The Business of America

The business of America, as they say, is business. Politics, like education and even medicine, has become business. Indeed, there is scarcely any activity we can think of that has not been transformed into business, including sports. In education, we are now told to do what is best for our “clients,” and that translates into giving them what they want and not what they need — and making it profitable. Medicine has huge billboards and runs countless advertisements on the television selling their latest product or service to their patients. Businessmen, successful or not, are elected to high public office. And sports, well, we know about sports: even at the collegiate level they have become commodified. We have known for years that this was coming, but we were not quite expecting what has occurred.

So much of what is going on results from our collective attitude to the earth which we regard with indifference (contempt?) and threaten to destroy in our rush to garner greater and greater wealth and bigger and bigger profits. Let me explain — with the help of my friend Robert Heilbroner, author of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. He points out that we need to ponder what he calls “the bourgeois attitude toward nature.”

“[In contrast with our bourgeois attitude] one aspect of the culture of most past civilizations strikes everyone who examines these extraordinarily diverse societies. This is their sacred view of the world. Whether in China or India, Greece or Rome, the Americas or Africa, the earth is seen by earlier civilizations as peopled with spirits and living presences, suffused with an animism that inhabits every rock as well as every living thing.”

This attitude cannot be found in the Judeo-Christian religion, however,

“which from Genesis on bids man to seize and shape, appropriate and subdue nature for human purposes alone.”

This attitude has come to permeate the thinking of much of the West and has given impetus to the tremendous success of the capitalistic system of economics which has given Western (and recently Eastern) people so much they can be proud of: a diverse culture, extraordinary creativity both in the arts and in science, longer and healthier lives, and wealth beyond rubies. But it has come at a price, because our attitude toward the earth threatens to bring down the entire edifice around our ears and bring suffering to millions of people as never before in human history. As Heilbroner goes onto point out, this attitude

lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. [The earth is no longer our Mother. It does not live. As we are taught by science and technology, it is simply there for the taking.] It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation [i.e, profit]. . . . . Capitalism requires and engenders a belief in the indifference of ‘nature’ to the operations performed on it my man, a point of view epitomized by the scientific outlook. The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward a material world — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as “mother” Nature. The ideological function of science is to delegitimize this animistic view, replacing it with the much more powerful view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.”

To begin with, as I have noted in previous discussions on this topic, it is part of the nature of capitalism that it has no intrinsic moral dimension. Capitalism, is a-moral, at the very least.  Moreover, many of those in business who rely on science to assist them in taking from the earth as much plunder as they can would deny science in the form of the predictions of climate change which would thwart their desires and curtail their avarice. They lean heavily on the scientific attitude that the earth is inert and there for the taking — “obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.” But they ignore its dire warnings that there is a price to be paid. They fly about the world making money; rely on computer models to tell them the latest stock predictions — not to mention the weather; they plant and harvest crops based on the latest information provided them by agricultural science. They quantify everything and rely heavily on calculations and predictions that depend, in turn, on scientific evidence. When it is useful science is leaned on heavily, but when it tells them to beware they refuse to listen.

It is not surprising, however, that an economy like ours would ignore warnings about climate change since such a thing cannot be fathomed by those who think in terms of profit and loss and who see the world as something to be exploited and to render up its treasure to them and to no one else. So we should not be surprised when those in Congress and the White House, so heavily dependent on the business community for their jobs, ignore the warnings about climate change and insist that it is a Chinese plot to destroy the American economy. They find it more comforting to keep their collective heads buried in the sand than to admit that it might be wise to proceed with caution. After all it’s only the earth and it’s there to plunder and exploit. It’s not our Mother, it is simply inert and lifeless. Or it soon will be.

Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

Minimal State

There are those among us who see the political state as a Big Brother who watches everything we do and tells us NOT to do those things we want to do. Or it takes our money. They would minimize the role of the state, if not eliminate it entirely. They call themselves “libertarians” because they are convinced that without a political state watching over us we would be free as birds. What they don’t realize is that the sort of freedom they envision is chaos, like a crowd trying to escape from a burning theater. Without restraint we do not have freedom. Quite the opposite.

In any event, the economist Robert Heilbroner, who wrote The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, has a chapter in the book that addresses the relative roles of the state and capital and their need for one another. Those who would do away with what they regard as state interference would cut off their very noses to spite their faces. Ugly, to say the least. And stupid. The state does tend to become bigger and bigger, that’s certainly true. And we all hate to pay taxes (those of us who do pay taxes, that is). But the role of the state has become absolutely necessary to the preservation of our society and for the continuered prosperity of those who would do away with it. As Heiolbroner notes:

“It is equally evident that the designation of capitalism as ‘self-ordering’ . . .must be understood in a qualified sense. The term applies that all essential activities connected with the material process can be, at least in principle, consigned to the markets. [This is untrue] not alone in the case of such goods as defense, without which no marketing system seems imaginable, but in the broad historical reality of capitalism as a self-reproducing social formation. Here the state, both as defender and promoter of the economic realm, has played so prominent a role that even the most abstract scenarios of the system unwittingly assign it a central and indispensable place when they take as their unit of conceptual analysis the state. Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regimen of capital would not last a day.”

The state provides capital with avenues of transportation for their goods as well as avenues of communication to open up new markets and keep those open that are at present offering the owners large profits. The state also provides the capitalist with trained (if not educated) workers and health care for the employees in order to enable them to continue to work and produce commodities and goods. This is in addition the huge military machine that, as Heilbroner suggests above, defends the capitalist from those who would threaten his profit-making activities. In addition, as we have seen especially in recent times, the government stands ready to bail out struggling or failed businesses, — as in the case of such things as farm subsidies and the recent bailouts of the banking industry and two of the three major auto companies in this country.  Government is absolutely necessary to the continued existence of business and the health of our economy. It is perceived as Big Brother watching and nay-saying, but it is in fact Big Brother who makes it possible for those who would do away with it to prosper.

At present, of course, we have a president in this country who is a staunch advocate of minimal state, because he also sees the state as having outgrown its usefulness. He would do away with those regulatory agencies that protect the citizens and their health, forgetting in the process that upon their good health depends the continued prosperity of such things as, oh I don’t know, say, the hotels and resorts that have made the man a fortune? The desire to minimize the state and reduce, if not eliminate altogether, its role in our economy is myopic, to say the least. It sees only what it wants to see in its paranoid condition, and ignores the fact that the political state is the underpinning of everything they regard as valuable, namely, those things that have made (and keep) them healthy and wealthy. It is short-sighted, if not simply stupid — not unlike the continued ignorance of global warming that is a direct threat to their continued existence, not to mention the continued growth of their obscene wealth.  It’s as stupid as, say, thinking this nation can go it alone in the day of international conglomerates and global business in which the economies of the nations of the world depend upon one another as never before. Isolationism is not the answer; it’s not even a desirable option. Neither is libertarianism. We all depend upon one another in so many ways — as never before.

Under Attack

I often wonder how many people outside the Academy realize (or care?) how severe the attack on Western Civilization is within the Academy as students and faculty on a growing number of campuses across the country have determined that Western Civilization is the source of most of the world’s  problems today.  Indeed, I wonder how many people within the Academy are aware of the seriousness of the problem.

In a recent acceptance speech at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni annual banquet, one of the recipients of their “Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education,” Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Fellow at the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, paints a bleak picture indeed. She cites a battle at Stanford University in 2016 in which a group of students sought to reinstate a course requirement in “Western Civilization” that had been eradicated 25 years ago. The attempt was overwhelmingly rejected by the student body.

“In the run-up to the vote, one Stanford student [a young woman in this case] wrote in the Stanford Daily that ‘a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.'”

The ignorance of this student’s comment beggars belief and, sad to say, it is a view that is shared by what many think is the majority of students (and faculty) on today’s campuses. Let’s take a look at this comment.

To begin with, one course requirement would not result in an education “centered” on Western Civilization. The is what logicians call a “straw man” and it is a fallacy. The young lady would know this if she knew more about Western Civilization, since logic was first formalized by Aristotle and later refined by the Schoolastics during the Middle Ages. In any event, even if the course were required, it would not comprise the whole of the students’ study for his or her four years. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that there could not also be a requirement in “Eastern Civilization” as well. But, more to the point, the comment ignores the benefits of Western Civilization that this student has chosen to ignore — if, indeed, she was aware of them. I speak of such things as women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, individual freedom, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression (which makes possible ignorant comments like that of the student in question). As Ms Ali points out:

“One cannot dismiss the sum total of Western Civilization without losing one’s moral compass. And one cannot participate meaningfully in the battle of ideas raging in the world today while dismissing the value of Western Civilization as a whole.”

While there are many things to note and regret about the luggage that has been brought with them by folks who have struggled to create what we call “Western Civilization,” and here we would have to acknowledge the half-truth hidden in the rhetoric of the Stanford student, we must insist upon a wider perspective and note the extraordinary beauty in Western art, the intellectual triumphs, the moral gains (as noted above) that form the warp and woof of Western Civilization. Perspective, when speaking of such a large issue, is essential. And this student has lost hers entirely (if she ever had it to begin with). To take an obvious example, capitalism, for all its faults, has made it possible for this particular student to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She bites the hand that feeds her.

As one who has read, taught, and defended the Great Books of the Western World I have an obvious bias against this sort of blanket condemnation. But even if this were not the case, the intolerance built into the ignorant comment by this student would be disquieting. After all, college is a place where one broadens one’s mind, not shrinks it — ideally. And the comment reflects the growing attitude on many college campuses across the country that results in the exclusion of certain “types” of speakers from appearing on campus, because they represent views that are regarded as unacceptable. This includes Ms Ali who was denied access to Brandeis University by militant students and faculty  after initially being invited to speak about the crisis within Islam and receive an honorary degree. It is an attitude that has also resulted in the prohibition against saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts, an attitude that reflects a fascist approach to eduction — if this is not, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The “battle of ideas” requires that we keep an open mind.

My concerns are obvious to anyone who has read any of my blogs. But I do not think they are misplaced or even exaggerated. Higher education is supposed to be a place where the students do not learn certain things, necessarily, but they learn to use their minds to determine which things are worth knowing and which things are not. And a blanket condemnation of the whole of “Western Civilization” by a group of students at Stanford University who, we may assume, know little or nothing about that which they reject, is nothing short of presumptuous, if not arrogant. And the fact that the faculty at Stanford did not take the lead in determining which courses were to be required in the first place is also to be regretted, but not surprising in an age in which the students and the children are mistaken for those who should lead rather than follow. And here we have a graphic example of why they should not be allowed to lead.

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

Christmas Time

 

Hark the Herald Tribune sings

advertising wondrous things….

(Tom Lehrer)

It is that time again when we all wonder what those bright packages under the tree hold in store for us. Because, let’s face it, Christmas has become an orgy of gifts and greed, and it all starts at Halloween. The fiction that it is about giving and not about receiving is exposed in the TV advertisements showing the kids exploding with delight as they open the largest and most promising of packages or shrieking ecstatically as they discover the latest in electronic toys. Thus, it would appear, it is time to think about industrial capitalism and what it has meant to the growth, or diminution, of the human spirit.

To begin with, there’s no question that capitalism has improved the lot of the average human in capitalistic countries, if we measure in terms of “things” and allow that happiness is equated with standard of living. The average Westerner lives better than a medieval king. But if we take a deeper look, together with Robert Heilbroner, who wrote the book on capitalism (well, Karl Marx wrote THE book, but Heilbroner’s book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is worthy of serious thought) we find this:

“. . .the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”

More to the point, however, is this observation about the possible costs of judging all success and happiness by how many toys we can accumulate in our lifetime, a cost that involves replacing of moral values with commercial values:

“The de-moralization of economic activity removed any need to justify the logic of capitalism, provided that it did not directly violate the law or outrage the deepest moral convictions of society, but it made meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? Is it possible to condemn on moral grounds legal and profitable actions, such as the decision to relocate a plant at the cost of community disruption? . . .

[Capitalist ideology] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last and most important because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all licit activity from any need to justify itself on moral grounds.”

Note the displacement here of moral virtues with what we might call “practical” values. Ethics is displaced by civil law, for one thing; “goodness” is equivalent to private happiness. If an action breaks no laws, makes someone happy, and results in profit, there is no need of further inquiry. The end of profit does, in fact, justify any means to that end. This is the new ethic which has displaced the old ethic that demanded justification and moral grounding for any action involving other persons, especially possible harm to others. An anecdote might help illustrate this point.

I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus at the university where I taught as a part of a lecture series that dealt with ethics in business. We invited the “ethics officer” at a large and successful company in Minneapolis to address the issue; she turned out to be a lawyer whose job was to see to it that her company did nothing that might end them up in court. “Ethical” became equivalent to “legal.” But, as Heilbroner suggests, they are not the same.

Again, some years ago I recall teaching a graduate course in Business Ethics and reading a book by a sociologist who examined in great detail the behavior of a number of employees who worked for several large corporations on the East Coast. What he found in common was the tendency to separate their actions on the job from their actions off the job. In the former case they could “live with anything” required of them to do their jobs — even to the point of burying toxic waste. In the latter case they insisted that they needed to look themselves in the mirror every morning and treat their families and friends with respect. In a word, they lived two lives. One life was centered around a loose grasp of traditional ethical and Christian values, the other centered around expediency, what was necessary to keep their job and please their bosses. Now, given that the workaday world has become the center of a great many lives in our nation, there would appear to be less and less concern about what one sees in the looking-glass while shaving or brushing one’s teeth, sad to say.

This has a direct bearing with today’s topic, of course, because it suggests that, in fact, we have become a society that has, as Heilbroner suggests, replaced traditional ethical concepts with commercial values and avoids altogether asking tough questions about our everyday activities if they might border on the unethical. Material gain has indeed placed itself at the center of so many of our lives as the most important thing. When we no longer seek the moral high ground because we seek instead the promotion, the new car, or are busily reaching for the package under the tree with our name on it, it is a sure sign that the human spirit has shrunk; as a nation we are at risk of losing our collective soul. Thomas Jefferson worried about this in 1788:

“What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

Christmas is merely the reductio ad absurdum of the displacement of ethical values, replacing the true meaning of a Holy Day with out-and-out greed. Peace On Earth and love of our fellow humans have been replaced by pleasure and self-indulgence. Right and wrong have been replaced by what feels good.

 Christmas time is here by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cups and don’t say when……

(Tom Lehrer)

How Democracy Works

In a delightful piece of writing from Ireland in response to Bill O’Reilly’s threat to move there if Bernie Sanders were to be elected president, we read that:

The ultra-conservative uh… you could say “news”… channel has hosted O’Reilly’s programme for several years and turned Bill O’Reilly into a household name in the States. He’s now become a byword for blow-hard, over-the-top Republican commentators that basically shout until they get their way. Like children. . ..
Anyway, during a recent segment in his programme about Democrat hopeful Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan, Bill O’Reilly made a statement that sent fear into the hearts of Irish men and women. “If Bernie Sanders gets elected president, I’m fleeing, I’m going to Ireland. And they already know it.”
Of course, he’s going to love it here. What with our ridiculously strict gun control, marriage equality, the Medical Card system and social healthcare, O’Reilly’s going to have great craic in Ireland.

I had wondered if Ireland would welcome the Mouth That Roars with open arms when I first read of O’Reilly’s threat (promise?). This piece answers my question. But it raises another.

The heart and soul of a democracy, which Bill O’Reilly apparently cannot fathom, rests on the subordination one’s will to the will of the majority. Much like drawing straws, if I am willing to play the game I must abide by the results. I cannot vote, let us say, in a presidential election and then refuse to abide by the decision of the electorate if the election goes the “wrong” way. But so many people echo O’Reilly’s words almost daily. I admit I find myself saying such things: if the Trumpet wins I am moving to Canada. I really can’t do that. Not if I am willing to play the game to begin with. The (ethical) rules require that we abide by the decision of the group otherwise we shouldn’t participate. That’s the strength, and weakness, of a democratic process.

It astounds me how ignorant our leaders are of our democratic system and the constitution. I have spoken many times about the misreading of the Second Amendment,and I have posted in the past about the ignorance of at least one Congressman of the notion of the Common Good, which runs throughout the Constitution. Indeed, one does wonder how these men and women can pledge themselves to serve the United States Constitution if they never read it! They are supposed to be the best of the rest of us when they clearly are not. I do wonder, moreover, how many of them cannot distinguish between freedom and free enterprise and between democracy and capitalism.

In any event, one does wish that those who shout the loudest would take a moment to reflect on the nature of the political process they insist they defend. A Democracy cannot be run by a small percentage of the wealthiest citizens any more than a Monarchy can be run by the population at large. And, as the Founders knew so well, the democratic process demands a literate and well-informed electorate and open discussion of any and all political issues. It cannot descend to the level of special interests and shouting matches. If one simply reads the words of those, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who worried in the late eighteenth century about the future of this democracy, one would realize that we have become precisely what they feared we would. The fundamental condition they knew was essential, the education of those who elect the chosen few, has never been realized.

Bill O’Reilly, and his friend the Trumpet, is nothing less than a symptom of what has gone wrong.

 

 

Revisiting The 60s

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am working my way through my friend David Pichaske’s book A Generation In Motion, a book about the culture of the 1960s in America and Europe. I have resisted Pichaske’s tendency to see the age through rose-colored glasses, but am beginning to see what I have missed for years: the genuine commitment on the part of a great many people to ideals that run head-on into the ideals of a capitalist society devoted solely to filthy lucre. True, I have been critical of that society as well, but I had thought for many years that the kids in the turbulent 60s were just along for the “trip.” If you catch my drift.

But I am now persuaded otherwise. Pichaske makes a strong case for the genuine depth of commitment on the part of most (if not all) who were determined to bring down, or at least escape from, the establishment and reestablish a society grounded on love and peace and mutual understanding — rather than bigger and bigger profits. At one point Pichaske quotes from a report by the Cox Commission “On the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968.”

“The ability, social consciousness and conscience, political sensitivity, and honest realism of today’s students are a prime cause of student disturbances. As one student observed during our investigation, today’s students take seriously the ideals taught in schools and churches, and often at home, and then see a system that denies its ideals in actual life. Racial injustice and the war in Vietnam stand out as prime examples of our society’s deviation from the professed ideals and the slowness with which the system reforms itself. That they seemingly can do little to correct the wrongs through conventional political discourse tends to produce in the most idealistic and energetic students a strong sense of frustration.

“Many of these idealists have developed with considerable sophistication the thesis that these flaws are endemic in the workings of American democracy.”

What distresses Pichaske most is that the dream died. As he says, “There is no such idealism today. Only bucks.” What happened, according to our author, was the assassination of John F. Kennedy followed closely by the shooting death of his brother and Martin Luther King as well, compounded with the gradual assimilation of the counter-culture into the establishment as evidenced by the career of such people as Elvis Presley or, perhaps, the following jingle brought to you by Budweiser Beer:

“So you’ve a right to sing your own song;

No one else can tell you if you’re right or wrong;

Living’ your own life, that’s what America means . . .”

Here we have the “co-option” of a movement based on ideals by a force powered by greed impossible to resist that simply moved over it and sucked the life out of it. Ideals were replaced by “bucks.” The young who wanted a beautiful alternative bought into the notion that the happy life is found in suburbia with a mortgage, two cars and 2  1/2 children — and a can of Budweiser.

Not to grind an old ax or anything, but the problem is exacerbated by the mindless entertainment that keeps the attention of the young directed toward themselves and the gratification of their endless pleasure. As Nate Hagens noted in a talk picked up on YouTube, “we are indeed dopamine junkies in America — Hand-held gadgets embody that perfectly, to the point that today’s kids will completely lack self-control in 20 years. Immediate gratification is the norm, and patience for delayed gratification is out the window.” So the ideals of those kids in the 1960s have been replaced by bucks and the young, especially, are easily diverted from any thoughts about higher ideals by toys that provide them with an escape into a world of self-gratification while they drift mindlessly toward the crass ideals of a monied society.

 

Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.

 

 

Greed, Thy Heart Is Black

A recent story about the production of oil in North Dakota caught my eye. It begins:

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Dr. Lyle Best traveled nearly 200 miles from the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch Tuesday to tell state regulators one thing: “Slow down.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a proposal that would cut back on the state’s booming oil production as a means of controlling the amount of natural gas that’s being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of the more valuable substance, oil.

But oil companies are fighting the idea of slowing production, and want regulators to consider self-imposed steps to curb natural gas flaring, such as submitting plans for natural gas gathering before applying for a drilling permit.

North Dakota drillers currently burn off, or flare, a record 36 percent of the gas because development of pipelines and processing facilities to capture it hasn’t kept pace with oil drilling. The U.S. Energy Department says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.

Best, a Watford City physician, was among more than two dozen people who testified on the new proposal. Best said he lives within 200 yards of two oil wells that emit flares at least 20 feet high and produce a sound “similar to a jetliner passing nearby.”

The biggest issues with burning the gas, he said, is wasting it and the potentially harmful emissions that may be released from flaring.

Indeed, those flares can be seen from outer space: the central and western parts of the state of North Dakota appear to be on fire. But, hey! It’s all about huge profits. The serious risks from widespread fracking are totally ignored, as is the waste and danger to the planet from those natural gas burn-offs. And then there are the hundreds of oil cars that the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad haul daily from North Dakota through such environmentally sensitive places as Glacier Park to the West Coast where the oil is shipped to the Pacific rim: a routine practice that ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents, a likelihood that increases daily considering that a derailment occurs with alarming regularity. This is a dangerous game these oil barons are playing, but they have their blinders on and can only see, smell, and hear the profits mounting up in their off-shore bank accounts.

As it happens, I know a couple of people who work on the oil fields in North Dakota and am aware of the huge profits this activity yields to the workers themselves and the small businesses who cater to them on or near the oil fields. It’s a virtual gold rush. The state of North Dakota is one of the very few in this country that operates in the black (pardon the pun) and I get that. It’s nice to see that some of those who actually need money are getting some of the benefits of this gluttony. But the notion that is most disturbing, suggested in this story, is that those in charge can’t get the oil out fast enough and that they simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Our economy encourages folks to get as much as they can while the getting is good. I also get that. But it is an ugly feature of this economy that makes its successful practitioners ugly and one that costs us all a great deal in the long run — the future that those who call the shots are determined to  ignore.

One must ask in the final analysis if it is just possible that humans simply cannot resist the temptations of power and prestige that are promised by great wealth. I do wonder if in promising men wealth and power in this world through tearing from the earth its hidden treasures the genie was released from the bottle. It is just possible that the force of those temptations is too great for men to resist with wills weakened by habitual self-indulgence. The question is,  just how do we go about putting the genie back into the bottle?