Another Gem!

The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.

The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.

The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim,  has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”

By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:

“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”

In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged”  —  neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.

As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.

Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,

“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.

In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.

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Bits and Pieces

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

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

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

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

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

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

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

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

TRUE CONSERVATISM

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

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

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

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

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.

Who Are The Conservatives?

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I might number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.” I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the classical works of the human mind; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one. I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are the nation at large.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential about this nation — not just its social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of this society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — though there is clearly a point of diminishing return.

As one of my fellow bloggers who understands high finance much better than I pointed out recently: So help me understand this concept of “taxed enough already” as this independent data  would seem to indicate we are not taxed enough. To this old fart, we have to be prepared to step up and pay for something. Back in the early 2000′s when I was a Republican when the GOP actually strived for better stewardship, I was very much against the Bush tax cuts. When Bush’s senior tax advisor resigned and Warren Buffett cited we do not need these tax cuts, it confirmed my reservations. Mr. Norquist is fond of citing Ronald Reagan as the paragon, but President Reagan increased taxes five times after he had cut them too much with Tax Reform early in his presidency. Citing Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in their book “That Used to be Us,” President Reagan hated deficits, so he realized he needed to increase taxes. However, he was smart enough to call them revenue enhancements.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

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.

Tragedy and Conservatism

I wrote in yesterday’s blog that my adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, developed a notion of “unmitigated tragedy” that is based on his conviction that evil is simply a part of the world we live in. It is in each of us and it is in the natural world as well, in our hearts and in the natural catastrophes that destroy lives and property on a grand scale.

This conviction formed the basis of Vivas’ conservatism, and he was welcomed into the bosom of conservative groups as one of the true believers. He argued in print that his conservatism was grounded on his conviction that there is evil in the world and there is nothing we can do about it other than accepting the fact and trying to move on, not to attempt to justify the evil or explain it away, but to reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil if we can. He faulted liberals for their futile attempts (as he saw it) to eradicate evil from the world root and branch. It is a profound notion but one that I doubt is shared by a great many other conservatives whose ideology is based pretty simply on the desire to protect their wealth — and expand it if possible. Vivas called these people “dollar conservatives,” and refused to be grouped with them.

But in any case, as much as I admired and respected Vivas, I think he was wrong. I agree with Camus that we can recognize evil in the world and in ourselves as a necessary part of who we are and where we live. Much, if not most, cannot be justified or explained away. But we don’t have to simply accept it, as Camus himself showed in his brief life by fighting against the death penalty. Indeed, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering wherever possible and try to alleviate wrong wherever we find it — knowing that the problems will never go away completely. Vivas’ thinking smacks of bifurcation: evil is a fact. Either reconcile yourself to it it or despair. There is a middle ground. We can struggle against it wherever possible, even though we cannot hope to eradicate it “root and branch.”

This was Camus’ insight into human existence that he formulated philosophically in his brilliant if somewhat opaque essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In that myth, Sisyphus pushes a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again when it nears the top. But, paradoxically, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill and starts again, knowing the same things will recur. “And we must imagine Sisyphus happy,” concludes Camus. Existence is absurd, but we must push on. Stegner shows the same sort of resignation in the novel I mentioned yesterday, All The Little Live Things. After the trauma of his dear friend’s awful death, and the death of her unborn child, the narrator reflects:

“I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of  trouble and harm. . . . There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”

Life goes on and we must continue to weed the garden. And do what we can to lessen the suffering of those around us. It defines us as human beings who belong on the earth in ways that no amount of wealth and possessions can.