of protesters rallied outside Los Angeles police headquarters Saturday in support of Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer and suspected killer of four who died after a shootout and fire this week at a mountain cabin following one of the biggest manhunts in recent memory. . . .

The 33-year-old has already inspired a burgeoning subculture of followers. While most don’t condone killing, they see him as an outlaw hero who raged against powerful forces of authority, and some even question whether he really died.

There’s already a song about him! We really are desperate for heroes so the fact that a man like Dorner would emerge from this terrible incident as an “outlaw hero” is not all that surprising, I suppose. For one thing, we all feel oppressed from time to time by those in authority who would insist that we do things their way. As Dostoevsky would have it, we all, perhaps, want to “assert our independence, to go against social conventions, against the despotism of relatives and family.” It is a natural, human impulse to want to resist those who would thwart our will: just ask any mother of an adolescent child. But as we grow older we are supposed to become accustomed to authority, learn to accommodate ourselves to others, and recognize laws and constraints as necessary for us to get along with one another. Or perhaps we do not grow up! It does seem at times that this culture worships youth and does everything in its power to hang on to youth well into old age. Just take a peek at the AARP magazine sometime and check out the ads that promote products that promise to help people look and feel younger!

We find men of all ages in locker rooms across the country slapping each other on the backs, snapping towels, and telling dirty jokes — just like high school. College is regarded by the majority of its students as a time to have fun, not to grow into responsible, well-informed adults. Immediate gratification is the order of the day. Postponing gratification is the sign of maturity. And we can see from the level at which the commercials on TV are directed that marketers clearly think they are selling their products to eighth graders. Perhaps they are.

In any event, when a cult forms around a man who went berserk and shot three innocent people in imitation of Rambo (as he himself is reported to have said), then we need to stop and wonder where we have come in our resistance to legitimate authority and adulation of those who openly flaunt it at the expense of innocent lives. There was something clearly wrong in the workings of Dorner’s mind that led him on his rampage. But there might also be something wrong in the workings of the minds of those who would place him on a pedestal and think that this man was in any way admirable. We really do need to be careful whom we revere as heroes. I seriously doubt that the man could walk on water, feed the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish, or emerge alive from a cabin engulfed in flames and surrounded by law enforcers.

Who’s The Bully Here?

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us, The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago, “Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.'” Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.