The Trump Phenomenon

Apparently we live in a “Momism” culture. I was not aware of this, but John Carroll notes that respected sociologists and anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Gorer, Erik Erikson, K. Keniston, Herbert Hendin in the late 1960s and early 1970s

“all wrote on the theme, stressing the dominant power of the mother. . . . The psychiatric literature of the period tended to point in the same direction . . . The overall impact of the psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and sociological literature of this period is to suggest that mother dominance has become pervasive.”

What it means is that we have moved from the age of the patriarch, the father with absolute authority in the home during, say, the Victorian period. The image is that of the father with rod in hand whipping his son into shape, taming him like a wild animal, breaking his will. Ours is an age in which we have become softer, gentler, more compassionate — an age in which the rod has been replaced with a fishing rod and the father urged to take his son out in the canoe for some “quality time.”

This certainly makes sense in that we know ours is a permissive age, an age in which we reason with children rather than “whip them into shape.’ In fact, any whipping would quickly bring the sheriff and the child would be taken away from his abusive parents. This is a good thing in so many ways, but it also brings with it certain rather sobering consequences — such as our age of entitlement where spoiled children run wild and parents are warned at every turn not to damage their potential and to be their friends rather than the authority figures they require.

In fact, ever since Freud we have known that despite the image sketched above, that authoritarian father with his firm hand did, in fact, help the child become a mature, responsible adult. It turned the aggressive impulses that every child has inward building a Super Ego, or conscience, in the process. The result is what we call “character” and the sublimation of those impulses brought about creative and constructive results — what we call “civilization.” Greater permissiveness, as I have noted in the past, results in the turning outward of these impulses, a lack of character, and even violence. This is all well documented and we must live with the consequences. It’s a “trade-off” I suppose.

But let’s also suppose that what we might call the “Trump Phenomenon,” which we struggle to understand, could also be the result of this excessive permissiveness. Let’s suppose that for a great many people in this country Donald Trump represents the father figure, the firm, decisive, rod-in-hand figure of authority that they crave on an unconscious level. For all his faults, and there are many, the man is quick to make a decision — for many of us those decisions are invariably the wrong ones, but nevertheless he does make decisions. He “cuts to the chase.” Quickly. In a democratic system where decisions seem to come at a snail’s pace, if at all, when the powers that be seem involved in endless bickering and nothing seems to get done, the notion of a decisive leader, one who takes charge, might be very appealing to a great many people — especially if those people have been handed the dirty end of the stick for most of their lives, convinced that the power elite, those with more money and a better education, have always made the decisions that affect their lives.

In any event, folks like Christopher Lasch and John Carroll, who have read their Freud and take seriously the notion that we all need a firm hand, seem convinced that our age suffers from a lack of authority, that “Momism” is not necessarily a good thing because it creates more problems than it solves. To be sure, it takes the rod from the hand of the snarling father, but it leaves the child with no guidance and a lack of character. Thus do we stumble about and wonder where we are going, noting the increase of violence, the loss of manners and restraint, the glorification of the quick fix, and the election of fools to positions of power.

Our Spoiled Kids

I went back to the very first year I started to post blogs (November 2011) and (with a few additions) found the following one. I wanted to see just how much I am starting to repeat myself — and I am, of course. But this one struck me as worthy of a repost. I was attempting then, as I am now, to provoke thought and this one seems to fit the bill!

Sigmund Freud is looked down upon by a great many modern psychologists because he based many of his theories on his analysis of neurotic Victorian women who had sexual hang-ups. He is especially vilified by the angry feminists who see him not as the father of modern psychology but as enemy #1. At the university where I worked for 37 years, I had a colleague in the psychology department, for example, who had a profile of Freud mounted on her bulletin board with a red circle surrounding it with a diagonal line cutting across. She refused to teach anything the man wrote, she hated him so much. But Freud had a number of important things to tell us about the human animal. One thing he insisted upon was that character is pretty much formed by the time a child is five years old. Let’s consider the implications of this for today’s world.

What happens, typically, in those early years? In many cases working parents drop the kids off at day care, which is often little more than glorified baby-sitting, and then pick them up at the end of the day too exhausted to spend any quality time with them. So they set their children down in front of the TV where they watch ill-mannered kids mouthing off to their parents, or violent cartoons that send visceral messages. Mostly they are bombarded by hundreds of chaotic images each minutes until their brains are addled and their attention spans shrink. But what they can make out they imitate. All animals learn from imitation, as we know, and as we too are animals we also learn from what we see. So the kids finally go to grade school with their brains stunted by too much TV and their character weakened by being ignored by their parents, watching weak role models on television, and thinking violence is a matter of course.

In school overworked and underpaid teachers are told to help build learning skills in these ill-prepared students while at the same time helping to mold the character that has been too often ignored at home. When this does not happen, as is often the case, the parents blame the schools for their own failures and the students are left to fend for themselves as uneducated and flawed adults. Meanwhile the parents holler aloud when the teachers want more pay and better working conditions. “Raise my taxes?? Not on your life!”

In sum, we have kids growing up in families where the parent or parents work. They are handed over to day-care and come home to empty houses, eat junk food, and sit down in front of the TV. They watch whatever comes on, and being the animals we all are, they imitate what they see on TV. As they head to school their parents expect the harried teachers to instill good behavior in their kids — kids whose brains have been fried, as  Dr. Jane Healy tells us, before they ever sit down in first grade. The teachers are supposed to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic — while also raising the child to be a good adult. Sometimes it happens because there are dedicated, underpaid and overworked teachers out there; but most often it doesn’t.  The result is then a spoiled brat whose parents cannot deny him anything because they have been told that discipline is a bad thing and they feel guilty about leaving them alone so much. The child often has ADD, craves attention, is prone to violence, and has no idea whatever how he is supposed to behave in the world around him. He may even grow up to be president!

What I have sketched here is based on generalizations, of course. And generalizations always allow of exceptions. There are bright and capable kids who have turned out to be good students and well-adjusted adults in spite of working parents, TV,  violent games, and day care. There have also been adults with weak character who have turned out to be bad eggs in spite of being raised at home with a loving parent or two. But there is usually a core of truth in generalizations that are based on careful observation and the expert testimony of people like Dr. Healy, author of Endangered Minds, who work with kids daily. And the increasing failure of our schools and the growing numbers of out-of-control kids who turn into narcissistic adults raise profound questions about our priorities and the obligations we have to our kids and to one another.

Good Habits

In a comment I made to a recent post I noted that in my view many faculty members I have known, including myself at times, are a bit too lax when it comes to demanding that students toe the line — that they read the assignment and turn in papers on time. In my own experience, the temptation is to give the students a break, especially the good ones, the ones who usually do the work on time. But, as I noted in my comment, this does not serve the student well when he or she graduates — and it does not serve the business well for whom that student goes to work. It’s all about good habits, and they must be learned. And our colleges don’t do a very good job encouraging them, preparing the students for the so-called “real” world.

Aristotle notes that the example of parents who are fair, honest, and decent people will, if they encourage those traits in their offspring, usually raise children who have what used to be called “good character.” Good character is formed by imitation and habit. And if the examples are not there or the reinforcement is not consistent, the chances are the young person will turn our with weak character and perhaps worse.

These are old-fashioned ideas and we are all too quick to toss them in the bin simply because they are old-fashioned, instead of considering whether, perhaps, they are not a good thing to hang on to. But, then, this takes work on the part of parents and teachers and the former are too busy with their own lives these days and teachers are asked to do far too much to ask them to also raise our kids. So character has become something only folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. mention in speeches, not something that we work to develop in the young.

In any event, I do think that teachers in the schools — from the early years right through college — should hold the feet of their students to the fire. They should demand that they get the work done on time and that they develop those habits that will carry them to success when they later graduate or should they continue on in school. I studied with a number of very bright fellow graduate students who failed to earn their PhD simply because they lacked the discipline to get papers finished on time or never were able to complete their dissertation. Allowing students to slack off is doing them no favors, though the temptation is greater today then ever, since student evaluations are made public on the internet and students are encouraged to take classes from “easy” professors. Enrollments can determine such things as job security for the professor. Even tenured professors can be “let go” if it is determined that their department needs to be cut for financial reasons. Thus, there is every temptation to “go easy” on the students. As far as the students are concerned, this translates into a much easier path and they know well how to tread it.

Again, it’s a matter of habit: it’s what they have become used to. And it’s not the kids’ fault. It is the fault of those adults who have shirked their responsibilities to those kids and not taken the time to instill in them the habits of good character that will bring them success later in their lives. I speak generally, of course. But I do think it is a safe claim. Teachers want to be well-liked (who doesn’t?) and they want to hold on to their jobs; the temptation to give way in the face of what are often very poor excuses is great indeed. It is easier to say “yes” even though when a student is allowed to turn a paper in late, for example, it is clearly not fair to those other students who have met the deadline, and, of course, it can become a habit. Indeed, there are a great many reasons for doing the right thing in parenting and teaching. But we all tend to take the path of least resistance. It’s the road well-travelled and we think we are doing the kids a favor when we clearly are not.

And, again, I include myself in this indictment. I was guilty of allowing the better students greater leeway than I should have done. Mea culpa! Good character, and good work habits, come from setting a good example and demanding that the young develop good habits. And it will make the students more successful employees when they graduate and find work.

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?”

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.”

Virtues

In her most interesting book, The De-moralization of Society, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that a part of the reason that folks insist that morality is relative — to individuals or to cultures — is because we no longer talk about “virtue.” She also suggests that we have abandoned the term out of preference for the term “”values” because the notion of virtue has unpleasant associations with the Victorians. She insists that the Victorians’ “family oriented culture” has gotten bad press — and she ought to know, since that is her area of specialization. But what I find most interesting is the current trend toward talk about “values” as though they are nothing more than “beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies — whatever any individual or group, or society happens to value at any time for any reason.” Artists even talk about colors as “values.” As Himmelfarb goes on to point out:

“One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values lay claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial ‘nonjudgmental, ‘ as we now say, sense of values — values as ‘value-free’ — is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.”

Historically, the term “value” was introduced into Western conversations by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century and embraced by Max Weber soon thereafter who sought a “value-free” social science. Until then, going back to the Greeks, talk was all about “virtue,” which is based on character — that in the human being which is instilled in children by their parents and later dictates how they will behave as they grow into adults. For the Greeks there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These four were supplemented during the Christian era by faith, hope, and charity. But in England, just prior to Victoria’s reign as Queen, the notion of virtue broadened to include such things as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, self-discipline, responsibility, love of family, perseverance, and honesty — virtues recognized by Victorian Christians and Jews alike.

None the less, the notion of  “Victorian virtues” has become identified with the notion that the Victorians had hang-ups about sex and were prudish introverts that turned a blind eye toward all the civil inequalities and injustices that surrounded them. Himmelfarb takes exception, acknowledging that these attitudes were prevalent during the Victorian age, but insisting (as she ought) that this is the way people behaved: it is not what they believed. Indeed, if they engaged in what they regarded as “irregularities” they paid a heavy price, as Himmelfard notes:

“They did not take sin lightly — their own or anyone else’s. If they were censorious of others they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

Folks have always believed one thing and behaved in an entirely different way. This is not necessarily hypocrisy because the conviction that there are things that matter is often overwhelmed by situations in which those things simply cannot be realized for one reason or another. We may think courage truly virtuous, for example, and embrace the virtue itself while, at the same time, running in fear from a man with a loaded gun headed in our direction, or trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife. In any event, hypocrisy cannot be attributed to the Victorians any more than it can to today’s Christians who voted for Donald Trump — or indeed of Donald Trump himself.  In fact, they were almost certainly less hypocritical given the heavy weight they attached to their lapses from virtuous behavior, lively consciences that dwarf our own.

The problem is, as Himmelfarb correctly points out, we no longer even pay lip service to the virtues. Not only have we changed our terminology, we have abandoned any notion that there are moral principles that matter. Character is no longer stressed as a thing that ought to be instilled in our young people as we now worry more about whether they are they happy and well-adjusted. Aristotle noted long ago that character is instilled in young people by habits, the correction of unwanted behavior and the stress on those behaviors that later develop into strengths, what came to be called “positive reinforcement.” In a permissive society, like ours, many young people develop character flaws, behaviors that cannot be corrected in later life; emphasis on correcting behavior in the young in order to develop strong character, as was the case in the Victorian era, while it may develop into neurosis, can be corrected. Character flaws cannot. A dishonest, self-indulgent child will become a dishonest, self-indulgent adult.

Thus, the seemingly simple transition in our thought from concerns about virtue to talk about values has resulted in the reduction of a concern about things that really matter, virtues that form the warp and woof of strong character, the abandonment of any real concern for the kinds of people our young will become as they age. We now talk about values which are relative or subjective, and simply assume — without giving it any real thought — that all morality is itself relative and there is no right or wrong — only what people feel is right or wrong. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t just hung-up about such things as sex and chastity but had a firmer grasp of those things that really do matter in this world.

Adam Smith on Sympathy

Adam Smith is well known for his Wealth of Nations which many regard as the first serious treatise on economics. As an economic treatise it has many flaws, chiefly its reliance on the “labor theory of value,” which Karl Marx also mistakingly embraced. Many like to quote Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” that is supposed to promote social improvement. In economics, as Smith saw it, if everyone pursues his or her self-interest the ensuing competition among all will raise the level of quality in the work and eventually, as though led by an “invisible hand” all will benefit, “an end which was no part of his original intention.” The key here, which many simply ignore, is the marriage of this theory with Smith’s notion the “moral sense.”

In a word,  before Adam Smith was an economist he was an ethical theorist. He wrote a treatise on the” Theory of Moral Sentiment,” which must be viewed as a part of his overall coherent system. In fact, his economic theory is couched within his moral sense theory: total economic competition with no sense of the importance of the other, no moral sympathy, would result in brutishness in Smith’s view. So while many on the political right embrace Smith’s view of “free self-interested activity” they ignore the vital element of moral sympathy which tempers his position considerably. Smith thought all humans have an innate moral sympathy brought out by their proximity of others.

One of the passages in his treatise on the Moral Sentiments is especially interesting and I will quote it at length:

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

What is interesting here is the stress on the importance of others and of society in general in helping to develop the moral sentiments which help build character and promote virtue. But if we read Smith carefully in the above passage we will realize that in describing the attitude of those raised outside of society he seems to be describing so many of those of us who are very much a part of society. It’s as if we have turned so much into ourselves that we act as though we are alone on this planet. It’s all about “me,” and I care not about you because I am not fully aware that you are there — unless you cross me somehow. Then, look out! By himself, Smith notes, a man lacks in character, propriety, a sense of demerit or the “beauty or deformity of his own mind.”

One does wonder if we have become so distanced from the others with whom we share this planet we are well on the way toward losing any sort of moral sensibility — a sensibility that requires that others are aware of us and we are aware of others and are concerned about them as well as ourselves. Instead, for us “the objects of our passions, the external bodies which either please or hurt us, occupy our whole attention.” We are “brought into society” but we seem to be lacking the mirror that will allow us to see ourselves as others see us. This results, according to Smith, in a reduced — if not absent — moral sensibility.

Sparing The Rod

A good friend of mine was recently enjoying the visit of his son and his son’s wife and their 3 year-old son. My friend’s wife had undergone surgery a few weeks before and was still tender, but she was enjoying the visit very much when her grandson decided to punch her in the stomach — thinking it great fun. My friend grabbed his grandson and held him by the arms and sternly told him that hitting people is wrong. The boy’s mother clutched her son, glowered at my friend, and said “he’s only a child.” (I told my friend he should have smiled and said,”You’re right, he’s just a child. We have raised two quite successfully. How many have you raised.” But, of course, he wouldn’t say that. No grandparent would. It just isn’t done.)

In fact, that was the end of the incident as my friend and his wife, like most grandparents, simply bit their tongues and kept quiet. After all, whatever they told their son about raising his child would fall on deaf ears. It matters not to the young that their parents and grandparents have lived a long time and had a great many experiences: the young know better. We moan about how little we learn from history, but we are simply echoing our behavior as young folks when we also ignored our elders.

But the interesting thing to ponder about this incident is that it is all-too-common. Our kids are being raised by parents who have been told that any sort of corporal punishment, or even strict discipline, will damage their child irreparably. But this is not the case. I’m not advocating corporal punishment, but it’s a psychological fact that little or no discipline will damage the child irreparably; strict discipline may result in a neurosis, but it is treatable. In a word, lack of discipline results in a character flaw, which is permanent. The pop psychologists who write the books that busy parents read and take as gospel have led several generations of parents down a blind alley: their children are growing up severely flawed — a situation compounded by the added damage the schools are doing by reinforcing the notion that children should be praised but never criticized.

I was a camp counsellor in Maine for five summers. The owner of the camp was a wise man and seemed to know everything there was to know about raising kids. After all, he worked with 110 boys every year for more than twenty years and had raised two girls of his own. During the very first meeting with the counsellors he told us to be sure to mean what we say when we reprimand the kids in our charge. “If you tell them to stop doing something or you will kill them and they continue to do it, you will have to kill them.” He was obviously making a point: mean what you say. If the child is misbehaving and you threaten him — by insisting you will take away his dessert that evening, or confine him to his cabin– then you will have to take away his desert or confine him to his cabin. The worst thing you can do is make the threat and fail to carry it out. In this case the child becomes confused and ceases to believe the authority figures in his life. Lines that should be drawn are not and he doesn’t know what is appropriate action. As a result he eventually learns to ignore authority figures generally, even though his psyche desperately needs authority figures in order to allow him to fully develop his personality. The camp owner didn’t go into detail, but he made his point. And when parents disagree about the punishment their child deserves the child becomes confused and his world is scrambled. Consistency is essential to good child rearing.

My friend’s grandson was getting mixed messages. He was being told that hitting is wrong and he was also told it was OK because he is “still a child.” There is a glaring inconsistency between what his grandfather said and what his mother said in return. And his father said nothing, to make matters worse. One wonders how long he will remain a child in his mother’s mind. But one thing is certain: he will grow up a spoiled brat and a young adult with little or no self-restraint and a terribly weak character. How sad.

The Content of His Character

I have referenced Christopher Lasch’s thought-provoking book The Minimal Self which is filled with insights along with summaries of various psychological theories and a great deal of psychological jargon. It is hard to quarrel with Lasch’s conclusions as it is many of his seminal points made along the way; after wading through the technical jargon, what his thesis comes down to in the end is that young men and women in this culture no longer can be said to concern themselves what used to be called “character.” This is an old-fashioned word that was the center of Victorian ethics and ultimately came from Aristotle’s notion of areté (virtue) which has to do with the sort of person one happens to be — courageous and honest or cowardly and deceitful.

The reason Lasch thinks we no longer care about character is because we have become a “narcissistic” culture, not one that is merely selfish and hedonistic, but one comprised of individuals who are empty at the center and who take on the various persona of those presented to them by the entertainment industry or the culture at large. The world “out there” ceases to exist; it becomes a “world for me” — an extension of the ego. Values disappear: the beautiful object ceases to be beautiful in itself, it becomes pleasurable for me. The distinction between subject and object breaks down. The act of courage or honesty ceases to have any intrinsic value, it becomes simply an act of which I approve or disapprove — or ignore.

In a word, people are no longer courageous or honest at the core, they are empty at the core and take on the characteristics that those around them happen to exemplify at the moment. It is what Jean Paul Sartre once called “Bad Faith” — the inability of a person to be what he or she is, as a distinctive individual, and their relentless determination to take on roles and play at being something else. Watch the waiter, Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, and you will see that he is playing at being a waiter. He carefully balances the tray and darts between the tables and seems to relish the image he is projecting to those around him. Watch the football coach stalking the sidelines: he is playing at being a coach. Like the waiter or the coach, we lack “authenticity” and take on roles dictated by those around us: we identify with those on the screen or the playing field who are merely a projection of our own “take” on others; so in the end we are playing roles we simply adopt for the sake of getting along in a world we pretty much make up for ourselves. This is the core of narcissism. The Greek character Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water because he mistook that image for himself: the world of objects became the world of the subject. Period. Lasch thinks we do this to a greater or lesser extent and in the end abandon any genuine core of self-hood and are mere role-players in a drama we have invented for ourselves. It’s all about us: the world and the people around us are what we make of them and our concern for them extends only so far as they continue to make our lives pleasant and comfortable.

What I find most interesting and provocative about Lasch’s analysis is his notion that in this process parents and teachers have been removed from their traditional roles as mentors and guides for the young — forming character by way of their own examples, admonition, and their determination to correct and judge in accordance with an ideal of what a human being should be when correction and judgment are necessary. Parents are now perfectly willing to turn their kids over to the “helping agencies,” the social workers and psychologists (not to mention the entertainment industry) who would dictate how the children are raised. In the end the kids grow up to become adults who continue to behave like kids and who lack any real sense of “self” and an inability to make moral choices and resist the charlatans around them who would sell them pipe dreams. Long into adulthood, they remain soft clay waiting to be molded into whatever form those around them choose to make them into.

The solution to the crisis we now face, as Lasch sees it, is for parents to resume their proper parental role and take control of their kids — turn off the TV and take away the electronic toys, take them away from the “helping agencies” and return them to the homes and the blend of love and respect that ultimately comprise the very authority that the kids themselves crave and require in order to become fully human — to mold that core of self-hood that we call “character” and which Martin Luther King Jr once hoped all of us would be judged by, rather than by the color of our skins (or the social roles we happen to play). It’s worth pondering.

Don’t Blame Me!

We have assuredly become a nation of victims. The latest in the long list of people who refuse to lie in the beds of their own making is a group of convicts in an Idaho prison. This comes under the heading of “seriously weird” as a story in HuffPost tells us”

Five inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution are suing national beer and wine companies for $1 billion, claiming that alcohol was responsible for their crimes, the Associated Press reports. The civil suit alleges that they were not sufficiently warned about alcohol’s addictive properties.

One must stifle a laugh as the attempt to sue the alcohol industry is almost as absurd as the amount requested in the suit. But the story is indicative of a flaw in our cultural character — if you will allow the notion. In a society where all are victims, none are victims. We have become a nation unwilling to accept responsibility for our actions. As my former colleague and prolific author, Joe Amato, has said about what he calls “viictimology”:

The word “victim,” once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hypercomplaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

A bit wordy, I admit, but on the mark. We have stolen the word “victim” from religion and use it recklessly; we like to feel sorry for ourselves. And the notion that a group of individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes can seriously consider passing the buck to the alcohol industry that “made them” commit their crimes must give us pause. If it’s not intended as a joke, or simply to draw attention to the five men, it suggests that these men see themselves as victims of an industry that should have warned them ahead of time that drinking can be addictive. Seriously?

The lawsuit is absurd on its face, of course, but it points to the salient fact that as a culture we have forgotten that right actions follow from sound character. Aristotle taught us long ago that the heart and soul of ethical behavior is good character and that good character is formed early on — Freud later insisted that it occurred before the child is five years of age. It requires correction and even the act of “judging” others — namely our own children — in an attempt to correct aberrant behavior.

But we have been in the hands of the pop-psychologists for many years now and we have been taught not to be “judgmental” and that we shouldn’t spank our children — or even attempt to correct their behavior in any way because it will traumatize them and thwart their potential and their creativity. We fail to realize that when we forget how to judge our conscience, which lies at the heart of the faculty of judgment, becomes dormant.

Our grandparents must be looking on in disbelief wondering how we could have swallowed this pile of crap. We look the other way and ignore our kids when they misbehave, refusing in our bewilderment to suggest that perhaps they should do the right thing. Indeed, the notion of “the right thing” has become circumspect in a culture that reduces all facts to opinions, ethics to common practice,” and morality to morés which, like table manners, can be changed at will.

We are not all victims. We need to acknowledge our mistakes and try to learn from them. We pride ourselves on our honesty as a culture, but we are dishonest when we insist that behavior should never be corrected and parents and teachers should not dictate what behavior is acceptable for children. Indeed we shirk our own responsibility as adults, as Hannah Arendt insisted years ago. In the end it is all about accepting responsibility for our actions — and our lack of action.