Words

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, how folks bandy words about, making them mean what they want them to mean — not unlike Humpty Dumpty who pays them extra when they work overtime.

Take the word conservative, for example, which ought to include such things as environmentalists who are regarded by many so-called conservatives as liberal “tree-huggers.” Environmentalists are dedicated to conserving our world. But those conservative critics are really dollar conservatives who care only about the bottom line, the profits that are frequently the result of attacks on the environment. There are also intellectual conservatives who are dedicated to preserving those ideas that have helped to create a better world. I number myself among such types. And then there are those liberals usually identified as democrats who advocate human freedom and number among themselves the bleeding heart liberals who react in a programmed manner to all types of human pain and misery — real and supposed. They leave their minds on the shelf and lead with their gut. Endorsing political correctness, they also head the attack against the Canon in the universities and all books written by “dead, white European males.” The pain and misery resulting from this attack, in the form of uninformed and confused students with shrunken minds, is ignored in the name of “social justice” — which can be loosely translated as “what I want to be the case.”

Oddly, it is quite possible for someone to embrace a number of these positions simultaneously and without inconsistency. One can be, for example, a democratic socialist who seeks greater social equality through democratic means.

Socialism, according to Karl Marx, is the economic system that arises upon the death of capitalism, an economic system that feeds on the rotting carcasses of exploited workers — speaking of human pain and misery. Karl Marx was convinced that the state would commandeer the means of production and socialism would result. But eventually the workers would themselves own the means of production and all would share equally — an economic system, called Communism.  Many an intellectual in the early part of the last century embraced the ideals of Communism until, like George Orwell, they discovered that so many of those who said they were promoting Communism were actually fostering totalitarianism and were responsible for the death of millions of their fellow humans — all in the name of “equality,” and “justice.” It is worthy of note that Communism, as embraced by Marx, resembles in important ways the Christianity preached in the Gospels.

And speaking of Christians, there are those who claim to be Christians and who are quite happy with their own prejudices and even preach hatred against all of those they regard as different from themselves. These should be called nominal Christians, as they are Christian in name only. The real Christians, who are rare, are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing and try hard to love their fellow humans, as was preached by the original (and some might say the only) true Christian. There are some who seek to do the right thing, as our beloved blogger Jill Dennison tells us each week, pointing out those who truly deserve our respect and admiration. And, I dare say, many of those people are not even nominal Christians! So it goes.

In any event, words do have relatively fixed meanings, as our dictionaries attest. But, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, many of us think that meaning, like truth itself, is something we make up and which dances to the tunes we play. This leads us, as we are becoming increasingly aware, toward a relativism of the meanest sort, a relativism in which hate comes to mean the same thing as love and truth is a fabrication of those in power whose private agenda centers around themselves and their ugly urges toward more and more power. It pays us to beware and to tread carefully, to make sure we know whereof we speak and insist that those claims that we are told are true have the force of evidence and argument to support them. And we should make sure folks say what they mean even though they seldom seem to mean what they say. Otherwise our minds will become prisoners of those who delight in making others a means toward their own ends.

 

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My Friend Danny

I met “Danny” over forty years ago when we first moved to this little town. He taught math and science in the local high school and he loved to play chess. He worked for a superintendent named Brundleson the kids called “the Nazi.” Brundleson liked to brag that he “ran a tight ship.” Every day Danny and the other teachers would have to walk in to the man’s office and smile and greet him with a handshake. If any teacher dared to utter a word of criticism at any point, he or she was gone. Danny wanted to start a chess club and wasn’t allowed to do so as the parents would think they were doing drugs, Brundleson said. Danny wanted to take his biology students across the road to examine pond life in a small lake nearby, but he was not allowed to because of the danger of crossing the road. Yeah, a “tight ship.”

Anyway, Danny lasted a couple of years and then moved away and after a year of travel he ended up in Appleton, Wisconsin teaching math in a middle school and, with his wife, running an “ABC” house that boarded students from around the country who were being deprived of an opportunity to get a good education by virtue of their social circumstances; they were transferred to cities like Appleton, Wisconsin. Denny and his wife took care of the eight students in addition to their full-time jobs. They were parents, tutors and friends.

As you may be starting to figure out, Danny was one who has given of himself all his life. He is one of the gentlest, most caring people I have ever met. He finds himself by losing himself in the lives of other people. After forty years in Wisconsin, he retired and decided to walk the Appalachian Trail — the whole trail from bottom to top. And he did it. After that he moved to Arkansas and started his retirement. But he read that an “Alternative School” for disadvantaged students needed teachers so he decided to go back to work. He has done that for eight years, working from 7:00 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. each week day, teaching math at all levels, breaking up fights, taking weapons from angry boys, counseling them, and generally being their friend. His wife has been after him to quit as the job is dangerous: many of the kids he works with are marginal criminals; all are “problem kids” that are sent to the schools because they don’t “fit in” anywhere else. Or they have been let out on parole and one condition of their freedom is attending school. It is dangerous work, indeed. But Danny feels it is important and he doesn’t see retirement in his future any time soon even though he is already drawing Social Security.

The man is one of the most balanced people I have ever met. To be sure, things bother him. He is concerned about politics and global warming. But he tends to channel that concern and focus on what he can take care of — the problem at hand. He never seems to get riled up. He is calm and collected. I expect that explains his success with troubled kids. He is like an oasis in a desert. It’s what attracts people to him, and he has many friends. But above all else, he is a person who has spent his life giving himself to others. And it seems to make him happy. Perhaps that is the secret: we benefit most by giving ourselves to others. It sounds selfish, but it is not: it is the heart of altruism — and Christian love.

Return His Ticket?

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he too returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Conservative Numbers

A recent story from ABC news about the growing number of “conservative” voters around the country raises interesting questions. The story reads, in part, as follows:

“Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s. . . .

“‘In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade,’ the analysis stated. ‘The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older — particularly seniors.'”

I especially like the last sentence where we are told that the proportion of conservatives has increased because of “increased conservatism.” Is it just me, or is that circular? It tells us nothing. In fact, the entire article tells us very little because (as I have said before) we really don’t know what these terms mean.

But there are several reasons why the country as a whole seems to be drifting to the political right. To begin with, the population is aging and as we grow older we tend to become more conservative — meaning we don’t like change. And, given that we are talking about “dollar conservatism,” in a weak economy people naturally want to hold on to their money. Nothing startling here.

But the really interesting question is why people tend to become conservative in the first place. As suggested, we tend to be more liberal when we are young and more conservative as we grow older. The key factor, it seems to me, is fear of uncertainty. As young people we fear change less because we are more hopeful (naive?) that change will bring us success (in the terms we tend to measure success in this country). The young tend not to fear much of anything: they think they are invincible. As we grow older we realize that we are not invincible and that change doesn’t always translate into success. In a word, we become more fearful. And this seems to be the root of the issue.

Again, using the terms in the rather loose way we use them, the people who identify themselves as “conservative,” include those in the camp of the spiritually certain who fear that the country is going to the devil. In the middle of that group are those who want to do away with sex education, the teaching of evolution, reintroduce prayer in the schools, and/or do away with government entirely. But the “conservative” group also includes many who do not identify themselves as Christian enthusiasts but who are nevertheless fearful of change in any form. There is some reason for this as the face of the world seems to exhibit so many frowns at present. There are a great many things to fear in a world in which not only the economy is tottering, but violence is forever in the news, terrorism is an ever-present possibility anywhere and at any time, and hatred seems to be the rule of the day. It takes a person who is either in denial or who has a great deal of hope to be sanguine these days. And there seems to be a smaller number of these people as each day passes.

Hope is regarded in the New Testament as one of the three cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. And the hope mandated in the New Testament is based on the conviction that a better day is coming, and that particular conviction grows weaker every day — even among the religious right that should be the one group in this country that has hope in abundance. The expectation that there is a better world, the hope that we will be happier after we leave this world, has grown weaker since the First World War, as cultural historians have noted many times. As long as one focuses attention on this world — and especially on the kind of “lifestyle” one wants to achieve in this world — there can be hope only as long as there is considerable optimism, as there was in this country just prior to the Great War. And as things in this world seem more and more uncertain and even frightening, it follows that we will become more and more conservative, clinging to the things we know and are closest to us and fearing anything that threatens to take those things away.

In a word, it stands to reason that as a culture the more we focus on this world the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become the more conservative. The thing we fear most is change, because there is too much of it, and it always seems to make things worse. Conservatism grows along with uncertainty and fear.

Calling Buffett’s Bluff?

In a recent Time magazine article, Warren Buffett jousts with Congressional Republicans over their determination to continue giving tax breaks to the wealthy. He has gone public before, and incurred the wrath of these folks on this topic, but in the course of pleading his case in the Time article, Buffet makes the following interesting remark:

“We need a tax system that takes very good care of people who just really aren’t as well adapted to the market system, and to capitalism, but are nevertheless just as good citizens, and are doing things that are of use in society.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily (in my view) because it reveals the hidden assumption, shared by many, that one must embrace capitalism in order to be a good American citizen. In fact, democracy is a political system, whereas capitalism is an economic system. Economic and political systems can be joined in strange ways — as in a democratic/capitalistic system, a socialistic/democratic system, a capitalistic/autocratic system, and so forth. There are numerous countries that embrace both socialism and democracy — such as England, for example. Many in this country think this is impossible, but they are wrong. Some even argue that socialism maximizes human freedom, whereas capitalism restricts freedom to the very rich.

Americans can be good citizens of this democracy (which is in fact not a democracy, but a Republic with representative government) without caring one whit for capitalism, or knowing the first thing about it. Citizenship entails the willingness to pay taxes and obey the laws, serve on a jury if requested while also participating in the election process from time to time. It should also mean knowing something about how the process works. It does not, in any case, mean having a fat wallet, checking the stock markets, or owning at least two homes while spending vacations on the Riviera. Good citizenship has nothing whatever to do with being a staunch capitalist, as Buffett points out.

But that will doubtless be challenged as was his claim that Congress should raise taxes on the wealthy so they are paying their fair share. The response of Republican lawmakers to that proposal was to make it possible for Buffet himself (or anyone else) to pay more if he chose to do so. This is amusing, but it also lets the lawmakers off the hook with a snicker. It’s really not a game. Perhaps these people should take lessons in good citizenship. Generally speaking, it has not been the role of the wealthy in this country to “take care of people.” And when steps are taken to try to assist those in need through legislation there are cries of “socialism,” and the mantra of self-help is heard in the air: They’re just lazy. If they wanted to improve their lot, there’s nothing stopping them! Nonsense. This attitude is downright smug, and even a bit stupid. There are those who want to help themselves and can do nothing because society has dealt them a losing hand. In a Christian nation, as some would have it, one hardly need point out that we should all do what we can to help those in need. And in a democratic country good citizenship means allowing the majority to rule, not the very wealthy 1%.