Capitalist Realism

I am reading a short book with the above title written by Mark Fisher. The author is a teacher in England who is both well read and articulate, though a bit enamored of postmodern jargon. His argument is a fascinating blend of insight and overstatement.

An example of his tendency to overstatement is his sweeping generalization about the inevitable destruction of the planet by “capitalist realism.” As he would have it, “. . .capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” This claim flies in the face of the endeavors of such people as Elon Musk and the growth, world-wide, of the renewable energy movement which is clearly driven by the profit motive. The fact is that alternative energy is a step in the direction of saving, not destroying, the planet. And it is a step taken by capitalists — and those governments that support capitalism.

Fisher also conflates religion and superstition, almost in passing, as do so many intellectuals. The two are not the same, though in the case of many devotees the differences may be hard to make out. Superstition is a crutch the fearful lean upon to help them make it through the day and it attempts to explain the mysterious in simple terms that can be understood by the tiniest minds. It is above all things self-regarding.  Religion, on the others hand — at least in principle — requires faith in a Being greater than the self and demands constraints on impulse and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the name of sympathy, if not love, for others. In a word, religion demands that its followers do their duty; superstition demands nothing.

But when it comes to the topic of education, which is close to Fisher’s heart, the man has important things to say. Much of what he says rings true and echoes my own experience and that of the folks I have read and spoken with who are also concerned about the sorry state of education in our day.

Fisher worries about what he calls the “post-disciplinary framework” within which education finds itself today, a time when the very notion of discipline has been lost in the wave of education’s gobble-de-gook about “self-esteem” that leads invariably toward a sense of entitlement in the spoiled child. He worries, as do I, that education has also succumbed to the dreaded business model and is now all about profit and loss rather than about the students and their ability to function in an increasingly complicated world. He has also discovered the truly disturbing effects of the fascination on the part of the young with electronic toys and the social media. He is aware, as are growing numbers of people (backed by several recent studies) that they are addictive and that they stand between the young and their ability to use their minds in a thoughtful and productive way — a way that will benefit them and those around them. He draws upon first-hand experience to help us understand the pitfalls of the digital age in which these young people live and thrive:

“Ask students to read more than a couple of sentences and many — and these are A-level students mind you — will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it is boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is of issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed ‘boring.’ What we are facing here is not the time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. . . .

“The consequences of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated, impassivity, an inability to connect or focus. Students’ incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation . . . . What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture — a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”

In a word, the new electronic toys to which the young have become enslaved are standing between them and the possession of their own minds. They cannot possibly become educated citizens who are involved and able to creatively address the problems they will indubitably face in the future. Worse yet,

“By contrast with their forbears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged . . .[Moreover, they] seem resigned to their fate.”

Fisher blames it all on capitalism and he may be right. I suspect he is. But whether he is right or wrong about the cause of the inability of today’s young to become responsible participants in their own future what he says is disturbing, to say the least. And while many will dismiss his claims on his inability to understand the young — the latest version of the generation-gap — we must remind ourselves that he is himself young and much involved with others younger even than himself. And, more to the point, he just may be right. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger and think about what he is saying.

Advertisements

New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.

 

 

Same All Over??

As readers of this blog know, I have gone on (and on) about the deteriorating condition of education in this country. I have tended to focus on the United States because that is where I live and our system is the one I know best — from reading and from personal experience. But I find that things are not much better in many other parts of the world (except Finland, apparently) and have read timely criticisms from other bloggers in England, Canada, and most recently in India where I read a couple of entries written by a blogger who calls himself “MrUpbeat.” In one of those posts he noted that:

“Our education system is still teaching us how to become clerks and do what [we are] being told to do. Have we become habituated to do what is commanded to us ?”

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist I do wonder aloud if there is a concerted effort being made in this country to keep the young dumb and obedient (“clerks”) so they can do the jobs allotted to them and Heaven forbid they be made to think.  Years ago, In Italy, one of the leading radicals,  Antonio Gramsci, insisted that students be taught the classics that make them think rather than the grunt courses that teach them only how to make widgets and follow orders. Gramsci was convinced that in his day and in his country the wealthy had developed a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Those in power, he noted, propagate their own values and norms so that those values become the common sense values of all and thus maintain the status quo.  Noam Chomsky would agree, as he told us not long ago, referring to America:

“[Officials insist] This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats. But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”

I know my complaints against an obdurate educational system in this country that has serious problems become tiresome. I do apologize. But this is a pattern that is developing around the world and it does not bode well. We need folks who can think and solve problems now more than ever — and in a democracy we need citizens who will elect the wisest leaders (not fools even if they claim to be a “genius”). So many of the complaints we all have and which we air from day-to-day come down to an uneducated electorate that is frustrated and acts on impulse and is finding it increasingly difficult to find its way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In one sense it is reassuring to read blogs from around the world that reinforce one’s own thoughts. But when those thoughts are based on a deep concern for the system of education that is unable to turn out thoughtful young people it is disheartening to hear others around the world share the same concerns.

Democracy and The Poor

In his truly remarkable novel The Princess Casamassima Henry James describes for us the trials and tribulations of a young man, illegitimate son of a prostitute and raised by a poor seamstress who pledges himself to the cause of the revolution that many were convinced was coming to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young man, a gifted bookbinder, is conflicted, but pledges his life to the cause only to meet and become close friends with the heroine of the novel who opens to him a world he had never known existed. As a consequence, he  begins to wonder if the revolution is worth the cost of the treasures of Western civilization. The long novel recounts the growing uncertainties of the young man’s early commitment to the revolution as, ironically, the Princess becomes increasingly committed to that ideal.

We might do well to recall that at the time England saw 10,000 people thrown each year into debtors prison because of their inability to pay their way — despite the fact that they were supposed to pay for their upkeep while in prison! It was, surely, a classic case of “Catch 22.” As many as 90,000 in London alone were estimated to be among the poor and destitute at that time. In any event, the hope of young men, like our hero, was the coming of socialism and democracy (the two were not carefully distinguished in the minds of such people). James describes for us the ruminations going on in the mind of his young hero, Hyacinth:

“What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (who else’s could it be?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. . . . [at the same time] he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for the perfect bindings [of books] or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them.”

The Princess, married to a man she had come to deeply dislike and rejecting a way of life she detested, was at this point committed even more deeply than Hyacinth to the revolution that was sure to come. She had given up her worldly wealth and lofty position and moved to the squalor of Soho surrounded by the poor she was determined to help release from their poverty. But the changes in her way of looking at and speaking about the world were palpable, and this is what the narrator refers to in this passage. But what is more interesting is the hope of such people for their deliverance at the hands of a democracy and an economic system that held up to them possibilities beyond their wildest imaginings.

We might also recall that de Tocqueville had visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century and had written his classic study of Democracy In America which was in large measure a contributing factor to the hopes and dreams of young idealists like our hero who were convinced that “the flood of democracy was rising over the world.” More to the point, it would erase poverty and crime and help humankind achieve true equality.

One does wonder, as we can now look back from our lofty perspective, what could possibly have gone wrong?

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

Democracy and Socialism

Karl Marx, being a Hegelian, was convinced that capitalism was inherently contradictory and would therefore implode and in the process it would become transformed into socialism. The state would take over the means of production after the workers revolted against the owners who were exploiting them by paying them less than their labor was worth. The problem, as Marx saw it, was that in a capitalist economy workers are forced by circumstances to sell their labor as a commodity to a factory owner and this in itself is a contradiction — since labor is not a commodity. When, say, the carpenter who makes furniture in his small shop with an apprentice or two finds he cannot compete with the factory down the road that turns out furniture at a faster rate he must go to work for the owner of that factory in order to survive. The factory owner pays him a minimum wage (?) that has no relation whatever to the value of the objects the carpenter is now helping to produce. This is another contradiction. The real problem arises because the furniture he now helps to produce for the owner of the factory creates what Marx called “surplus value,” that is, value in excess of the value of the labor that went into the production of the furniture, including a reasonable profit for the owner. The owner keeps that surplus value himself in the form of excessive profits and therein lies another contradiction: the value that ought to accrue to the worker (because he helps to create it) goes to the factory owner. When the N.F.L. struck several years ago, the players wanted their income to be predicated on the amount of money the owners were taking in from TV revenue and at the gate. They didn’t know it, but the players’ stand was thoroughly Marxist.

In any event, because of these inherent contradictions within capitalism, Marx thought the government would inevitably take over the means of production in order to protect the workers and capitalism would be replaced by socialism which would almost certainly be coupled with a democratic political system — and history has borne out that coupling, for the most part. While there are obvious exceptions, such as the former U.S.S.R., not only is our democracy itself a peculiar mixture of capitalism and socialism, but there are a number of  nations that have found socialism fits nicely within the bosom of democracy — England, for one, and even more so the Scandinavian countries where, we are told, some of the happiest people on earth live and work.

It is amusing that a great many people in this country fear socialism the way folks in the middle ages feared leprosy — even though measures have been taken to make our economy more socialistic since at least the time of Franklin Roosevelt, and the government has always meddled in the economy. There has never been such a thing in this country as “free enterprise capitalism.” In the beginning the economies of the various colonies took the form of mercantile capitalism in which the colonial governments maintained considerable control in order to reduce the possibility of inordinate wealth in the hands of a few — fearing that it might develop into aristocracy, or fearing wealthy American colonists who might become a threat to Mother England. Most of the colonies also had laws prohibiting primogeniture as well, in order to spread the wealth. Despite these measures, a small group of wealthy Americans was able to help fund the revolution that eventually freed the colonies.

Many people mistakenly identify democracy and capitalism even though, while it is certainly the case that they evolved together historically, one is a political system and the other an economic one and the two are at times incompatible. Out-of-control capitalism, as we are seeing, results in incredible wealth in the hands of very few and a powerless electorate, which cripples democracy. At the same time, many people also fear things such as the Affordable Care Act because it smells of socialism and must therefore be “undemocratic” or “un-American,” whereas it does not conflict in any way with the democratic process. Folks frequently fear what they do not understand. These people need to be reminded of the fact that this country, which is ostensibly a democratic one, has been slowly but steadily moving in the direction of greater state involvement if not since the very beginning then at least since the 1930s and that a number of federal policies and agencies have sprung up since that time to avoid monopolies and to temper individual enthusiasm — largely because that enthusiasm in pursuit of profit has often shown complete disregard for the health and well-being of our citizens.

At any rate, capitalism is not to be confused with democracy and socialism is in many ways more compatible with democracy than is capitalism, especially our particular form of capitalism in which a few wealthy folks seem to have all the power and the rest of us simply go through the motions. A democracy is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, but when the corporations and a few very wealthy families control the reins of power the political system cannot be said to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of that term. In a socialistic economy, on the other hand, in which the possibility of a few gaining the vast majority of the wealth and power is thwarted by the intervention of state and federal agencies and the courts, the people have more power and the political process is more likely to be one that is amenable to the will of the people as a whole. In other words, democracy often joins more comfortably with socialism than it does with capitalism because more of the citizens are likely to be in a position to play an effective role in self-government when the wealth and power are not allowed to collect in the banks or off-shore accounts of a very few — and the highest courts are not declaring that corporations are “persons,” thereby allowing them to unduly influence the outcome of political elections. I don’t advocate the elimination of private ownership, since I am aware of the advantages of a competitive economy, but I do wonder why so many of our citizens are frightened of an economic system that, it turns out, is quite compatible with democracy and which almost certainly gives them more power and freedom in the end.

Remembering Swift

With apologies to Jon Stewart and Tom Lehrer, the greatest satirist who ever lived was Jonathan Swift. He is best known from the watered-down versions of his classic Gulliver’s Travels that has been turned into a children’s book — or from one of the terrible movies starring buffoons like Jack Black that trample on the greatness that was Swift. But Swift was above all things a cleric and a moralist and his satirical writings — of which Gulliver was merely one small portion — were almost always written to draw attention to a wrong with an eye to remedying the situation. And in Swift’s age, the latter seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, there was much that was wrong.  Swift saw it through the eyes of a brilliant, witty misanthrope. Human foibles drove him wild even though he was an amiable friend and companion with a small group of close friends and the two women who worshipped the ground he walked upon. And the Irish loved him and regarded him as their champion — as indeed he was.

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Swift could be downright acerbic in his observations, as when he wrote the following in voicing his conviction that humans don’t bear a close look because the deeper you probe the worse they seem to be: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” But he could be not only witty but wise and very timely — which is why he is worth reading even today. He noted, for example, that “. . . if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either in the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . .This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.” Those of us who are not rich and who like to believe that the rich are not truly happy can take comfort in the conviction that their “happiness” is a “deception.”

Swift generally pilloried the vanities and stupidities of his age, always with an eye toward the need for bringing reason to bear on the frailties and weaknesses of humans. He was, among other things, a deeply religious and a wise man who knew the absurdities of many of the religious as well as most of those of the wealthy and famous. Of religion, for example, he said “We have just religion enough to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” When he turned his attention to the politicians and academics around him he could be particularly scathing. In fact, the major portion of his classic about Lemuel Gulliver focuses on the politics and politicians of his day many of whom he knew close up. He also knew and hated the pretense he found in the universities. In the third trip Gulliver made, for example, after being lowered from the flying island he visited an academy in the city of Lagado and was confronted by a variety of dusty and smelly academics who were intent on such esoteric pursuits as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the top down “like bees and spiders,” plowing fields with the snouts of hogs, making silk from spider webs, and curing colic with a pair of bellows. These were busy little men and women involved in absurd intellectual games while those around them went without food and shelter and agriculture suffered. We can agree that even in our day there is much being done in the academies of learning that has little to do with what is going on in the real world. One must wonder, for example, how research on the “Use of the Past-Perfect Participle In Late Elizabethan English” will help improve the lot of humankind. And it could be said that the entire attempt to land a man on the moon or a rover on Mars takes millions of dollars away from the genuine human needs here on our planet where many people don’t have food to put on the table — or a table, come to that. Swift was above all else a moralist.

Indeed, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” of eating all the small children in Ireland was an attempt to draw attention in England to the plight of the poor in Ireland where he was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin until his death. But those in his day who read his works (always written anonymously) were afraid of the Dean and kept him from the posts he dearly wanted back in England. They knew who wrote them, and they read his works with great glee, laughing up their collective sleeves, but never realized that it was they who were being made to look foolish. In the end, Swift concluded, satire is a mirror in which the viewer sees everyone but himself. Indeed.

Learning From Great Books

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words.  I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson,  is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.

Selling The Presidential Product

I swore to myself that I would not kick the dead horse of the debates again, but like New Year’s Resolutions, this one evaporated quickly: I read an opinion piece in Yahoo News dissecting the last presidential debate on foreign policy. I knew going in that Obama should be the stronger voice in this arena, given Romney’s gaffes in England during the Olympics and his untimely remarks after the disaster in Libya. But what I did not anticipate was the degree to which this debate, like the others, is really all about image and making the right impression in order to win a political contest — and what this implies for the rest of us Consider the following remarks by Jeff Greenwald, opinion guru of Yahoo News:

There were times during this last debate when I almost thought I could hear the words of Mitt Romney’s advisers playing in his head:

“Look, big guy, you’re on track to win this thing. What they want to see tonight is a calm, confident leader, unthreatening, informed, unruffled. So don’t get up in Obama’s grill. Bring the conversation back to the economy when you can, and be the reasonable, credible Commander-in-Chief the voters want.”

In a word, create the impression that you are the man who these people want running the country for the next four years. Forget about the truth; forget about principles, and even about foreign policy; forget about strategies for strengthening the tattered reputation of this country in the Middle East; forget about how we might best deal with warring political and religious groups elsewhere in the world. Just smile and look calm and in control. Your audience tonight will be mostly women because their husbands and brothers will be watching sports, so your job is to bring them into the fold. As Greenfield said further on in his analysis:

Rather, his [Romney’s] challenge was to stand—or sit—face to face with the incumbent president and demonstrate that he could credibly argue matters of state, in the face of a debate foe determined to thrust and spar at every opportunity. Without question, Obama came into this last debate knowing that his presidency is hanging by a thread, in large measure due to his remarkably weak performance in the first debate. There was no opportunity he let pass.

If Greenfield is right, and he knows more about this sort of thing than I do, then those who plan debate strategies know that people don’t listen carefully; they just want to get a warm feeling after they watch another TV performance. This debate was carefully staged as one more form of entertainment on a night when the debate itself had to contend with Monday Night Football and the seventh game of the National League Baseball Championship between the Giants and the Cardinals. Know your audience and tell them what they want to hear.

Obama’s election is “hanging by a thread” because he failed to perform well in the first debate. How bizarre! I have always said these debates are about image and impressions. But the really disturbing thought is that the voters in this country buy into this crap; they are willing to be manipulated by image-makers and marketers into buying the candidate with the most sparkle. The debates are really about who a great many voters will cast their vote for — on the basis not of political records and probable performance in the highest office in the land, but about how a man looks on TV in a 90 minute debate with a political opponent who is working hard to create an even stronger impression. The founding fathers must be proud!