A Thin Veneer


“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.



Uneasy Civilization

In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous and truly remarkable book Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter term, in German, is “Unbehagen,” which means, literally, “uneasiness.” In any event, Freud pointed out that civilization is bought at a price. He never suggested that the price was not worth paying, but those who followed him and had a much less penetrating insight into the trials and tribulations of civilized people decided that the price was not worth paying. Freud worried about repression and sublimation (which actually resulted in creative activity) whereas his acolytes preached that mental health consists in the absence of restraint in order to foster increased pleasure and “realizing one’s potential.”

What followed in this country within a decade or two was a plethora of pop-psychologists telling Americans that repression was a bad thing and the values that had created what we call “civilized society” were a sham. Following Nietzsche, they reduced virtues to values and then reduced values to subjective feelings. Gone were notions of hard work, diligence, courage, self-control, discipline, duty, and responsibility in the name of what was loosely regarded as emotional honesty, encouraging people to feel whatever they wanted to feel and eliminating inhibitions in an attempt to throw off the shackles of a restrictive culture. In the 1960s this movement bore the fruit of the hippy rebellion against “the Establishment” and the rejection in our universities of such things as history which was regarded as “irrelevant.”

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset told us some time ago that civilization is above all else the will to live in common. To the extent that we want to throw off the “shackles” of restraint and self-control and become fixated on our own self-improvement, we become more self-absorbed and less willing to preserve and protect what must be regarded as the remnants of civilization, the will to live in common and direct attention toward the common good. We worry less and less about others and regard them, for the most part, as avenues to or away from our own happiness. In the process our “lesser natures” are brought to the surface and the urges that were restrained are turned loose to wreak havoc on others around us. Recall that Freud never said that repression was a bad thing. It merely brought about an “uneasiness.” He would later call this “neurosis,” its clinical name. For Freud neuroses are treatable. Lack of character is not treatable: it is permanent.

Thus, we have inherited a view of human nature that is, in large measure, the result of a misreading of Freud and at the center of this view sits the figure of Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of the “let it all hang out” mantra. He rails at the media for insisting that his alternative facts are complete lies and, lately, he rails against the court system that would restrain his hatred of culturally diverse peoples around the world — all in the name of saving this country from terrorism (which he is convinced only he can do). This man is the embodiment of the lack of restraint that has come to characterize this society in which civilization, as we know it, is in danger of withering away. He embodies the lack of restraint and “honesty” that increasing numbers of people have come to regard as the only prizes worth having. Welcome to the New Age of Barbarism with the King Barbarian at its head! Small wonder that he has so many devoted followers. Never say “no.”

I have sworn not to write about this man any more and in this post I am obviously breaking my promise to myself and a few others who care about such things. But I do believe it is necessary to point out that we have arrived at a new age in which the values that created civilization have all but disappeared and the green light has been given to our baser instincts to go forth and eradicate. With his narcissism, vulgarity, fractured language, bigotry, contempt for those who disagree with him, and his determination to strike out against any and all who might thwart his will, the man is a symbol, a token, the personification of the decaying core of a civilization he would help bring down about our very ears. He has nothing but contempt for those few among us who might urge restraint and self-control in the name of a willingness to live with others, a determination to protect and save civilization (not to mention the planet) — for all its “uneasiness.”

Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.

Luke Warm Turkey

(I have decided to take a page from Brett Favre’s playbook and come out of retirement. I do miss writing the blogs and the responses of like-minded and not-so-like-minded readers. As my friend Ben Dillow suggested, rather than go “cold-turkey” I might post a blog from time to time. I will just stay away from those really depressing current events for the most part. We shall see how it goes. Call this one “Reflections On  Some Comments By Edmund Burke.”)

For Edmund Burke, morality and law both rest on manners, for manners affect society directly. Specifically, he notes that

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

As we are told in the excellent study of Edmund Burke’s life and thought by Jesse Norman, for Burke “manners are not the product of reason, but of unreflective individual habit and social wisdom.” In making these remarks, Burke sides with Aristotle who long ago taught that what he called “virtue” was a question of habit  and disposition, not reason. Reason can indicate which of several possible actions is the best, but it is character or disposition that will lead us to act  — or not to act, as the case may be. Burke agrees.

But what does this eighteenth century thinker’s ideas have to do with us today? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has stopped for a moment to think about the gradual disintegration of our civilization, the return to a new barbarism, that is evident on every side. The demise of manners is simply an indicator of the deeper problem, as I have noted in previous blogs. While good manners managed to survive the Victorian age, by the time of the Great War, and in particular the attack on Victorian values by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group,  manners began to be regarded as somehow dishonest. Accordingly, manners, which focus on the well-being of others, have been jettisoned in the name of  what we like to call “honesty,” “telling it like it is,” and “letting it all hang out.” Consequently, the self has become all-important and others are left to fend for themselves. In the end we have come to rely more and more on law alone to maintain order in an increasingly narcissistic society. But the legal network that strives to maintain order also shows signs of corruption and decay, and we look in vain for the good manners of the citizens to hold the social body together. The idea that good manners make possible a gain in self-esteem and self-worth by losing ourselves in caring for others, has been lost somewhere between the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century (as announced by Nietzsche) and the rapid rise of a crass materialism in a society that has lost its bearings.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of politics where we can see the same dynamic at work that is evident in society at large: political parties, which were formed to further the common good, have become mere factions (in Burke’s terms) that focus instead on short-run self-interest. As Burke defined them, political parties are supposed to be “bodies of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Indeed. This is what political parties are supposed to be. In fact, in this country — and to some extent in England as well — they have become entrenched bodies of small-minded cretins who willingly trade the national interest for self-advancement and the maintenance of their own positions in government. The eighteenth century notion of the common good, on which this nation was founded, has been buried alongside manners.

All of this was predicted by Aristotle who saw the transmogrification of other-directed interest into self-interest as the worm that eats at the heart of the body politic. Burke was merely echoing Aristotle’s warnings a few thousand years later, though those words are still worth pondering.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.” Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these people have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the others’ presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking any reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
     I wrote about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it.  My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: this condition is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
     As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 30s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves.  World War II soon followed.
     Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time, “The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”  But he is incapable of that.
     I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us are causal factors. In addition, the countless number of technical devices that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I was recently at a restaurant, for example, and noted the table next to me where three of the five people were texting while they waited to be served — presumably to people elsewhere. But note how all of these technical devices turn the individual’s attention inward (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
     In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic. And we may be more like them than we want to admit.

The New Barbarism

In 1930 the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset suggested in his Revolt of the Masses that Europe was returning to barbarism. He traced his concern back to the growing inability of Europeans to communicate with one another, their increasing tendency to seek isolation from one another, to become “hermetically sealed” against the outside world and other people. He worried because “mere egoism is a labyrinth.” In the end, he said, civilization is the “will to live in common.” There followed, of course, the atrocities of the Second World War which ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs on soldiers and civilians alike. Since that time, though certainly not because of that act, the bombing of civilians seems to have become almost commonplace, despite the Geneva Conventions that prohibit this sort of thing in wartime. Ortega seemed to be on to something.

In any event, as one looks around and reflects on contemporary American culture, one cannot help but see disturbing signs that would have jumped out at Ortega. In our schools there is an increasing inability to communicate between and among the young. Vocabularies have diminished 72% since the 1950s, when they were already on the decline. Text messaging has further crippled their ability to write, as high school English teachers attest. National test scores became so low that recently they had to be adjusted upwards. There is also an increasing sense of isolation as populations grow and cities become more and more crowded — as though people want to get away from one another. Experiments have shown what effects crowding have on white mice — whose DNA is disturbingly close to that of humans. When crowded, as John Calhoon showed not long ago, white mice become “psychologically withdrawn.” They fight and eventually they stop mating. In the end, the populations die out.

When we try to piece together some sort of whole from these fragments, we see a disturbing picture emerging: humans devolving in crowded cities into frightened individuals, unable and even unwilling, to communicate with one another — except by electronic gadgets that guarantee distance and lack of intimacy. Surely, our preoccupation with wealth and security is nothing more than an expression of that fear. This is indeed a new form of barbarism, a society of individuals with stunted communication skills who refuse, for one reason or another, to form close communities, who prefer to be alone and separate from one another, having lost “the will to live in common.” This preoccupation with self and lack of concern for others also bothered Vic Scheffer who concluded one of his essays with the thought: “Human life is an unrelenting search for equilibrium between concern for self and concern for others.” As we lose our concern for others, and our ability to communicate with one another, we not only lose the ability to think and act with a purpose; we do in fact become barbaric, uncivilized, less human. “A man is uncivilized, barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account,” according to Ortega.  Things like “restrictions, standards, courtesy, justice, reason,” go by the wayside to be replaced by violence, the “norm which presupposes the annulment of all norms.”

In his concern for Europe at that time, he looked across the ocean at America, but he concluded that America had not suffered enough to lead the world, that we were then “a primitive people camouflaged behind the latest invention.” In Ortega’s view primitives were also barbaric. Interesting.