Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

TRUE FREEDOM
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

Advertisements

Regulations

We live in a time of ferocious de-regulation as the Republican majority in both houses of government in the United States is in positive tizzy to rid the country of those nasty regulations that have been interfering with the increase of profits for the very few. But there are regulations and there are regulations. Some are in the spirit of “mercantilism” that is intended to increase a nation’s wealth by regulating all of the nation’s commercial interests. Those are the regulations people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they argued for a system of “free enterprise” that would increase human liberty and contribute to the common good. That was in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment.

But there are regulations today that are designed to protect citizens from the dangers following upon the blind pursuit of profit that threaten the health and well-being of us all. Smith fought against “mercantilism” because the government at that time was intent on decreasing wages and expanding the pool of needy workers that would then be available to the wealthy who owned the factories. Smith argued vociferously for raising the wages of the working classes. The attacks of Karl Marx were also against the same propertied class in the name of the “workers of the world.” Today’s regulations that are designed to protect citizens from corporate abuse, not to mention the destruction of the planet that sustains us all, are of a different order and would most certainly not have been opposed by Adam Smith. One wonders about Edmund Burke who, while a student of Adam Smith, was also a more ferocious defender of the rights of the propertied classes —  though he had some rough words for the “sophists, economists, and calculators” who pervert the true principles of economy by promoting policies that were inimical to the welfare of the country.

In any event, those who might refer to Smith or to Burke in pursuing the elimination of regulations might want to reflect on the intention of the two thinkers., Both were concerned about the liberty of all citizens, though Smith was primarily concerned about the liberty of the ordinary workers who were busily being exploited in his day by the mercantile classes, the owners of the means of production, as Marx would have it a century later. Smith was a compassionate thinker, a pillar of the British Enlightenment and firmly at the center of the Scottish Moral Sense School of philosophy who was convinced that men would, left to themselves, do the right thing. His famous comment, often invoked in defense of free-enterprise capitalism should be taken in the context of his entire thesis and in his earlier work in moral philosophy. When he says that

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”

we must pause and reflect that this is the man who regards human sympathy and benevolence as fundamental traits in the human soul. The pursuit of self-interest, in Smith’s view, would not conflict with benevolence or the well-being of others, because we are all, Smith thought, concerned not only about our own good but also the good of our fellow human beings. By pursuing self-interest we are at the same time pursuing the best interest of others. There is no conflict, in Smith’s view, because all humans want all other humans to be happy and well off. All, that is, but those who own the factories that employ humans at starvation levels. Smith fought hard to demand that the government, if it interfere at all, fund public education and work to promote policies that raise the wages of the working men and women rather than to reduce them as many would do in his name today. The mercantile system that Smith criticized sought to direct the economy in the interests of national wealth and power, not in the direction of the ordinary worker. Thus, when he advocates free enterprise it was because he was convinced that left to themselves workers would care for one another and help the economy at the same time. He was convinced, for example, that educating the workers and raising their wages would increase productivity, improve worker morale, and increase profits, while at the same time making it possible for the workers to live fuller, richer lives. This is the free-enterprise system he advocated.

Smith would not have fought against the sorts of regulations that protect citizens today against the abuses of the large corporations that would poison the air and water. Nor would he defend the supposed “right” of mega-corporations to be deregulated in the name of increased profits. Certainly not if those actions were undertaken at the cost of increasing poverty for increasing numbers of men and women and direct threats to their health and the preservation of the planet on which we all depend, which they most assuredly are. Smith would never condone, for example, the sort of attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen of late. So those who invoke his name in defense of their attacks on regulations might to do well to actually read Adam Smith’s book and pause to reflect on the long-term costs of their short-term thinking.  It’s not all about profits. It’s all about the common good. It was in Smith’s time and it still is in our’s.

True Freedom

Wisdom in the Comics

Wisdom from Baldo

Wisdom from Baldo

A recent comic strip by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos starts today’s conversation. It quotes the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke and expresses the fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, as Burke suggests here, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.

There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is chaos — “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible.

And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of choices. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.

One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and prevarication that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did last week.

But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win this election.

I wrote some time back that November 8th would be a test to see if our democracy would survive in some form loosely resembling the ideal the founders had envisioned. And given that their ideal was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are further away from that ideal than we were before this election took place. Our system of government will soon be in the hands of a thin-skinned demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos. Hang on to your seats, my fellow citizens, we are in for a rough ride.

 

Acting Our Age

Having finished reading Edmund Burke’s reflections as a break from reading Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, I returned to the final novel in that group and was immediately struck by a remarkable paragraph. The hero of the series of novels, Shigekuni Honda, is now an old man and the author reflects on aging and the complications that go along with it. The series of four novels is a careful and critical examination of the deterioration of Japanese civilization due to the powerful influence of Western values (especially capitalism) and — obviously — the devastation of the Second World War. In the fourth novel, after Honda’s wife died, the author paired the old man with an equally old woman who has become his close friend. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy telling one another anecdotes about their early years — neither one listening to the other, of course. But they have discovered in their friendship something very precious. In one brief aside, the narrator has this stunning reflection on the relationship between Honda and his friend Keiko:

“If old age was the reality most unpleasant to have to accept and most continuously to be lived with, then Honda and Keiko had each made the other a refuge from the reality. Their intimacy was not juxtaposition but a brushing past in the rush for a refuge. They exchanged empty houses and hurried to lock the doors behind them. Alone inside the other, each of them could breathe easily.”

There is so much in these few sentences to learn from, regardless of our age, that one hardly knows where to start. It is certainly the case that we could all benefit from the narrator’s wise advice to find solace and true happiness not within the self that closes itself off from others, but “inside the other.” This is especially the case in a culture like ours where the self has become the focal point of one’s entire existence. Honda’s and Keiko’s “intimacy” is not sexual, given their ages and the fact that Keiko is homosexual; it is spiritual and allows each of them to find in the other a “refuge from reality.”

But as an old fart myself who “lives continuously” with old age, waking each day with new aches and pains and no longer able to do the things he took for granted only a few years ago, like playing the game of tennis he enjoyed for more than 50 years, or simply running or kneeling down (and struggling to get up again!), and one who resents deeply the sentiments evoked by public pronouncements about aging that have brought about the cultural urge to turn back the clock, color the hair, eliminate wrinkles, look and act like a foolish teen-ager, I find Mishima’s words profound and profoundly true. Our culture does not teach us to age gracefully — or to do much of anything gracefully, for that matter. It resents old age, unlike those cultures that not only respect, but revere old age, as the Japanese culture did once upon a time — though not recently, as we are told by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who noted in his Praise of Shadows that in increasingly Westernized Japan “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth. . .the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people.”

We turn away from the elderly, put them away in homes, and dismiss their words based on years of experience as the muttering of old fools. It is a part of our cultural malaise that we cannot act our age, that we prolong adolescence as long as possible and regard maturity as something to be avoided at all costs. We have certainly done a good job of that as middle-aged men still act like frat brothers, telling crude jokes and slapping one another on the butt; and middle-aged women get their faces lifted or their tummies tucked, always checking the mirror. But, in the process we have become lost within ourselves, not sure who we are, and unable to find our way — which, as Mishima reminds us, can only be discovered by forgetting ourselves and becoming intimate with another. It begins with a look at the world outside ourselves and the realization that our own happiness is predicated on “finding refuge” in others.

Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.

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.

Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.

Luke Warm Turkey

(I have decided to take a page from Brett Favre’s playbook and come out of retirement. I do miss writing the blogs and the responses of like-minded and not-so-like-minded readers. As my friend Ben Dillow suggested, rather than go “cold-turkey” I might post a blog from time to time. I will just stay away from those really depressing current events for the most part. We shall see how it goes. Call this one “Reflections On  Some Comments By Edmund Burke.”)

For Edmund Burke, morality and law both rest on manners, for manners affect society directly. Specifically, he notes that

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

As we are told in the excellent study of Edmund Burke’s life and thought by Jesse Norman, for Burke “manners are not the product of reason, but of unreflective individual habit and social wisdom.” In making these remarks, Burke sides with Aristotle who long ago taught that what he called “virtue” was a question of habit  and disposition, not reason. Reason can indicate which of several possible actions is the best, but it is character or disposition that will lead us to act  — or not to act, as the case may be. Burke agrees.

But what does this eighteenth century thinker’s ideas have to do with us today? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has stopped for a moment to think about the gradual disintegration of our civilization, the return to a new barbarism, that is evident on every side. The demise of manners is simply an indicator of the deeper problem, as I have noted in previous blogs. While good manners managed to survive the Victorian age, by the time of the Great War, and in particular the attack on Victorian values by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group,  manners began to be regarded as somehow dishonest. Accordingly, manners, which focus on the well-being of others, have been jettisoned in the name of  what we like to call “honesty,” “telling it like it is,” and “letting it all hang out.” Consequently, the self has become all-important and others are left to fend for themselves. In the end we have come to rely more and more on law alone to maintain order in an increasingly narcissistic society. But the legal network that strives to maintain order also shows signs of corruption and decay, and we look in vain for the good manners of the citizens to hold the social body together. The idea that good manners make possible a gain in self-esteem and self-worth by losing ourselves in caring for others, has been lost somewhere between the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century (as announced by Nietzsche) and the rapid rise of a crass materialism in a society that has lost its bearings.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of politics where we can see the same dynamic at work that is evident in society at large: political parties, which were formed to further the common good, have become mere factions (in Burke’s terms) that focus instead on short-run self-interest. As Burke defined them, political parties are supposed to be “bodies of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Indeed. This is what political parties are supposed to be. In fact, in this country — and to some extent in England as well — they have become entrenched bodies of small-minded cretins who willingly trade the national interest for self-advancement and the maintenance of their own positions in government. The eighteenth century notion of the common good, on which this nation was founded, has been buried alongside manners.

All of this was predicted by Aristotle who saw the transmogrification of other-directed interest into self-interest as the worm that eats at the heart of the body politic. Burke was merely echoing Aristotle’s warnings a few thousand years later, though those words are still worth pondering.

Prognosis Negative

I haven’t seen the latest medical report, but the patient is in a coma and on life support so the prognosis can’t be good. The patient, of course, is the American democratic system and it is very sick if not near death. It waits for a champion on a white horse to rescue it — or perhaps miracle drugs, or a transfusion of new blood. As bad as things are at present they will get much worse if the Republicans have their way — judging by what they say.

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Books had a close look at the recent Republican National Convention and he had many astute observations to make. The one that interested me the most was the following:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe

people are poor because of circumstances beyond their

control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

We should have seen this coming, of course. When the presumptive Vice Presidential candidate tells us his favorite “philosopher” is Ayn Rand who advocates cut-throat capitalism we should have taken note. This group doesn’t care about people or the planet. There is no talk about the importance of educating the young or taking care of the poor. The latter are simply hoist by their own petard: they are lazy and unmotivated and that’s why they are poor. If they had any gumption they would be wealthy like us. This is not only a twisted, and even shrunken, view of the world, it is also a bit sick.

As Brooks suggests, the truly distressing echo resonating from the Republican rhetoric is the lack of compassion and concern for those who need our help. The chest thumping and braggadocio of the wealthy who honestly believe they made it on their own and everyone else should do and be exactly like them or there is something wrong with them is either delusional or downright stupid. This is especially so when one looks around and sees the talented and gifted people who are struggling to keep their heads above water as against the many stupid and uncaring people with great wealth who seem only to be able to gloat.

There are good people who need help and often the only institution that is in a position to deliver that help is the government, whether we like it or not. We tie the hands of government and reduce the effectiveness of social programs at our own peril: there but for the grace of God goes you or I. Even if people don’t respond to the call for charity and love of our fellow human beings, one would think they would respond to enlightened self-interest. We all benefit from a healthy government rooted in the concept of the common good.

If government “gets out of the way” we all run the risk of going down for the third time. The day of Horatio Alger is past. The day of progressive economic theorizing is past. We need to rein in our greed and self-interest and try to see the broader canvas. We need to develop new economies of sustainability and conservation — in the true sense of this term. And we need to care about one another. If we can’t see these things then the patient is beyond hope. Not even the most miraculous of drugs can save him.