Revisiting Revolution

I recently posted the ten items on a list of features Jerry Stark suggested best describe the ressentiment felt by a great many people in this country at the present time — as reflected in their continued support of an incompetent president. In doing so I may have suggested that this was the dominant thinking of a majority of people in this country. Jerry recently posted a comment in which he tells us such is almost certainly not the case. He guesses this is about one-third of the people: there are other forces at work in our troubled country at this time, some of which must give us hope.

Thus it behooves me to quote a portion of the comment Jerry himself made to that post, expanding on this theme. What he said in his comment is worth pondering, though he reminds us his ideas are still germinating. And you may notice that he has added to his comment if you check the above link. In any event,  he suggests that there is at least one other element in this country that is learning to find its voice and this voice may indeed have the last word. That voice exhibits:

(1) An appreciation, not merely a tolerance, of cultural diversity.

(2) A skepticism about how well traditional institutions and traditional institutional leaders serve the public– corporations, religions, governments, schools, etc.

(3) The traditional gender stereotypes of males and females are widely questioned, to the point where they are regarded as irrelevant or harmful.

(4) Acceptance of political and economic ideas once considered “communist / socialist” by large percentages of the American populace, especially the young, under the general terms of “progressivism”, “fairness”, and “public safety”. (Think health care, education funding, and gun control, for example.)

(5) A greater commitment to political engagement and increased support for candidates who challenge traditional party platforms and candidates.

(6) A high regard for science and technology, and a subsequent acceptance of the reality and critical importance of climate change.

This list is broadly stated. It leaves much room for specifics and nuances, to be sure.
The [previously posted] list of emergent moral standards [that appear to be dominant at the present time] is depressing. No question about that. Equally depressing is that it represents the thinking of almost a third of the adults in this country. That is also frightening, but bear in mind that this sector of the population tends to be older, Evangelical, Republican, disproportionately rural, male, and white.

This category of the public will not last long, as a simple matter of demographics; further, this sector is shrinking politically. One of the reasons the support for Trump appears to be rising among his base of Republicans [percentage-wise] is precisely because the number of people who call themselves such is steadily diminishing. This leaves the harder-core supporters representing a larger percentage of Republicans without an increase in their actual numbers. The same holds true for Evangelicals, whom I hesitate to refer to as Christians.

The sector of the population likely to express opposition to the emergent morality listed in [the earlier] post also appears at this point to be about a third of the populace. Crucially, however, it is younger and growing. It is increasingly non-white, it includes a wider variety of religious and non-religious views, it has little faith in the so-called “free market,” it is more urban and suburban, and it strongly values economic and social fairness.

Whatever the attitudes this sector of the population bring to the table, one important point is unavoidable: these people will be around for a long time. Republicans have known this for decades and have been working to take over state and local governments, to undermine labor, to defund the public sector, to rig elections, to pack the courts, and even to pursue amending the Constitution to maintain the power of wealth and whiteness in this country. To a remarkable degree, they have succeeded.

The ultimate measure of the success conservatives have enjoyed in the past forty years will depend largely upon whether this emerging third of the population does, indeed, develop and act upon a conscious ressentiment of its own. An inflection point where this country could go one way or the other appears close at hand.

I would only question the depth of the commitment of the young to the political process [#5 above], since that commitment seems a bit whimsical.  But when the voice of the young is heard it can be effective, to be sure. And I do wonder what will happen if and when the remaining third of the population of this country, if it is not thoroughly “pro-establishment,” wakes up and becomes politically active.

In any event, Jerry suggests that his ideas are still aborning.  So I urge those of you who are interested to revisit his latest comment to the post mentioned above. What he has provided us with is an insight into the darkness of our current cultural ethos, and I thank him for that. That’s what this blog is for: to stir up the mud a bit and get us to think.It is anything but simple, but it demands that we take notice since, however we slice it, we are in the midst of a cultural revolution — for better or worse.

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Reason In Ethics

One of the most common questions when it comes to ethical disputes is “Who’s to say?” This question reveals the skepticism so many of us experience when it comes to ethics, the conviction that it is really all just a matter of opinion. I have argued in previous posts that it is a good deal more than that, that ethical disputes are capable of resolution, there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer in ethics — if we can only find it. In the end, my claim rests on the notion that some arguments that support ethical conclusions are reasonable and others are not. But, one might say, who’s to say what is “reasonable”? To the goons who took over a federal park in Oregon their behavior is quite reasonable; to the rest of the world (excepting other goons) it is unreasonable, if not criminal. But, then, am I rejecting everyone who disagrees with me with a sweep of the hand as “goons”? Let’s take a look. I might say at the outset, however, that to jettison reason in ethics means that the only way to reject, say, Fascism is with the pathetic cry, “that’s just not the way we do things here in our neck of the woods.” This is absurd on its face.

A reasonable conclusion to an ethical argument resembles reasonable conclusions in any other field of inquiry: there is something stubborn about a reasonable conclusion that is absent in an unreasonable argument. But, who’s to say it’s “stubborn”? Isn’t this a matter of opinion as well? Not entirely, though subjective feelings certainly enter in. But a stubborn argument is one that is regarded as stubborn not only by the one advancing it but also by a neutral person who might be standing by. The British philosophers liked to talk about “the man  in the Clapham omnibus,” but since we are not British and we have no idea what the Clapham omnibus might be, this bears no weight whatever. American philosophers like to talk about “the man in the street,” but we now know that this is sexist and heaven knows we want to avoid sexism at all costs. So what’s left? I suggest that what is left is a jury of your peers.

What this means is that an ethical argument, like any other argument, can be tested for soundness (stubbornness) by asking whether a jury of our peers would be persuaded by that argument. For example, if I make the claim that discrimination is wrong and base it on the factual evidence that shows how discrimination renders the working place unfair to women — because we know about the “glass ceiling,” or that the average wage of the woman in the working place is so much lower than it is for the average male, etc. — and then if I add that this disparity violates the ethical principle of fairness, then I have put together a rather strong argument, one that is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny by a neutral panel of my peers. But, someone might object, the so-called principle of fairness is itself subjective. I think not, and the case can be made by simply asking one who raises this question if he would regard it as fair if he were paid the same wage as the average woman doing the same job. Is it fair that two people doing the same work be paid differently? In other words, putting the shoe on the other foot engages the imagination of those who argue and makes the “stubbornness” of the argument apparent. In all honesty one cannot insist that he would in fact accept the same wage as another person who was paid less — unless he is perverse and simply wanted to argue for argument’s sake.

Ethical arguments involve ethical principles at some point, and there may be various ways to understand those principles. But the principle of fairness is fairly straightforward: just ask a 6-year-old child if it is fair that he (or she) be given a smaller piece of birthday cake than the child next to him (or her). It’s that simple. And another fundamental ethical principle is the principle of respect for persons. This principle is incorporated in the so-called “Golden Rule” and simply requires that we acknowledge that all persons ought to be treated with respect, ourselves included. It’s what we want and therefore what we can imagine everyone else wants as well. These two principles form the warp and woof of every major religion on earth and our collective social consciousness as well.

Thus, the notion of “reasonableness” in ethics is a notion that has weight. Arguments that are reasonable are ones that we ought to agree with whether we want to or not, even if it is terribly inconvenient. Thus, it is highly doubtful that those who insist that their stand in the federal park in Oregon was morally justifiable could put together an argument that is reasonable, that will stand up to the scrutiny of a jury of their peers. I dare say that will soon become apparent.

Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….