“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.


Easy Peasy

A couple of my recent posts have stemmed from reading Jesse Norman’s most interesting book about the life and thought of Edmund Burke. After reading it I was inspired to return to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I had not read for many years. It is filled with many of the wise and thought-provoking words that set Burke apart as one of the great minds of his age. But it also has the occasional passage that marks the man as a creature of his time and makes one realize why he is not favored by readers who like to think of themselves as “liberal.” There is, indeed, a stubborn strain of conservatism at the core of Burke’s thinking that can be at times a bit unsettling. He believes that if political change comes at all it should come slowly and he is sometimes annoyingly sympathetic with the wealthy and aristocratic whom he tends to paint with brighter colors than most historians would like. But we make a mistake to simply dismiss the whole of his book  as conservative bias and can find important lessons even in the most unsettling passages.

One thing that is disturbing to many is Burke’s insistence that the notion of “equality,” which was embraced by the French during their revolution, needs to be carefully qualified. In discussing the concept Burke sounds a bit like a reactionary who wants desperately to hold on to the notion that some people are simply better than others. This did not sit well with the Jacobins in France — or many of Burke’s contemporaries. And it does not sit well these days in the minds of those among us who have been conditioned to think that equality is a natural right of all human persons and no one should ever be regarded as in any sense better than any one else. For example, we hold to the conviction in our schools that “no child should be left behind” — well, some of us do. And we question expertise and the notion that some people may actually know more or be better than others, at least as far as their ability to do some things the rest of us cannot do — like walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, for example. Indeed, we have embraced the loose notion of equality to the point that we regard all opinions as somehow on a level and suspect anyone who claims to know something we cannot know. As one of my students said in being asked to comment on a passage in Plato’s Republic, “that’s just his opinion.” Yes, but there are mere opinions and there are reasonable opinions. Burke questioned this egalitarianism — especially in the case of the French experiment with leveling down and raising those who held menial positions in French society prior to the revolution to lofty perches among those who held the new reins of power. Burke worried that the cobbler might not make a very good lawmaker. As he notes:

“Every thing ought to be open, but not indifferently to every man. No rotation, no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortation or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. . . . If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honour ought to be seated on an eminence. If it is to be through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.”

It would seem that Burke champions opening up opportunities to all but suspects that some may fall short in ability. This is a notion most of us reject since we have come to realize that many who appear unfit for heavy duty prove themselves quite able when given the opportunity. The cobbler may, in fact, make a very good lawmaker — certainly better than the clowns who pretend to be doing that these days for huge salaries in the halls of our government. Burke might not agree; there is the suspicion on his part that some roles in society and government are unfit “by nature” for a great many people. In a word, there is an elitist strain in Burke that many find disturbing, though I must say while I may be willing to let the cobbler have a go at lawmaking, I would prefer that he not be enlisted to remove my appendix when the time comes. There are some things that a great many people simply cannot do. We may have carried this egalitarian thing a bit too far. The problem is Burke seems to want to determine this before the fact, whereas we are willing to let everyone have a try and see what happens.

But the sentence that jumps out at me in the above quotation is the one that talks about the “difficulty” and the “struggle” that prove “virtue.” This notion has been completely lost in a society that stresses “self-esteem” and is turning out young people who believe that struggle and difficulty are to be avoided at all cost — after all, we remove these things if we possibly can in order to grease the skids and make things easier for them than they were for us. How often have you heard parents say they didn’t want their kids to have to struggle the way they did when, in fact, it may have been that very struggle that brought about their success? Dostoevsky, for one, thought struggle and even suffering made us more human, deepened our sensibilities. As Burke suggests, “virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, some struggle.” One must wonder whether this explains why there we encounter so few virtuous people: so many now tread the path of least resistance.

Saving The Court?

The recent decision by the Supreme Court regarding “Obamacare” will be dissected and discussed ad nauseam so I hesitate to add fuel to the fire. However, there is an interesting aspect of the decision that was recently picked up in a Yahoo news story that suggests Chief Justice Roberts’ decision to side with the liberal members of the Court may have “saved” the Supreme Court. Quoting Terry Moran, the story begins

Chief Justice John “Roberts rode to the rescue of the Obama health care plan, and maybe rode to the rescue of the Supreme Court, as well,” says Moran, who has been covering the Supreme Court for many years.

Given the blatantly partisan nature of the Court in recent years — since at least Gore vs Bush, the Court was in danger of becoming not only predictable, but positively anti-constitutional. It is clear that the Founders, following Montesquieu and Locke, saw the Court as an essential element in the balance of power between the legislative and the executive branches of the government. Locke, of course, saw the judicial branch as a part of the legislative branch and thought the third branch should be the war-making arm of government, which is an interesting thought. But Jefferson and Madison followed Montesquieu’s revision of Locke’s view in regarding the judicial branch as separate and apart from the legislature. So it came to be.

But when the Court continues to side with the party that appointed the majority of its members, it ceases to fulfill its function. Speculation now suggests that this was the thinking behind Roberts’ decision: to restore the Court to its original purpose. Let us hope so. As a Bush appointee, it was a virtual certainty that he would side with his conservative fellow-members to overthrow “Obamacare.” This has been the pattern of late. But this did not happen and as a result the Court may have restored some of the confidence the citizens of this country need to have in it in order for it to have the effect it was designed to have at the outset. Polls recently suggested that people were losing confidence in the Court and that assuredly hampers its effectiveness — though one wonders if members of the Court pay any attention to polls.

Whether this is the case or not, it is refreshing to see the decision come “out of the blue” in this case — regardless of where one stands on Obamacare.  And if Roberts did in fact act to “save” the Court he is to be applauded. But if, as has been suggested, he let this decision slide so he could rule against abortion when it comes up, then it’s simply politics as usual: judicial activism, Certainly not what the Founders had in mind. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. In the meantime, we can be pleased that the Court got it right this time.

Paradigm Shift

I have touched on the confusion that abounds over such political terms as “socialism,”  “liberal” and “conservative” in recent blogs. Recently I received a copy of a Master’s Thesis in Environmental Ethics from David Hoelscher who now lives in Sri Lanka and since it includes, among other things, a most interesting discussion of the last two of these confusing terms, I thought I would devote today’s blog to some of what Hoelscher had to say. His thesis summarizes the views of David Orr, Gregory Smith, and C.A. Bowers who have written extensively on the plight of our planet. I have referred to Orr’s book in a previous blog.

Of special interest is Bowers’ take on the loose way we use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in our political discourse. I will quote Hoelscher’s thesis at some length.

“To my mind, the most interesting part of Bowers’ work is his useful discussion of the term conservatism. As he rightly points out, the way the political labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are used is in large part nonsensical. ‘Every time a television commentator or journalist refers to the “conservatives” in Congress,’ he writes, ‘the environmental movement suffers another minor setback.’ The misidentification of politicians as conservatives, when in fact they are extremists, reactionaries or corporate liberals generates misunderstanding about just what it is that people and groups advocate. Bowers continues: ‘Politicians who support the WTO, who grant large subsidies to corporations, and who resist legislation that addresses health care and the systemic basis of poverty should not be labelled “conservatives”. . . These politicians are clearly in the liberal tradition where unrestrained economic activity overrides other concerns.’ The misuse of political labels has resulted in the current bizarre state of affairs in which people interested in promoting social justice, ‘with rebuilding the networks of mutual support within communities, and with environmental restoration projects [all of which seem to be concerned with conserving what is best in our world] are reluctant to identify themselves as conservatives.’. . . ‘The double bind is that in identifying themselves as liberal, which most of them do, they align themselves with the assumptions that are taken for granted by corporations working to eliminate local, state, and federal restrictions on their right to place profits over public health and the environment.”

I think these comments are right on the mark. One would think that those who strive to protect the planet would be called “conservatives.” On the contrary, those who exploit it are so-called. There is no doubt that the loose way we use our language generates considerable confusion in a discussion where clarity of thought is essential if solutions to our global problems are to be found.

And that is where Hoelscher’s thesis is particularly strong, in my view. He and his three friends advocate a radical paradigm shift in our cultural perspective, a culture that is in the process of “disintegration,” in the words of one of his sources. We are clearly in denial about an issue that should be uppermost in the minds of all of us, and we are also in need of clarity of thought and purpose. The sources Hoelscher quotes regard science as a large part of the problem as it fosters the optimism that drives capitalist expansion. I don’t fault science, but I do think we need to think about the role of science in our society, the differences between science and technology, and the moral implications of scientific endeavors. Schools need to focus on these issues, surely.

However, in the end I do not think that simply substituting one ideology (which I would agree is admirable) for an outmoded one is the answer.  Displacing the current emphasis in our schools on vocation and furtherance of the status quo, is not even a remote possibility, given the world as we find it. I do not think fundamental change in our perspective will come from within the schools where radical change simply does not occur. But a solution to our problem most assuredly will require a paradigm shift and we must start somewhere — and soon. As things now stand, the majority of the humans on this planet simply ignores the problem.  Clearly, education must play a key role. My own suggestion, as readers of these blogs know by now, is not to attempt to exchange one ideology for another, but to stress the process whereby students learn to think about what is going on around them. This, too, may not be even a remote possibility.

Gay By Choice?

“Cynthia Nixon learned the hard way this week that when it comes to gay civil rights, the personal is always political. Very political.”

So the story begins. It goes on to point out that Cynthia Nixon has been pilloried by the gay community for claiming that she is gay by choice, not by genetic disposition. Good grief! One would think that the gay community would gladly welcome one who is in sympathy with their sexual preferences  — or, more to the point, a well-known personage who is outspoken about being gay herself. But not so.

Apparently, there are those in the gay community who think that by saying she is gay by choice she will lead many to think that one can simply choose to be gay — or to cease to be gay. I can understand this, as it is certainly the case that many of those in the “straight” camp who fear gays make the claim that is is simply a matter of choice and therefore those who choose to be gay should choose not to be gay  (at the risk of becoming like their critics, of course).

But at the same time, as Nixon herself points out, those in the gay community should rejoice that a person of her standing would openly embrace their life-style and not remain in the closet pretending to be something she is not. In other words, what difference does it make why a person is gay — or straight? Whether it is a matter of choice or a matter of genetics or a matter of conditioning, or a magic wand, it matters not a whit. Those without, and especially those within, the group should realize that this is all about opening the minds of up-tight people to the issue of sexual preference. It’s part of our world and has been since the beginning. One would hope greater understanding will lead to less fear and wider acceptance. In this case, the end does justify the means.

The interesting thing about the story is the thought that being liberal no more means being tolerant than being conservative means being narrow-minded. I assume that most of those in the gay community are liberal,  but we tend to simplify things by identifying such notions as “liberal” and “tolerant,”  “conservative” and “narrow-minded” when, in fact, there is no necessary connection among these terms whatever. We can only say some liberal people are tolerant, some are not. Some in the gay community are liberal, some are not. Further, some conservative people are intolerant while others are not — assuming that we know what it is that defines a “conservative,” or a “liberal.” Once again, it is a matter of “showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” We need to define our terms and then proceed from there. My sense of things here is that any generalization in this case is questionable because we are talking about people and they hold different ideologies and embrace differing life-styles, for various reasons.

“I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here. It matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not,” Nixon told the Times about her decision. Hear! Hear! One would think the gay community should be all about tolerance. One would think. Cynthia Nixon’s declarations about her sexual preferences most assuredly should not be turned into a political issue. This sort of criticism from within the gay camp will close more minds than it opens.

Liberals and Conservatives

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.